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Last updated March 22, 2024

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Do colleges look at SAT scores?

Key Takeaway

Standardized test scores, like the SAT and ACT, are an important part of an applicant's "academic" profile. Admissions officers use a metric called the "middle 50% range" to evaluate scores, and applicants should aim for scores within or above this range. When a school is test-optional, submitting scores below the lower end of the middle 50% may weaken an application.

We’ve written before about how admissions offices calculate an “academic” ranking and a “personal” ranking for each applicant.

As you can probably guess, standardized test scores—namely the SAT and ACT—are an important part of that “academic” ranking.

So are SAT scores important? If so, how, exactly, do admissions officers evaluate standardized test scores? And what happens when I don’t submit my test scores at test-optional schools?

Let’s get into it.

Do colleges look at SAT scores? Does my SAT score matter?

Yes! If you submit SAT or ACT scores, colleges will look at them.

Some schools think standardized test scores are really important. Other schools just take them as one small piece of information in the application. (Curious if the schools you’re applying to heavily weigh standardized test scores? Search for your schools in the Data Room to find out.)

Whether your SAT score matters really depends on how much the school you’re applying to cares about standardized test scores.

For those that don’t put too much stake in them, a lower score probably won’t tank your application.

But for schools that consider them an important part of your application, your SAT score can help admissions officers decide whether you’re a good academic fit for the school.

In the next section, I’ll break down what that actually means.

How are SAT and ACT scores evaluated?

Of course, every college and university has its own unique policies and procedures.

But in general, your SAT and ACT scores help admissions officers measure your academic potential. Where you fall in relation to the average scores of admitted students clues admissions officers into whether you’re a good fit for the academic community. While this system isn’t without its problems, that’s the general consensus about why standardized test scores are valuable admissions data.

But your scores aren’t analyzed in isolation. They're evaluated alongside the other parts of your application, like your GPA, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and personal essays—it’s all part of the multi-staged review process that admissions offices use.

So that’s how admissions officers evaluate SAT and ACT scores in general. Now, let’s get into the specifics.

Admissions offices tend to use a score range called the “middle 50%” to measure whether your SAT or ACT score stacks up. The middle 50% range tells you the score range in which the middle half of students scored. It also means that 25% of students scored at or below that number, and another 25% scored at or above it.

We’ll use the University of Virginia as an example. Their most recent statistics reported these middle 50% ranges:

Middle 50% Range Test
690 - 750 SAT: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
710 - 790 SAT: Math
32 - 35 ACT Composite

University of Virginia admissions officers will use these ranges to evaluate whether a standardized test score is competitive within their applicant pool. An applicant with a 32 on the ACT is moderately competitive, but not wildly so. An applicant with a 36 on the ACT, on the other hand, is super competitive.

So: what does this all mean for your own scores?

How to Use a Middle 50% Range

As you can probably guess from the University of Virginia example, you want to aim for scores that are, at the very least, within the middle 50% range. The higher you can get within (or above!) the range, the more competitive your score will be.

Having these numbers in mind can be useful goalposts for you as you prepare to take standardized tests. They can help you figure out where to prioritize your energy studying (maybe that 700 on your SAT Math score isn’t looking too good anymore if you have your signs set on UVA!). They can also help you decide whether you need to take the SAT or ACT again to try to improve your score.

Now, what do you do when a school you’re applying to is test-optional?

Should I submit my test scores if the school is test-optional?

More and more schools have been turning to test-optional admissions. That means you get to decide whether or not to submit your standardized test scores.

We have a whole other post that goes into all the details about test-optional admissions, but here are the basics.

To decide whether to submit your scores, you’ll want to look at the middle 50% range for schools you’re applying to.

If your scores fall within or above the middle 50% range, you’re probably safe to submit them.

But if your scores are below the 25th percentile—or even at the very bottom of the middle 50% range—you may want to reconsider submitting them. They could potentially weaken your application, especially if it's weighed against stronger applications with higher scores.

What happens when I don’t submit my test scores?

So your scores are below the middle 50%. What now?

Let’s return to our UVA example. Since UVA is still currently test optional, you get to decide whether to submit your scores. Let’s say you got a 26 on the ACT. Given that the UVA middle 50% ACT range is 32 - 35, you probably don’t want to submit a 26. It’ll draw a red flags to your application that don’t need to be there.

But without your scores, how do University of Virginia admissions officers evaluate your academic fit for the school? Ben has a whole Reddit post about this, so I’ll just put it briefly: your other academic application factors—GPA, course rigor, letters of recommendation—simply gain slightly more weight. Think of it like a pie chart: you take the standardized test slice out, and the other slices have to get just a little bit bigger.


Admissions officers evaluate standardized test scores, like the SAT and ACT, when evaluating an applicant's "academic" profile. Typically, they use a metric called the "middle 50% range," which represents the scores between which the middle half of admitted students fall. If aiming for such schools, applicants should strive for scores within or above this range. When a school is test-optional, you can choose whether to submit your scores. If your score falls below or near the lower end of the middle 50%, it might be better not to submit. Without these scores, other application components, like GPA and letters of recommendation, become more important.




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