A while back, one of my students came to me mystified about why a classmate of hers with an SAT score of only 2170 had been admitted to Princeton. She was perplexed by the fact that Princeton had picked him over thousands of applicants with higher SAT scores. My response was that the score, while a bit on the low side for Princeton, was nevertheless high enough to put him in the range for consideration, and that he must have had some characteristic that made him particularly interesting to Princeton despite his comparatively “low” test scores.

I put the conversation out of my mind until the 2012 edition of the US News and World Report rankings came out. As I was flipping through it, I noticed a story about a boy with a 2170 SAT score who had been admitted to Princeton. That sounded vaguely familiar, so I kept reading. It turned out that he did in fact attend my student’s high school, and from various details in the articles, it became clear that he was the boy she had mentioned to me.

So why did Princeton take him? Although he may not have broken 2200, he was, of all things, a countertenor — quite possibly the only countertenor to apply out of 30,000+ applicants, and an accomplished one at that. Faced with 10,000 seemingly identical soccer-team captains and newspaper editors, the admissions committee must have been thrilled to see something so unusual. (The fact that Princeton is trying to make itself a tad more attractive to “artsy” students certainly didn’t hurt him either.)

That’s obviously an extreme case, which is undoubtedly why USNWR chose to profile him, but it does confirm my observation: if a school is faced with a super high-scoring but otherwise average applicant and slightly lower-scoring applicant that has something really interesting about them, the school will pretty much always choose the second kid.

Remember: Harvard could admit an entire class of near-perfect scorers, but sometimes it rejects those kids in favor of people with score 100-150 points lower. So if your scores are a little (e.g. 50 points) on the low side for your dream school, it doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily out. It just means that you have to put in a bit more effort everywhere else. Admissions officers are generally quite adept at figuring out who’s a good match for their school. While scores are undeniably important, they’re not the whole story either. That’s what “holistic” means.