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.