What makes a score “high enough?”

What makes a score “high enough?”

Note: I originally published this piece in 2011, but with the addition of the August SAT, it seems particularly relevant. Whereas the October SAT was the make-it-or-break-it test for a lot of seniors in the past, the possibility of just one more retake in October might now seem very appealing. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re trying to decided whether to make one last go. 

If your scores are borderline, how do you decide whether it’s worth it to go all out for a school or simply let it drop? In other words, at what point is it truly worth writing that supplement and shelling out $75 for an application? 

That is of course a slippery question, especially when someone is being urged to aim high. When a school gets 30,000 applicants and accepts fewer than 10% of them, it’s easy to feel that winning admission is somehow akin to winning the lottery and that it’s always worth it to throw in an application because maybe, just maybe, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

The problem is that it doesn’t quite work that way. College admissions may be notoriously unfair, but it is not nearly as random as it may appear from the outside. The people who get in are chosen in no small part because they fulfill a particular institutional need, be it athletic, monetary, extracurricular, or social. 

To be sure, test scores play an important role for everyone, but for “unhooked” candidates, they are an even more significant factor. These are the people that the committee can afford to be even choosier about. Unless they are truly accomplished in a particular area, they are the ones who can’t afford a serious weakness in their scores. Admissions officers need a way of eliminating applicants, and if an otherwise undistinguished applicant has scores that clearly aren’t up to par, he or she is almost certain to be rejected.

Think of it this way: Princeton has 25th-75th percentile score ranges of 680-760 (Verbal) and 700-780 (Math). It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people with scores below that level fulfill a significant institutional need or have a justifiable weakness in a particular area: for example, an international applicant with a 650 Verbal who has never gone to an English-speaking school but who happens to be a top-notch math student (international-level awards) might have their verbal score regarded as something less than a deal-breaker. Same for an inner-city Hispanic student who’s the first in her family to attend college.

If, on the other hand, a run-of-the-mill valedictorian from a decent suburban high school somewhere on the East Coast were to present with that same 650 Verbal, they would probably be rejected pretty quickly. In other words, it’s about context. But while one score that’s 100 points below the 50th percentile can hurt a lot, two scores that are just a little on the low side might not have quite the same impact. A student who has straight As in very hard classes, an SAT breakdown of, say 720/730, fantastic recommendations, a standout essay, and a high level of achievement in an unusual extracurricular area is still going to get looked at seriously. Even thought the overall score isn’t particularly noteworthy by Ivy League standards, it’s still high enough in that particular case. 

So to sum up, for unhooked applicants:

If your scores are a tiny bit below average but are counterbalanced by another element that makes your application exceptional, they will be considered high enough. If they’re average or a little below and there’s nothing particularly exciting about your application, your scores might not be the deciding factor, but it is unlikely that you’ll be accepted anyway. In my experience, students with scores just below the super-high range tend to get rejected because they aren’t standout candidates overall — their scores are simply one more confirming factor, not the confirming factor.

If you have some scores at the mid-high end of the range and a couple below average, AND there’s nothing particularly exciting about your application, it is also pretty unlikely that you’ll get accepted at the most competitive schools. That isn’t really about scores, though. 

If your scores are all significantly below an institution’s average, there’s probably very little you can say in your application that will make a difference.

If you’ve got scores at the top of the range but nothing else, they may help a bit, but they’re absolutely no guarantee of anything. Even a perfect score only raises your chances to about 50% at the most selective schools. By definition, “holistic admissions” means that factors other than your scores will be taken into account. 

And no, it’s not worth retaking a 1550 to try to get a 1600 or a 35 to try to get a 36 — at that point, you need to stop taking tests and start worrying about the rest of your application. If you have a 1480 or a 33, though, and want to be as competitive as possible at the most selective schools, it might be worth it. But again, those aren’t scores that will get you rejected on their own. You also need to consider how realistically you’ll be able to raise them; your scores could go up, but they could also go down. 

