How Colleges Use the SAT and ACT

How Colleges Use the SAT and ACT

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Applying to college and dating have a lot in common. The first conversation at the coffee shop is the first look at your application, and marriage is college acceptance. Though it might seem silly at first, the analogy is much more accurate than you might realize.  

When you’re looking for a potential mate, the first requirement is that you like what you see. If someone clearly hasn’t showered for a week, or they’re wearing a T-shirt that says “I Like to Kill Stuff,” the conversation probably isn’t going anywhere. In the same way, if a student’s application looks horrible (bad grades, bad scores, missing elements), it’s not even going to get read.

Once we like what we see, we start caring about personality. No one needs to date a supermodel – we’re just looking for someone good-looking enough for us. Once that threshold is passed, personality is all that matters, and appearance doesn’t play much of a role anymore. Your “personality” is everything in your application other than your grades and test scores. Your essays, recommendations, extracurriculars, etc.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the best looking person in the world – if you have zero personality, you’re not going to have a happy marriage. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if you have a 1600 New SAT score and a 4.2 weighted GPA if you have nothing else going for you – unless, of course, you’re marrying a very shallow person (i.e., a school that’s so desperate for high numbers that it’ll marry you just for those alone).

And, just like budding relationships, college applications are extremely fragile. Once you’re married to someone, they can chew with their mouth open and forget to take out the trash – you’re probably not going to get a divorce. But if someone picks their teeth at the table on the first date, it’s probably a deal breaker.

You need to imagine yourself as “courting” your colleges, and, just as even a tiny mistake on a first date can kill any chances of a relationship, the tiniest mistakes on your application can get it tossed in the trash.

Sure, you might be a great person, and you might have just made one tiny, little mistake, but here’s the problem: there are thousands of other people courting this same college, and none of them picked their teeth at the dinner table on the first date. Which brings us to perhaps the most important thing you need to realize about college applications:

Applications do not happen in a “silo” – they are about COMPARISON. You’re not proving your own absolute value – you’re proving that you’re better than everyone else. It doesn’t matter how good you are – it matters how comparatively good you are.

I once had a conversation with a potential client (whom I didn’t end up taking on) whose son had been suspended from school for, basically, a hate crime. He had written an extremely racially insensitive message on another student’s wall, gotten caught, and been kicked out of school for a term. His mother wanted to know if he had any chances of getting into a competitive school, and argued her case thusly:

Look, I know that what he did was wrong. But overall, he’s a great kid. He’s an awesome athlete, has a 3.9 GPA, and with your help, he’ll be able to get a 34+ on the ACT. He’s also going to get great recommendations from a lot of his teachers, and he’s a good essay writer. You still think he has a strong shot, right?

My answer to her: no.

My longer answer: your kid might, “overall,” be a great kid. But ANY school he applies to is going to have THOUSANDS of other applicants who DIDN’T COMMIT HATE CRIMES.  He has a 0% chance of getting into a competitive college. Sorry.

Again, let’s go back to the dating analogy. Imagine you’re at a speed dating event. You have literally thousands of eligible people who you might be able to date. You meet someone who’s good looking, charming, etc., and 5 minutes into the date, happens to mention:

“Well, it’s a funny story, but last year, I sort of committed a hate crime! Anyway, aside from that, my hobbies include….”


Remember again: admissions are about comparison, and not about absolute value. It’s not as if “hate crimes deduct 10 points from an application, but strong SAT scores add 11, so they sort of balance each other out.” Far from it.

When something really ugly shows up on your application, you don’t get “points deducted” – you get chopped. There’s a point of no return that college admissions officers work from.

Remember also: colleges care about reputation more than anything else in the world. What do you think a student with a drunk driving offense, or a hate crime, or any other sort of horrendous offense, is going to do for their reputation? I’m not a gambling man, but…

Schools do NOT like to take downside risks – only upside risks. Most colleges let in thousands of students each year, which means that they have pretty “diversified portfolios.” But they’re not in the business of losing money. While schools might “gamble on” a student who has a lot of potential upside, they will NEVER gamble on a student who has any potential downside.

