Applying to college soon? Curious about what colleges are looking for in applicants? Specifically in regards to the SAT or ACT? The college admissions process can be very confusing. It’s easy to feel lost and frustrated. In this article, I’ll tell you what colleges look for in admissions and how to make your application the best it can be.
What Do Colleges Look For in Applicants?
When colleges look at applicants, they’re hoping to find students who will succeed in college and beyond. Colleges use your scores (SAT/ACT scores, GPA/transcript, class rank, and other test scores) to judge your readiness to attend their school. Are you prepared to handle the rigor of their classes?
Colleges are not only looking to see your potential as a student but also as a potential alumni of their school. Are you someone who could win a Nobel Prize? Win an Oscar? Be a President? Colleges use your extracurriculars, application essays, and your letters of recommendation to judge these qualities.
How Do Colleges Judge Applicants?
Now that we have a basic overview of what colleges look for in applicants, I’ll address each part of the application in order of importance to colleges. I’ll let you know how the college judges you based on each of these parts of your application.
Your SAT/ACT scores are arguably the most important part of your application. I’ll delve into why they are so important in the next section, but the main value of SAT/ACT scores is that they provide colleges with a standard way to judge students. Every applicant will have a varied background: attended a different school and taken different classes. However, every applicant will have taken the SAT or ACT.
Colleges use your SAT/ACT score as an indicator of whether you’re ready to attend their school. What score do you need to have to be considered ready for their school? You need to have a score at least in the SAT/ACT score range for admitted students to that school. To give yourself the best chance of admission, you should aim for a score at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for admitted students. You can find out the SAT/ACT score range for admitted students at your target school in their admissions profile, but I’ll explain that in more depth later in the article.
Colleges are looking at your GPA and transcript for two main reasons:
- To see what classes you chose to take.
- To see how you did in your classes.
Colleges want to see what classes you took and how you performed to make sure that you're prepared to attend their college. Based on your GPA/transcript, are you ready to handle a college courseload from your dream school?
To see if you're ready, I'd recommend you check out the admissions profile for your dream school. See what the average GPA is for admitted students at that college. You can find it by conducting a Google search for "[College Name] GPA PrepScholar." That will bring you to our admissions page for that school. Try to get your GPA into a similar range to give yourself the best chance of admission.
NOTE: For students interested in top tier colleges (Ivies, Stanford, Vanderbilt and similar), when admissions officers look at your transcript/GPA, they’re hoping to see that you opted to take the most difficult classes at your high school and that you did very well in those classes. This only applies to students interested in top tier colleges.
If you hope to be accepted to a top tier school, and your school offers IB/AP courses, you should be taking those courses. Top college admissions officers typically say that they’d rather see that you got a B in an AP or IB course than an A in a regular non-AP/IB course (if IB/AP courses are offered at your school). If there are no IB or AP classes offered at your school, obviously admissions officers don’t expect you to take have taken any.
All that being said, what can you do to make your GPA/transcript strong? Take the hardest classes that are offered at your school and do well in them. Struggling to keep your GPA up? Check out our advice for boosting to your GPA.
You'll always have a higher grade than G!
Your class rank is inevitably tied to your transcript and GPA since the more AP and/or IB classes you take and get A’s in, the higher your class rank will be. However, colleges still care about your class rank.
Top tier colleges (Harvard, MIT, UPenn) really only want students who are ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. One of my friends did a high school summer program at one of the Ivies. The program he did was known to accept almost all participants into the college. He was not admitted. When he asked why he was told that it was a big deal to them that he was not ranked in the top 10% of his class.
If you're hoping to attend a top tier school, rank matters, so try to take the hardest classes and get your grades up to stay near the top of the class. If you're not gunning for the Ivies or similar schools, don't worry as much about rank. Just focus on getting your GPA in the range for your dream school!
As I mentioned at the start, colleges are looking for top notch applicants who they think will succeed in college and beyond. The beyond part is what they hope to glean from your extracurriculars. All colleges like to see that you got involved in extracurriculars and especially like to see that you had a leadership role in your extracurriculars.
