According to “The True Abraham Lincoln” by William Eleroy Curtis, our 16th President was once asked how long a man’s legs should be.  His response: “Long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

This exchange brings up several important questions.

First, what kind of weirdo goes around asking important world leaders questions likes this?  Hey George Washington, are my ears too big?  Excuse me, General Eisenhower, does this shirt make me look fat?  Miss Joan of Arc, before I light this stake will you tell me if this looks benign to you?

Second, what does this have to do with the SAT and ACT?

Let’s tackle the SAT/ACT part first.  Whenever we talk to high school students and their parents about college admissions, one of the first questions that always comes up is “What’s a good SAT or ACT score?” 

We can’t fault you for asking.  Students have limited time and resources, and they need to know what sort of score they should be aiming for and by how much they need to improve.

Our answer, much like President Lincoln’s, can sound abstract at first.  Our standard response is, “A good score is one that will make you a viable candidate for the colleges you’re targeting.”

“Thanks,” you’re probably thinking.  “And I bet my ideal foot size is whatever fits into my new sneakers.”

Fair enough.  But when it comes to SAT and ACT scores, we have a simple guideline that we use to give students a sense of how competitive they are for admission to a given school.

Our Rule of Thumb

We recommend that students aim for an SAT or ACT score that is at least as high as the 50th percentile of scores for students admitted to the colleges they’re targeting.  

How can you find the SAT and ACT scores for students who got into a particular college?

It may take some Googling, but you can typically find the information online.  Most universities report their incoming class’s standardized test scores in three tiers, with a score for the bottom quarter of admitted students (the 25th percentile), a score for the average of admitted students (the 50th percentile), and a score for the top quarter of admitted students (the 75th percentile).  What does all of this mean in practice?  Let’s look at a few examples.

Average SAT Math Score (50th percentile)Average SAT Verbal Score (50th percentile)25th Percentile SAT Math25th Percentile SAT Verbal75th Percentile SAT Math75th Percentile SAT Verbal
Penn State640620580580700660
Hogwartsn/aDon’t callus, we’llcall you.(Via owl.) 

So that means that if you’re targeting Northwestern, you’ll want to aim for a combined math and verbal score of 1490 or higher; for UCLA, a combined score of 1400 or higher; and for Penn State, a combined score of 1260 or higher.  As for Hogwarts, don’t waste the stamp if you’re a Muggle.

With scores like these, how does anybody even get into college?

Again, these scores represent the 50th percentile of last year’s class.  That means that half of the applicants had lower scores and still got in.  So why do we say you need to be at least as high as the 50th percentile?  Why can’t you be just a little bit below the average?  Or in the ballpark?  And what ever happened to the stuff about Abraham Lincoln and legs?

Well, the reality of college admissions is that many students have a leg up (excuse the pun). Athletes, children of alumni, and other highly sought-after students are often admitted under different criteria than students lumped into the general admissions pool.  As Princeton University sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade, Chang Y. Chung, and Joan L. Walling report in their research paper “Admissions Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities”:

“Being a recruited athlete significantly improves one’s chances of being admitted to an elite university.  The odds of acceptance for athletes are four times as large as those for nonathletes.  The athletic advantage is roughly comparable to having SAT scores in the 1400s instead of the 1200s. Legacy applicants also receive preferential treatment in admissions.  Children or close relatives of alumni have nearly three times the likelihood of being accepted as non-legacies.”

What this means is that when you look at the average score for students admitted to a particular university, you’re really looking at a number that has been lowered by applicants given special consideration.  If colleges excluded the SAT and ACT scores of students given preferential treatment (children of alumni, for example) and only based their score data on students from the general admissions pool, their average SAT and ACT scores would be higher, perhaps significantly so.  Hence our recommendation to aim for an SAT or ACT score that’s at least the average, ideally at or above the 75th percentile for admitted students.  

Maintaining Perspective

Of course, college admissions is about far more than just test scores.  Grades, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and leadership are all taken into account by colleges—as such factors should be.  Depending on your resume, a school may look past underwhelming test scores and give greater weight to your accomplishments in music or art or robotics or whatever makes your candidacy compelling and unique.   

Another thing to keep in mind is that your scores can be presented several different ways.  Most colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, so if you take both exams, you’ll have the option of sending whichever score is stronger.  Also, many colleges permit “super-scoring,” a policy that permits applicants to mix and match scores from different test dates, enabling students to combine their best math and verbal scores into the highest possible overall score. 

Finally, remember that a test score is simply a snapshot of how you performed on one specific test on one specific day.  Very few students hit their goal score the first time around, and so it’s totally natural (and expected by admissions officers) for students to take the SAT or ACT a few times to maximize their potential.  We know it’s hard, but try to think of this fact as a positive.  You can’t lift your GPA overnight or become a star athlete or a student leader, but with the right preparation, you can greatly increase your SAT or ACT score, and, consequently, the chances that you’ll get into the college of your dreams.

And if you’re still wondering how long your legs should be, the answer is that as long as your jeans fit, you’ll be fine.