In other words: if you can convince colleges that you might do something really awesome, they might let you in – above and beyond the students who have slightly better grades and scores. But if you hint to a college that you might do something horrendous – you’re in bad shape.

“Yeah, sure,” you might say, “but my kid hasn’t committed a hate crime – so why does this apply to me?”

Excellent question. The answer:

Students do NOT get admitted to college – they AVOID BEING CHOPPED.

At first, this might seem like a pretty obvious statement. Getting accepted is exactly the same thing as not getting rejected. But to think about the college application game properly, you need to work under this framework. You aren’t trying to “get in” – you’re trying to “survive.”

Obviously, major infractions such as hate crimes and drunk driving offenses and school expulsions etc. look bad, but they’re far from the only things that get you chopped. Some of the others?

-Bad grades

-Bad test scores

-Lack of extracurriculars

-Lack of (or bad) recommendations

-Failure to demonstrate interest in the college

-Simple application errors

-Failure to pick a “right fit” college

-Bad essay(s)

-Bad interview(s)

-Many more

A small hole can sink a massive ship. Rather than provide you with useless “to do” items that don’t address your fundamental application errors, I’m going to start by patching up the holes in the hull. Doing extra “goodies” when your application is fundamentally flawed is like rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. Hence, we start with the fundamentals, and then we get into the “tips and tricks” that’ll sweeten the pot for admissions officers.

So long as we’re on the same page so far, and you’re ready to think about college in this way, it’s time to begin!

The Three Things That Actually Matter to Colleges

Quick note: every admissions committee is slightly different, and the process I’m about to describe here varies a bit from school to school, but, for the vast majority of schools, the vast majority of the time, this is how it works.

When it comes to the elements of your college applications, there is a hierarchy.  Some things matter more than others. Not only do they matter more than others, but they also matter before others.

To understand the admissions process as a whole, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of a college admissions officer. She has countless applications to review, she’s under enormous time pressure, and she realizes that both her college’s reputation and the fates and emotions of thousands of fragile high school students are on the line. It’s not an easy job.

Like all people, she strives to make her job both easier and more effective. And if the school she works at is like the vast majority of other schools, systems are available to help her do both.

You should imagine the application review process happening in three stages. Here they are:

  1. Red Carpet Applications
  2. Shallow Metrics
  3. You

Schools don’t spend time thoroughly reviewing every single application. To do so would be ludicrous. They’ve safeguarded themselves somewhat from frivolous applications by tacking on a fee, but I emphasize the word somewhat for a reason. If I had a dollar for every time an unqualified student applied to an Ivy “just because I want to see what happens,” I’d be mowing the astroturf on my yacht.

To save time (and sanity), admissions officers work through the three stages above. Here’s a quick look at the three stages:

Stage One: Red Carpet Applications

A “red carpet application” is basically any application that comes with a personal vouching from someone of importance within the university’s reputational or financial construct. What do I mean by a “personal vouching?” They have let the admissions officers know, either in person or by means of a marking system, that your application must be considered, and favorably.

These applications, of course, get sorted to the top of the pile. Once you have a red carpet voucher on your side, it’s pretty tough to get rejected.

How do you know if you have a voucher on your side?  If you have to ask, you don’t.

Some of the things you’ll get a voucher for:

-Your grandfather donated the library.

-You’re a recruited athlete. A lot of people point out how ridiculous it is that recruited athletes have such an unfair advantage in the college process. I’d say that they’re right. Then again, I was a recruited rower, and puking off the edge of a boat a few times a week wasn’t exactly easy. Still – it doesn’t make any sense. But this is the way it is.

-You’re a “celebrity,” which, used loosely, means that just by attending, you will raise the status of the school due purely to your awesomeness. Not sure if you’re a celebrity or not? You’re not.

-In some cases, you’re an alum.