Top tier colleges (Harvard, Stanford, Yale) want to see that you have an expertise. It doesn’t matter what that expertise is, but whatever you choose, explore it deeply. If you like science, try to win the state science fair, compete in science olympiads, intern at a local lab, etc. If you like acting, compete with your debate team in the acting categories (Dramatic Interpretation, Humorous Interpretation, or Duo Interpretation), stage a play for free at your local children’s hospital, do regional theater, etc. I won’t delve into this in this any further in this article because we have another great guide that further explains this concept How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League, by a Harvard Alum.
For extracurriculars, I just recommend that you follow your passion and participate in several extracurriculars in that area of passion. I also recommend trying to get leadership experience in your extracurriculars. By showing passion and leadership, colleges will see your potential for greatness after college (you could win a Nobel Prize or Oscar!).
Letters of Recommendation & Personal Essays
I’m talking about these two items side by side because I think their importance in the college admission process is the same (and they are not as important as everything mentioned above). NOTE: Some colleges don't require letters of recommendation nor personal essays, so make sure to check the admissions website for your target colleges.
Also, your letters of recommendation and personal essays both serve the same purpose: to show that you have the potential to succeed after college. You want to have great letters of recommendation that rave about who you are, what you’re passion is, and how great you are at that thing you’re passionate about. Check out these examples of great letters of recommendation and the breakdown of what makes them great letters. You want your personal essays to reveal who you are and what you’re passion is. Check out these example college personal essays along with advice.
What about AP/IB tests & SAT IIs?
Other Test Scores
Other test scores include AP/IB exam scores, SAT IIs, and any other non-SAT/ACT exams that you’ve taken that you’re choosing to include on your application. I wouldn’t stress too much about your other test scores. Just like the ACT/SAT, colleges look at these to evaluate your readiness for their college. However, the ACT/SAT is the most important score. If you’re at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for your target school, you’ve got a great chance of getting in.
That being said, I think colleges use these other test scores to double check that you’re ready for their school. If you got a perfect SAT score but failed every AP exam that you took, then an admissions officer may question if you’re prepared for their college. Basically, don’t let your other test scores be a red flag, take your other test scores seriously but know that they won’t hurt your chances unless the scores are really low (failing for AP or IB exams).
Don’t stress about one failed AP test. I was accepted to a few Ivies including Brown and UPenn, and I took many IB and AP exams. I did pretty well on them (a mix of 3s, 4s, 5s on my AP exams and a mix of 5s, 6s, and 7s on my IB exams). However, I did fail one of my AP exams with a 2 (It was AP US Government). As I said, don’t worry too much. These scores will only hurt you if they’re really bad (all failing).
Try to get the highest scores you can on your AP and IB exams and SAT IIs so that your high scores only give colleges another reason to accept you.
Why Is Your SAT/ACT Score so Important?
There are two main reasons that your SAT/ACT scores are important to colleges. Let's discuss each reason one at a time.
Reason #1: Your SAT/ACT Score Is How Colleges Compare You to Other Applicants from Around the World
While applicants to one college will come from different backgrounds, will have attended different high schools, will have taken different classes, and will have done different extracurricular activities, all of the applicants will have taken the SAT and/or ACT (at least at non-test optional schools).
Your SAT/ACT score reveals whether your GPA and transcript are accurate representations of your preparedness for higher education. Colleges use your SAT/ACT score to figure out if your high school grades were inflated or accurate. For example, if you have a 4.0 GPA with a perfect SAT or ACT score, colleges will likely be impressed and think your GPA is reflective of your academic potential (since your scores were so high). However, if you have a 4.0 GPA with 1000 SAT score or 20 ACT score, colleges may think your grades were inflated and that your SAT/ACT score is a better representation of your academic potential.
Additionally, a high SAT/ACT score can also make up for a lower GPA. If you have a 3.0 GPA with a perfect SAT/ACT score, colleges may be willing to overlook your lower GPA and consider your SAT/ACT score as an indication that you’re prepared for college.
Colleges use SAT/ACT scores to compare apples to oranges!
Reason #2: Colleges Are Judged by Their SAT/ACT Score Ranges
Yes, the SAT/ACT is important to schools because they use it to judge your readiness for college. However, it's also important to schools because if you're admitted, your SAT/ACT score will be incorporated into their yearly SAT/ACT statistics.
