In this blog, we continue our discussion of the test-optional policy many colleges instituted during the 2020 and 2021 pandemic years.  Like it or not (as we discuss in Part I of this blog), colleges will continue this policy for the 2022-23 admissions cycle, despite the increased anxiety and headaches it causes many applicants.

Blue Stars wants to help parents and students navigate the bumpy terrain in this open-ended landscape. In short, how does an applicant decide when to submit scores to test-optional schools vs. when not to?

Here’s our advice: If an applicant’s score is at or above the 25th percentile for a college, we advise our students to submit scores.

Great! Problem solved, right? Students and parents may wonder.…

  • What is the 25th percentile?

  • How do students and parents find out the 25th percentile for schools?

  • Are there ever exceptions to this rule?

Read on for more Blue Stars insights!

Decoding the 25th percentile

When publishing their admissions data, colleges report the 25th and 75th percentile SAT and ACT scores for their admitted students. The what?! Let’s look at an example; here is a table of SAT scores for Boston College students in 2020.

Boston College Admitted Students for 2020
SAT25th Percentile75th Percentile
Evidence-Based Reading & Writing660730
Math680770
Composite13401500

What do all these numbers mean? Colleges categorize each admitted class into four groups of students, with an equal number of students in each quartile:

  • One-fourth of the entering class achieves scores at the “25th Percentile” or scores lower than these. 25% of Boston College students scored at or below 1340.

  • Another one-fourth of students are labeled “75th Percentile,” achieving scores at the indicated levels or higher. 25% of Boston College students scored at or above 1500.

  • The middle “double-quartile block” (not depicted in the table) means that 50% of the students at that college scored between these two numbers. 50% of Boston College students scored between 1340 and 1500.

For the visual learners among us, here is how this can be depicted:

SAT bell curve

If we were working with a student applying to Boston College who scored a 1350  on the SAT, we’d encourage this student to send their scores. Why? Because 75% of all admitted students scored at or above this level. Of course, admissions officers look at so much more than test scores. Our point is that a score that sits at or above the 25% will help an applicant’s chances.

So far so good? What about all the other schools on an applicant’s target list?

Get the Information Needed to Make a Smart Decision

Deciding whether to send standardized test scores in a test-optional environment is best handled through a systematic, yet simple process.

  • Have test scores handy

  • Make a list of schools

  • Find the 25th and 75th Percentile scores for the school’s most-recently accepted class

  • Compare data

Some colleges may have this data on their website (go to a college’s website search and plug in “Common Data Set”), but it is frequently hard to locate. Blue Stars offers two alternative sources:

  1. ThoughtCo. This website provides valuable information about colleges, including SAT/ACT scores for admitted students. Type the college’s name and “SAT” or “ACT” in the Search function. The next page will display a link to that college’s dedicated page. Scroll down on the page to a table that looks like the one above. There will be one table for the SAT and one for the ACT.
  2. Common Data Set (CDS). The Common Data Set is a set of standardized statistics as defined by The College Board, U.S. News & World Report (USN&WR), and Petersen’s, and compiled by most colleges. To find the CDS for a specific college, enter “Common Data Set Name-of-College” into a search engine. Standardized test score data can be found in Section C9 within this data set.

Activity

Blue Stars recommends creating a simple chart like the one below to keep track of the 25th and 75th percentile scores at all potential schools. Applicants may also want to add their Reading & Writing and Math subscores, too.

25th Percentile
Cumulative/RW/M
75th Percentile
Cumulative/RW/M
My Score
Cumulative/RW/M
Potential School A
Potential School B
Potential School C

Great, got the school test data. Now what? Is it really as simple as it seems?

Yes! Let’s walk through different scenarios for one representative Blue Stars student, Shelley: a well-rounded, high-achieving student whose composite SAT score is 1450.

Here are the schools Shelley wants to attend, including the 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores at each school:

25th Percentile75th PercentileSubmit scores?
Boston University13301500Yes
Boston College13401500Yes
Emory13601530Yes
Amherst14201530Yes
Duke14501570Yes
Yale14601550No
Harvard14601580No

According to the Blue Stars 25th Percentile Guideline, Shelley’s score of 1450 would support their candidacy at all of the above schools except Yale and Harvard, where their score is below the 25th Percentile. Does this mean that Shelley shouldn’t apply to Yale or Harvard, or should rethink Duke?

No, not necessarily. Remember, 25% of the students do have scores at or below Shelley’s level. Instead, Shelley should utilize their application to emphasize other strengths: leadership, initiative, extracurricular activities, and excellent performance in rigorous academic classes either in school or during summer programs. This might also be an opportunity for Shelley to acknowledge any challenges or hardships they have encountered.

Remember, students are more than just a test score and colleges seek to enroll a class with diverse interests and backgrounds. Blue Stars can help students position their experience in a way that optimizes their admission chances at each school.

Summary

Blue Stars offers the 25th Percentile guideline to help parents and students make smart decisions in this non-rules-based environment, but we know that questions will arise:

  • Are there any exceptions to this rule?
  • How should parents and students consider the Reading & Writing and Math subscores?
  • What specifically should parents and students highlight if the SAT score is below the cutoff?

Blue Stars can provide expert explanations, advice and resources to help navigate the test optional college admissions landscape – including letting parents and students know which schools are returning to mandatory standardized testing in the 2022-23 Admissions year.

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Published On: May 2nd, 2022 / By / Categories: COVID, SAT /
SAT testThe New Test-Optional Policy: Does It Help or Hurt Applicants? (Part I)
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