-You know someone influential on the board or involved with the internal workings of the school

-You’re an extremely highly sought-after minority. Believe it or not, in 2016, colleges still use racial quotas. It’s almost as if something is wrong with the system! Depending on the school, being Asian or African American or Caucasian or Hispanic can be a disadvantage or an advantage – it all depends on the quota compared to how many people in your racial bracket are applying. However, some small groups do get a lot of preference, and for good reasons (Native Americans, for instance).

If you’re not in the group above, it’s OK. But your life just got a bit harder. If you aren’t in group one, you need to survive stage two:

Stage Two: Shallow Metrics

Remember the dating analogy? It’s back.

If the admissions officer doesn’t know you from Adam, and no one is telling her that she needs to pay attention, then she goes to heuristics. In this case: your grades and test scores.

If you have 10,000 potential spouses, all strangers, and a month between them, what’s the first thing you’ll do to make your life easier? Eliminate the ones that you don’t find physically attractive enough. Shallow, but true.

Being in stage one is like having an unbelievably good friend introduce one of those partners to you. “Trust me – Sarah is literally the most amazing girl you’ve ever met – just go on a date with her – you’ll LOVE her!”  This would result in a blind date. You don’t need to know what she looks like.

But if you don’t have an intro, you’ll default to your reptilian instincts.

What do colleges find attractive? Grades and scores.

Having really bad grades or SAT/ACT scores is like showing up to a dating event with a wig made out of rotten spinach. Maybe you’ll get lucky? Not even.

“But wait until you hear my ideas for the future of alternative energy!”

No. I won’t. And neither will they.

My whole life, I’ve tried to be a nice person. And I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news. But if you don’t have someone vouching for you, and your grades and scores aren’t very good, then you simply do not have a chance of getting into an extremely competitive school. It won’t happen. It doesn’t happen.

“What about score optional colleges?”

Great question. Unfortunately, they don’t solve this problem – at all. You can read my guide on score “optional” colleges to see why.

Going back to the issue at hand:

If you do not have high test scores, you need to either:

  • A) Raise your scores


  • B) Lower your standards

If you do not have high grades, you need to:

  • A) Raise your grades


  • B) Lower your standards

That’s all there is to it. If you have a 2.1 average and you’re not red carpeted, you simply aren’t going to a top twenty school. It isn’t happening.

I don’t say this to be cruel. I say this to save you time and emotional distress down the line. I don’t want you getting your hopes up for no reason.

Also: if your grades and scores are WAY higher than the school’s averages, you’re basically guaranteed to get in.

Because applications are so ludicrously competitive nowadays, having grades and scores way above the averages of your target schools is somewhat rare. But it does happen from time to time. For instance, when I was in high school, and the SAT was out of 1600, a certain European college trying to recruit members of my graduation class pretty much flat-out said that if we broke a 1300, they’d let us in (barring a hate crime on our resumes).

If you have a 3.9 average, a 1590 on the New SAT, and you’re applying to a college with an average entering GPA of 2.9 and a New SAT score of 900 – congratulations! You’re accepted. Stop reading this website and go play mini golf or something.

For everyone else, keep reading.

If your grades and scores aren’t high enough, you get chopped. However, once you make the cut (and we’ll discuss that cut, where it is, and how to beat it in another guide), you can move on to stage three:

Stage 3: YOU

Yes, you! The man in the mirror! The living, breathing human being who should have been considered in the first place.

If you don’t have a red carpet voucher, but your grades and scores are good enough, then the admissions officers will take a look at what you have to offer. Your extracurriculars. Your essays. Your recommendations. All that good stuff!

What kind of “you” are they trying to uncover? The kind of “you” that will offer them something that they want.

We’ll get through all of that in a later guide. For now, however, we need to take care of the most important things first. Before we do the stuff that gets you in, we need to avoid the stuff that’ll get you chopped. And for that, we move on to the next most important guide:

What Scores Do You Need to Get into Your Dream Schools?

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