Are My Scores Good Enough? US Exams, What They Mean

Empowerly Team
Empowerly Team

Our collaborative team of content writers and researchers stay up-to-date on the latest news to help you ace your applications. We hope you enjoy the blog.

Admissions has two parts: a student’s tangible scores and transcripts, and a written portion, comprising of supplements, short answers, and letters of recommendation. The former portion, which I will refer to as the “numbers” side of the application, consists of many facets. Students often write off certain schools for fear that their “scores,” albeit grades or standardized testing, are not good enough. Let’s break down each factor in this category to see the similarities and differences, how schools factor them into applications, and what you can do to improve and understand your scores.

The GPA (Grade Point Average)

A student’s GPA comes in many flavors, if you will. There is a cumulative GPA, an average of all previous years’ GPAs , and a singular per year GPA. There are also weighted and unweighted GPAs, which factor in AP, IB, and Honors courses. Check out this Empowerly blog post for a more detailed explanation on the distinction, and this one to understand how colleges view the two in admissions.  

The GPA is essentially a record of your performance in high school, so it is definitely factored into your application as one of the major components. It has the potential to show your academic integrity via courseload and improvement over time. Yet not every qualified applicant relies solely on grades for admission. GPA does matter in your application,  but it is just one of many factors that plays into the “scores” side of your application. If students have trouble maintaining a strong GPA, they often explain why in the supplemental part of the app.

AP, IB, and SAT Subject Tests

This portion of standardized testing is most closely linked to your transcript and GPA because it correlates to the classes you’ve taken. When building a schedule, it is important to remember that AP courses require a final standardized examination at the end of the year that you send to colleges when applying. Again, each student will vary in how many she takes and how challenging these tests are. This post will help you understand the amount of APs often expected, but you should learn which APs are right for you before diving into a course you can’t handle.  

Some schools have SAT II requirements, and these standardized tests focus on specific subjects mastered in high school. You decide how many and which subjects; SAT IIs should be used as a bolster to your application. They should highlight those subjects you most excel in.

The ACT and SAT

The ACT and SAT are the most notorious “scores” in the application process, but like the numbers mentioned above, they do not stand alone in your admission. Many students take both tests, and many students take only the one they do significantly better in. That part doesn’t matter. Do what is best for you as a student. Empowerly has many resources to help students prepare for this portion of the application, especially for those who struggle with test taking.

Ultimately, ACT/SAT scores are an impactful way for a student to distinguish herself in a large applicant pool. Yet it is also important to remember that most Top 50 Schools look at apps “holistically,” meaning they factor in your GPA, APs, and test scores to weigh your strength as an applicant. Many students have a false perception that a high, or even perfect, ACT/SAT score will get them into an Ivy or the like. While it certainly won’t hurt, it definitely doesn’t surpass the importance of having well balanced scores across the board: that means strong GPAs, APs, and SAT IIs.

Comparing Your Various Scores and Factoring them into Your Application

Now that you understand the different “numbers” behind your application– it helps to understand how they work in tandem with the remainder of your application. Some schools, like Princeton and Dartmouth, use something called an Academic Index, which factors in all your various “numbers” to give you a single value.. A value used to compare to all other applicants. This post  goes in depth on what the AI is and if it matters. Many universities have their own version of an “AI” in the admissions process, so don’t get hung up on the methodology. What is paramount to keep in mind is that readers see all your scores and all your supplemental writing. You are more than the summation of your numbers, as trite as that sounds.

Some schools care more about numbers than others. Princeton and Yale are two examples of schools that gave Academic GPA AND Test Scores a 4/4 in terms of importance in an application. Remember, that doesn’t mean they don’t factor in written supplements, it just means numbers are a prevalent distinction in their reading process. Keep those types of schools in mind when building your college list.

What You Can Do To Improve Your Numbers and Application Overall

  1. Think of your scores as a scale; if your SAT is weak, really strive to excel with your GPA– or vice versa. The same goes for the “numbers” portion vs the written portion. If you’re a great writer with average scores; make your writing a focal point of the app. Same goes for the reverse.
  2. Be smart with your time; classes and extracurricular activities don’t stop during your testing seasons.  Don’t slack on your course load just because you want a certain SAT score; that will come back to bite you.
  3. Try not to over compare your scores, grades, and test performance with that of your peers or national applicant averages. Every applicant is different and brings a different perspective to the reader. It is really all about crafting the strongest application you can based on who you are as a student. Considering getting a college counselor or reviewing your app with family, friends, and trusted teachers.  

Questions? Let us know!