To be clear, I’m not trying to dash anyone’s hopes here. If you don’t have tippy-top scores but have dreamed about attending Princeton or Stanford or MIT or fill-in-the-blank super-competitive school since you were twelve, then by all means go for it. But be realistic, too. A couple of reaches are great, but try to avoid having 10 or 15 of them. Throwing in more applications does not increase your chances if your application isn’t truly competitive to begin with.

To narrow down your college list, ask yourself this one simple question

To narrow down your college list, ask yourself this one simple question

As regular readers of this blog may know, I occasionally browse College Confidential to see what sorts of issues college applicants and their parents are grappling with. A few days ago, I was glancing through a “what-are-some-realistic-schools-for-me?” thread started by an excellent student seeking academically strong realistic and safety schools. One poster suggested a well-regarded but not obscenely competitive East Coast university that seemed to be a clear match for the student, and that he would likely be accepted to without too much difficulty. 

The student’s response was something to the effect of, “But it’s not on the Common App, so why should I waste my time?” 

My immediate thought when I read that was, “If you can’t be bothered to apply to a school because it’s not on the Common App, then you shouldn’t be applying there at all.” 

It’s possible that the student was so convinced he/she was a shoo-in for very top schools that it seemed unnecessary to spend the time filling out an extra app. That is, of course, more than a little risky given how thoroughly unpredictable admissions can be. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, many students don’t fully understand the odds at top schools until the rejections start coming in. But it’s always a shame when students who would likely be admitted to outstanding schools just below the Ivy/Stanford/Duke/Chicago level of selectivity end up at their absolute backup school because they couldn’t be bothered to research places like, say, Lehigh or Emory. 

But back to my original point. 

As I’ve written about before, most colleges have a perverse incentive (in the form of USNWR rankings, among other things) to keep their applicant pools as artificially high as possible. Accepting the Common App is one easy way to do that — after all, if applicants can apply with the mere click of a mouse, who’s to say they shouldn’t? 

As a result, the onus to decide whether a long-shot application to a particular school is really a good idea gets shifted more towards the applicants. (I know that Harvard has like a 5% acceptance rate, but really, it’s like a lottery, so I might as well just thrown in an application just to see what happens. It’s easy enough…)

But after reading that exchange on CC, it occurred to me that one way applicants can wrest back some control over the process and prevent themselves from getting seduced into submitting applications to schools that probably aren’t a good fit anyway, is to ask themselves one big question: if this school didn’t accept the Common App, would I still apply? 

Basically, the amount of work you’re willing to do to apply to a school is a direct indicator of how willing you are to attend. Admissions officers also pay attention to your level of demonstrated interest, which includes the “Why this college essay?” If you’ve clearly done your research and can discuss specific aspects of a school that make it a good match for you, your application is much more likely to get a favorable reception. 

And it should go without saying, although I feel obligated to reiterate it here, that you should only apply to schools that you would genuinely consider attending. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy, and probably your parents’ money. If you’re only applying to a school you’re not really interested in because you can do so easily, I have some advice for you: cross it off your list.

That includes safety schools, by the way: ideally, you should have one, maybe two, schools that are good fits academically, socially, and financially; that you would be happy to attend; and that you can easily gain acceptance to. 

Schools need to protect their yield rates, so given the choice between academically/extra-curricularly equivalent applicants, they’re going to say yes to the one who’s more obviously enthusiastic about attending (aka, “Tufts syndrome,” whereby schools wait-list top applicants who are clearly using their university as a backup). 

If, on the other hand, you can’t be bothered to type your name and various other personal info into a separate website, and maybe write an additional 250-500 words for a school that would be an excellent fit for you, that’s a pretty good indicator that you haven’t seriously considered what you’re looking for (or that you have seriously unrealistic expectations about how easily you’ll be able to waltz into a school with <20% acceptance rate).