Every year, colleges publish their freshman admissions profile (see an example from Princeton). In this profile, colleges provide the data on their admitted students. This data includes either the 25th/75th percentile SAT/ACT scores (sometimes referred to as the middle 50%) or the average SAT/ACT scores of admitted students. The 25th percentile score means that 25% of admitted students scored at or below that score (and therefore 75% of admitted students scored above). The 75th percentile score means that 75% of admitted students scored at or below that score (and therefore 25% of admitted students scored above). The average score is just what it sounds like, an average of all the admitted students scores.
The general public looks at this data to perceive the selectivity of the school (the higher the range, the more competitive or “better” the general public thinks that college is). When you think of top-tier schools such as Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, you likely think, "Wow those are good schools!"
Why do you think they are good schools? You might think of their alumni or campuses. However, many lower ranked schools such as Denison have beautiful campuses with famous alumni like billionaire Michael Eisner. You might think of their low admissions rates, but there are other colleges with comparable admissions rates to the Ivies.
One of the main reasons you associate top tier colleges with prestige is because of their published SAT/ACT score ranges and their ranking among other colleges. When doing research on applying to schools, you likely came across the US News & World Report ranking of US colleges. Each year, US News & World Report assembles their rankings based on several categories including the SAT/ACT scores of admitted students.
If you’re admitted to the school, your SAT/ACT score will be factored into that school’s overall national ranking in US News & World Report. Top tier colleges such as Princeton, Yale, and Stanford want your SAT scores to be a good so that it reflects well on them. Even "second tier schools" such as Vanderbilt, USC, and Emory care about this because they hope to continue to rise in the US News & World Report rankings.
What Does This Mean for You?
If admissions officers are judging you so heavily by your SAT/ACT score, you want to get a score that will meet their standards. As I mentioned earlier, colleges are hoping to admit students who are in or above their SAT/ACT score range (or at or above the average).
Here at PrepScholar, we recommend that you try to get your score at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score of admitted students to give yourself the best chance of admission. Let’s set that as your SAT/ACT score goal.
Setting a Score Goal
To give yourself the best chance of being admitted to your dream school, you need to set a score goal that is at or above the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for that school.
How do you find out what the 75th percentile SAT/ACT score for that school is? Here at PrepScholar, we’ve created a very cool resource to locate each college’s 25th/75th percentile score and to calculate your chance of admissions to a given school based on your SAT/ACT score and GPA.
To access this resource, simply Google Search, “[College Name] [ACT or SAT score] PrepScholar.” For example, I looked for USC’s page:
The first two search results are both from PrepScholar, the Requirements for Admission page give GPA, SAT, and ACT data. The Complete Guide: ACT Score and GPA page gives information only on ACT and GPA.
I recommend looking at our Requirements for Admission for your target colleges to get a sense of the SAT and ACT scores of admitted students. See a sample of our USC Requirements for Admission page:
I scroll down, and I find the SAT and ACT data:
As I said before, aim for a score at or above the 75th percentile score, so for USC, that would be a 33 or above on the ACT or a 2230 or above on the SAT. Why aim so high? You want to give yourself the absolute best chance of admissions. You want to be in the top group of applicants. You want the admissions officer to see your application and say, “duh, they should get in.” Okay, they’ll likely say something more eloquent, but you get my point.
You might be thinking, “Hey Dora, 25% of admits score below the 25th percentile, can’t I just score slightly below the 25th percentile and get in?” In theory, yes, you can. In reality, it’s unlikely.
Colleges will admit certain applicants with lower SAT/ACT scores because that college needs that student for some reason. For example, colleges sometimes accept athletes, legacies, or students with another exceptional talent (the #1 ranked debater in the US or a world-class violinist) who have lower SAT/ACT scores. Also, colleges sometimes accept students with lower scores who are the children of significant alumni donors or the children of other wealthy or famous people.
Unless you fall into one of the above, try to aim for a score at or above the 75th percentile score. While these students may not make up 25% of the admitted students, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Get your score at or above the 75th percentile to give yourself the best chance!
Planning Your Prep
Now that you’ve set your SAT/ACT score goal, you need to create a plan to reach it. Check out our guide to planning your study based on the amount of improvement that you’re hoping for and based on the amount of time you have to study.
Interested in learning more about the college admissions process? Learn about how to get a college application fee waiver, learn about the best extracurricular activities for your college app, and plan your college application timeline.
Not sure where you’d like to go to college? Figure out how to find your target school.
Still not sure whether the SAT or ACT is right for you? Let’s help you pick the right test for you!
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.