Is a great SAT score your child's key to the college of her choice? The importance of SAT scores depends entirely on where your child would like to go to college, according to Rick Dalton, former director of enrollment planning at Middlebury College in Vermont. He says, "College selectivity is a myth. Ninety-five percent of colleges accept most of the students who apply. It's the other 5 percent — the Harvards and the Universities of Virginia — where test scores really matter. These colleges get more applicants than they could possibly accept."
But even at the most selective schools, SAT scores alone don't determine who's accepted or rejected. "Students might be surprised to hear that Princeton University turns down 76 percent of its applicants who scored between 750 and a perfect 800 on some sections of the SAT," says Joyce Slayton Mitchell, the director of college advising at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City. "Students don't need a perfect score and perfect grades to get in. It takes more than that. They need to pursue other activities and interests that are unique to them."
How colleges decide
Take a look at some other things colleges look for beyond SAT scores. Top schools typically look at students' academic achievement first — grades, class rank, and the types of courses they've tackled, says Dalton. Admission officers then examine students' "non-academic profiles" — their extra-curricular activities and acts of citizenship. Selective colleges look for excellence among athletes and artists. Multiculturalism may also be a factor. At this point, test scores come into play, says Dalton. "You can have everything else, but if you have low scores, you probably won't get in."
How low is low?
"Students who score about a 650 on each of the sections of the SAT are capable of doing the work at any college in the country," says Mitchell. But those scores won't ensure them a spot in the freshman class. "Kids who are shooting for the top schools have to be discerning about where they make their commitments, says Dalton. "Forty hours spent working on a biology project or serving the community will probably increase a student's chances of getting in much more than a week's worth of SAT test-prep classes."