So take your time, do your research, and yes, be willing to spend a few extra hours if doing so will help you get where you want to go. You don’t want to give yourself too many options just for the sake of having options, but at the other extreme, you never know where you will — or won’t — get in, and having good options is something you don’t want to cheat yourself out of. 

New SAT book editions are now available on Amazon

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 4th Edition, and The Critical Reader, 3rd Edition, are now available on Amazon. In addition to containing updated passages, examples, and explanations, both books now contain indexes of questions from The Official SAT Study Guide, 2018 Edition, organized by both concept and test. 

For additional information about how the updated editions differ from the earlier ones, please see the FAQ (fourth question from the bottom). 

And coming soon:

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar Workbook, Fourth Edition (six full-length Writing and Language Tests) should available for order on Amazon by this weekend. The new edition includes several updated passages; a number of questions have also been revised to be more precisely aligned with the rSAT. 

GRE Vocabulary in Practice should also be available on Amazon in the next few days as well. My apologies to those of you who received preview copies and wanted to post reviews, but the cover needed some minor revisions that couldn’t be addressed until the two main SAT books were complete.

As for The Complete Guide to ACT English, I’m aiming to get it on Amazon by 9/15.  In the meantime, if you have the current (second) edition, note that you can download the Real Guide 2016-17 question index (same as 2017-18) through the Books page. 

The Complete Guide to ACT Reading will be getting a new look, but there will not be any content changes — it will continue to be the second edition.

Review copies available: “GRE Vocabulary in Practice”

Review copies available: “GRE Vocabulary in Practice”

I’ve been so caught up in revising my SAT and ACT books that my new GRE vocab book has unfortunately gotten very short shrift. So I’m taking a quick breather and letting everyone know that I’m offering review copies of GRE Vocabulary in Practice to those who are interested. (US and Canada only.) The book should be on Amazon within the next week or two.

Whether you’re planning to apply to grad school or are just feeling nostalgic for old SAT vocabulary (yes, the GRE is still written by ETS, so it draws from the same pool of words), the 300+ Text Completions and Sentence Equivalences in this book are sure to provide hours of good, clean vocabulary fun. And if you’re in the mood for some traditional vocabulary study, the book includes lists of must-know prefixes and roots, top words by category, and common alternate meanings.

Full disclosure: if you used my old SAT sentence completion workbook, some of the material might seem familiar. I did recycle some things, but I didn’t just take the old book and slap a new label on. Everything has been reworked very carefully to be aligned with the nuances of the GRE.

One thing I’d like to emphasize is that  the book is called GRE Vocabulary in Practice for good reason: it’s designed to provide the kind of test-style exercises that straight-up vocabulary books or popular apps (like, say, Magoosh) don’t. Yes, there are vocabulary lists, but they’re not the point of the book.

As I discovered via a couple of freak-chance conversations with prospective grad students right around the time I finished the first draft, the fact that straight-up vocabulary knowledge alone is no longer enough to score well on the vocab section of the GRE is not general knowledge — a lot of people don’t even seem aware of how the test has changed to emphasize vocabulary in context in the last few years. If you know someone planning to take the GRE, please make sure they know that, even if they have zero interest in my book!

My colleague Mike McClenathan (aka PWN the SAT) used to call the old SAT a “math-flavored test,” and I think it’s fair to call the GRE a vocabulary-flavored test. In some cases, the vocabulary itself is effectively beside the point. Some passages are more like mini logic puzzles. It doesn’t matter that the answers are easy; the challenge is figuring out what makes sense in the blank(s). They actually remind me of some questions on  the Critical Reasoning section of the GMAT  — which is hardly an accident since many business schools are now accepting the GRE in place of the GMAT. (And some law schools, including Harvard and now Georgetown and Northwestern, are now accepting the GRE in place of the LSAT as well.) The presentation is a little different, but the underlying skills are pretty much the same.

