Why standardized test scores are compatible with holistic admissions

Among the favorite arguments regularly trotted out by critics of standardized testing is the fact that scores correlate so closely with income. Sure, there might be an occasional outlier, but for the most part, the correlation holds steady. Students who come from well-off families will obtain high scores, while students who come from poor families will score far lower. So if standardized test scores are nothing more than a reflection of socioeconomic status, why bother even having the tests in the first place?

Well, I can think of a couple reasons. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to restrict myself to highly competitive/elite colleges — the schools that the SAT was developed for in the first place.

Let’s start with the fact that in 2013, the average score for a student from a family with an income of over $200,000 a year was 1714: 565 Reading, 586 Math, and 563 Writing. Even with very good grades, a student who earns those scores is nowhere near a shoo-in for admission at even a second-tier university. (If they don’t need financial aid, they’ll probably have a better chance.) At the most competitive schools, they fall below the 25th percentile. Absent a very significant hook, they’re not even in the pool.

By the way, I’ve been trying to locate income statistics about the very highest scorers, but thus far, I’ve been unable to find them. If anyone has a link, I’d be really interested to see the breakdown. If the score curve continued to follow the income curve into the 700s, that might change my perspective, but I haven’t yet seen any evidence that the students scoring in the 750-800 range come from the very highest-earning subset of families.

Second, top colleges draw the majority of their applicant pools from the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum. Fair or not, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. These schools are perfectly aware that wealthy students can pay thousands of dollars for tutoring, and they consider it a given that most of their applicants have had some sort of prep. (Although they might publicly bemoan the hysteria they’ve created, the reality is that they have too much — namely their U.S. News and World Report ranking — riding on the average scores of their admitted students to discount their importance.) Their primary concern is whether that prep actually got the student someplace.

This is where the “holistic” part comes in. These schools are not admitting statistics; they are admitting individual students, and it’s their job to worry about the outliers. As a general rule, a high score from a highly advantaged applicant is a prerequisite for serious consideration; provided it’s somewhere around the average for admitted students, it becomes more or less irrelevant.

On the other hand, a low to middling score from a well-off applicant is a serious red flag; it suggests that even given every advantage, the student still isn’t capable of performing at a top level academically. Under normal circumstances, colleges have no reason to accept someone who is genuinely likely to struggle. That’s unfair to everyone, the student included. And given that some prep schools go so far as to invent their own grading systems to obscure where their students actually stand, and prevent comparison between their students and those from other schools, test scores may provide the only clear-cut assessment of an applicant’s actual abilities.

On the flip side, a seriously disadvantaged applicant with exceptionally high scores, or an applicant from a high school that rarely sends its graduates to top colleges — or any college — can make admissions officers sit up and take notice. That’s why the SAT was developed in the first place, and occasionally it does what it was designed to do.

I’m not trying to trivialize the serious problems with the system, most notably the tendency to judge merely middle class applicants by the same standards as the wealthy (test prep aside, merit can be awfully expensive to attain). But given the alternative between a somewhat objective standard and a completely subjective one, I’d vote in favor of the former. Colleges have a right to ensure that entering students have obtained a baseline level of knowledge; the fact that the existing educational system fails to prepare students adequately across the board shouldn’t detract from that fact.

How to make a realistic college list

Spring break is peak college-visiting time for juniors, and since it’s coming up, I figured I’d shift gears a little and talk about some “do’s” and “don’ts” for making a college list. One of the aspects of my job that I don’t usually spend a lot of time blogging about is the part that involves calming hysterical parents whose friends have been telling them that this year is the “most competitive year ever,” or horror stories about the kid who got a 2400 and still didn’t get into Harvard, or how things have changed so much from when they were applying to college that you can’t really count on getting in anywhere and have to apply a million schools just to be on the safe side.

When they tell me these things, I can hear the panic creep into their voices and see their eyes take on a slightly wild look.

Usually I just smile and nod.

Then I tell them that every single one of my students, many of whom were not straight-A students, has been accepted at at least one (well-known, selective) college that was a a great match for them and that they were very excited about attending.

I inform them some of these kids did not have top scores but still got into their first choice.

I also explain to them that a lot of schools have artificially deflated acceptance rates because the Common App allows people to apply anywhere the click of a button and $75 application fee, whether or not they’re genuinely interested in the school or even remotely competitive applicants — like, for example, my former student with a 25 ACT/1790 SAT and a B+ average whose mother insisted that he apply to a certain Ivy “just in case.”

Or the student who applied to the same Ivy with a solid but not great ACT score, despite the fact he had to wrack his brain trying to come up with a third book to put down for the question that asked him to list everything he’d read for pleasure over the last year. Note: if you’re having that much trouble answering simple questions on the supplement, it’s probably not a good match.

I see them trying very hard to reconcile what I’m saying with what everyone else has been telling them, and I can tell they’re not sure whether to believe me.

I don’t deny that it’s very competitive, nor do I deny that a lot of schools have become a lot more selective over the past few decades. It’s just that from what I’ve seen, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone thinks — provided, of course, that you’re applying to schools that are a good match for you, and where you actually have a decent chance of being accepted. That’s a crucial distinction, and if you pick your schools carefully, there’s no reason to apply to an outrageous number. (Like, say, 27, as the mother of one of my students insisted her son do a couple of years back.)

The reality is also that scores count, especially at schools that get thousands of applicants. A good rule of thumb is that if your scores are around the 50th percentile or above for that school, the decision will come down to other factors — academic, extracurricular, personal, and geographic. I’ve had students accepted to Harvard and Amherst with 2200 and 2070 respectively, and wait-listed at the University of Rochester with 2300. But if you’re going to apply to a super-selective school and don’t have some unusual quality that will make an admissions committee salivate over your application, you should at least be in the general range to make it worth the application fee.

Granted, in the spring of your junior year, it can be hard to tell what your scores will ultimately look like, but you do need to be realistic. If you’ve already taken the SAT or the ACT once and didn’t do as well you as you wanted or expected to, by all means take it again and see how high you can raise your scores. You should, however, also consider the possibility that they might not go up nearly as much as you want them to and not count on getting a 2300, or even a 2200. Lots and lots of things can happen when you go in to take the test for real, and there are no guarantees.

I’m not trying to say that you should abandon your lifelong dream of applying to Yale if you only had a 1950 the first time around, just that your preliminary college list probably shouldn’t look like this — especially if you’re from the Northeast:

Johns Hopkins
Boston University

That leaves exactly one school you have realistic chance of getting into (BU). If you’re applying for financial aid, you’re also cutting yourself off from a lot of schools that might offer you merit scholarships.

Instead, your list should probably look something like this:

University of Rochester
Boston University
George Washington
University of Wisconsin
University of Vermont/University of Delaware

That’s one super-duper reach, a bunch of realistics/low-reaches (assuming you have a high GPA), and a couple of backups to start looking at. That’s a *reasonable* list. If you do end up pulling your score way up, you can also add some more reaches later on, but you don’t want to set yourself up for disappointment. If you are visiting colleges, go and have fun, consider schools that maybe haven’t been on your radar, and focus on places you have a realistic chance of getting into. There are an awful lot of colleges out there, and you might be surprised at what you like.