I normally hesitate to use the word “tricky” in regard to standardized tests because it conjures up the sort of cheap, Princeton Review-esque “just do these little things and you can beat the test” mentality that I generally loathe. In the case of the GRE, however, I think it’s justified. I’m not sure how else to describe a test on which answers can consistently be both acceptable and wrong.

Sentence Equivalences, for example, don’t just test whether you understand what sort of word makes sense in the context of a sentence. Rather, they test whether you can do that while adhering to the additional requirement of identifying two words that create the same meaning when plugged in — words that may or may not be synonyms. It’s not uncommon to look at a question and think, these are easy words — why can’t I figure this out? I cannot emphasize enough how important is to understand the rules of the game, so to speak.

There’s also a big mental component: overriding your first instinct, especially when your first instinct is grounded in solid logic, is not easy. Unfortunately, that sort of “soft” skill requires practice as well.

Even I’ve gotten fooled once in a while. And on so-called *easy* questions, to boot.

Anyway, if you’d like a review copy, please email thecriticalreader1@gmail.com with your info. I just ask that you be genuinely willing to follow through on writing a review. I know everyone’s busy, but please.

The college search: 5 things parents must know

The college search: 5 things parents must know

The following post was written by a friend and colleague whose son recently went through the college admissions process. I asked her to share her insights into the experience, and she was generous enough to write this post. So for all you parents of smart B students who would rather be playing World of Warcraft than writing their college essays, know that there is hope. Spoiler alert: the writer’s son got into college, no one had a nervous breakdown, everyone is still on speaking terms and, perhaps most importantly, no one will have to go into permanent debt to fund his education.


Do you remember your own college search? Perhaps like me, your 17-year-old self probably got very little guidance from your parents. Did you take the SAT once or twice? I took it once. Did you get test prep? I didn’t. I was pretty passive about the whole thing. However, let me ask a question that is even more revealing of the difference in generations… Did you use a typewriter to do your applications? Even if your 17-year-old self would have appreciated the convenience of the online Common App, I bet he or she would look at the high school senior standing in your living room and be totally aghast at all the sturm und drang. (more…)

New: SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page

New: SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page

From time to time, I get emails asking me to provide suggestions for SAT/ACT reading prep materials, and it finally occurred to me that I should create a formal SAT/ACT Reading Resources Page with all of my recommendations grouped in one place.

In the past, when I’ve received these types of requests, I’ve simply pointed people to Arts & Letters Daily; however, that site contains a huge number of links, some of which go to publications well beyond the scope of college-admissions exams. As a result, I’ve identified a smaller group of (online, free) magazines whose articles I find most reflective of SAT/ACT reading, and provided links to those.

I’ve also included a list of suggested authors, both fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary, in case you want to do some poking around on your own. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I’ve included links to a number of key historical documents.

If you’re not much of a reader, though, I’d recommend that you start by focusing on broadening your general knowledge and read shorter pieces about a variety of topics. I strongly suggest you start by picking one of the linked periodicals (magazines) such as Smithsonian or Scientific American and spending a good 15 minutes or so a day reading a couple of articles. That’s probably a better approach than getting bored and frustrated with a 350-page book you don’t really like. Besides, two out of four ACT passages involve natural or social science, as do three out of five SAT passages, so those are the areas you stand to benefit most directly from learning about.

Moreover, the more you know about a lot, the better a chance you’ll have of encountering a familiar topic when you take the test. Studies have actually found that weak readers with strong knowledge of a subject actually outperform ones who have stronger overall reading skills but weaker subject-specific knowledge.

Despite the usual cautions against injecting your outside knowledge into the test, in my experience the issue is usually too little knowledge of a subject rather than too much.

Also, despite the College Board’s insistence that the redesigned SAT reflects “what students are learning in school” (a nonsense statement if ever there was one, given the curricular inconsistency that characterizes the American educational system), the reality is that there continue to be plenty of passages that have, quite frankly, nothing in the least to do with what gets taught in the average high school classroom. As has always been the case, students who read on their own about a lot of different subjects will be at a significant advantage over those who don’t.