What Kind of Applications Do SAT and ACT Colleges See?

Do you plan to attend college in the near future? Are you curious about what colleges are looking for in applicants particularly in relation to SAT Classes or ACT scores? Are you unsure of how you stand against other students at the school you want to attend?

If you’re feeling as if you’re asking lots of questions and not enough answers on the criteria colleges use to determine admissions, then you’re not you’re not alone. The process of applying to college can be a bit confusing and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused. This article will inform you what colleges are looking for in applicants and how to ensure that your application is the most effective it can be. We’ll cover:

  • What are the colleges looking for in applicants?
  • The reason SAT and ACT Tests test scores are vital
  • Understanding college admissions requirements will aid your college admissions process

Let’s get started!

What Do Colleges Look For in Applicants?

If colleges are looking at applications, they’re hoping to identify students who can succeed throughout their college years as well as afterward. Most universities are seeking students who can succeed in their classes and also contribute to the campus community by contributing to the campus community in unique ways.

How do colleges find the outstanding students? Colleges will use your test scores (SAT Exam UAE/ACT scores GPA/transcript class rank, GPA/transcript, and other scores from tests) in addition to your personal essays, applications and letters of recommendation to determine your ability to go to their school. They want to be sure that you’ll be an excellent student. However, they want to make sure you’ll be a part of their community now and later as an alumni.

How Do Colleges Judge Applicants?

After we’ve got an understanding of what colleges are looking for in their applicants, we’ll address each aspect of your application and talk abouthow colleges evaluate the applicant based on this specific section.

SAT/ACT Scores

The primary benefit of the SAT/Exam ACT is that they offer colleges an established method of evaluating the quality of their students. Every applicant will have a diverse background, for example that includes having attended different schools and/or attended various classes. But, almost every applicant has taken an SAT as well as the ACT.

Colleges use your score on the SAT/ACT to determine if you’re in the right place to be admitted to their institution. In order to prove that you’re academically competent it is necessary to score scores that are within the average score for SAT/ACT students to the institution … and even more. For the greatest chance of getting into school it is recommended to aim for scores that are at or above 75th percentile on SAT/ACT scores for students who are admitted. (We’ll explain how to determine this score later.)

It’s important to remember that a few schools don’t require students to take tests like the SAT or ACT as a mandatory condition to be admitted. The schools are, for example, offer an “test-optional” admission choice for applicants. Additionally, due to tests that were canceled or changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic Some schools have decided to make test-optional between 2021-2022…and some might continue with this practice in the near future (like for instance, the University of California schools).


Colleges are examining your transcript and GPA for two main reasons:

  1. To find out which classes you would like to enroll in.
  2. to see how well you did in your class.

Colleges would like to know what courses you attended in high school, and how you did in them to determine if you’re well-prepared to attend their institution. Based on your transcript or GPA admissions counselors are able to assess whether you’re prepared to take classes offered by the school.

To assess your academic readiness, we suggest that you look over the admissions profiles for the school you want to attend. Find out which the mean GPA for students who are accepted to the college you’re interested in. You can find it by doing a Google search on “[College Name] + GPA + PrepScholar.” It will lead us to the admissions page for the college.

Once you’ve determined the range of GPAs that the average is for accepted students, try to get your GPA in the same range for the best chance of being accepted.

Students who are interested in competing universities ( Ivies, Stanford, Vanderbilt, etc. ) When admissions officers examine your GPA or transcript, they’re hoping to find that you chose to study the most challenging subjectsat at your school and performed well in them.

If you’re hoping to get accepted into an elite school and your school is offering the IB/AP course it is recommended that you begin adding these courses to your schedule. The top college admissions officers usually declare that they’d prefer to see that you scored A or B grades in the course of an AP or IB course rather than having an A or B in a normal IB/AP class that’s not AP/IB (when the courses offered are IB/AP being offered). If there’s none of the IB or AP courses offered at your institution, clearly admissions officers won’t consider that you’ve taken any.

With that said, what do you need to do to ensure that your GPA or transcript is robust? The first step is to be consistent and maintain your GPA. Next, enroll in the most difficult classes offered at your school and perform excellently in the classes you are in. (And of course that’s plenty of work!)

Class Rank

Class rank can be linked with your academic transcript as well as GPA. The higher your GPA is (and most likely, the more AP or IB classes you enroll in and receive In) and the more impressive you will rank in your classes. Your class rank is a crucial admissions consideration when you plan to apply to extremely competitive schools.

Colleges that are top of the line (Harvard, MIT, UPenn) will only accept students who rank within the top 10 percent in their class at high school. One of the students we spoke to was a student who participated in a high-school Summer program with one of the Ivies. The program he participated in was recognized to accept nearly all of the participants to the college. However, he was not accepted. He asked why. The school told him that it was important for them that he was not among the top 10 percent in his field.

The class rank of the student is also important in determining admission to state universities, too. In some states, for instance Texas students who finish with the highest 5-10 percent from their school are given entry to state-run schools. So, if you’re successful during high school you’ll get the chance to attend a public school in the state once you’re done with high school.

If you’re planning to attend an elite school, or are planning to avail in-state schools admissions policies, the class rank is important. Take the toughest classes and work to get your grades to remain at the top of your class. Whatever your rank in the class, be sure you’re able to maintain your GPA. You’ll need to ensure that it’s above average if you wish to attend the school of your dreams!


What do colleges look at when applying for admissions? pertains to extracurricular activities?

As we’ve mentioned before, colleges are seeking high-quality applicants who can enrich their campuses. Extracurricular activities are a way that colleges are able to know more about you and determine if you’re a great student. Every college wants to know that you were involved with extracurricular activities. They particularly appreciate seeing that you had a leadership position in them.

The top schools (Harvard, Stanford, Yale) are looking to determine if you have expertise in a particular subject which you can develop through additional curricular interests. It doesn’t matter which area of expertise is, but no matter what you decide to pursue, do it thoroughly. If you’re interested in science, attempt to be the winner of the State Science Fair and participate in the science Olympic games or intern at your local laboratory. If you are a fan of acting you can compete in your group of debaters in categories for actors (Dramatic Interpretation Humorous Interpretation and Duo Interpretation) or stage a show for free at the local children’s hospital or do a regional theater.

If you are hoping to attend a top tier school like Harvard–and want to impress them with your extracurriculars–our article How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League, by a Harvard Alum discusses this in more depth.

However, having a strong list of extracurricular activities listed on your college application is essential for all students, regardless of which college you choose to apply to. For more information on the kinds of extracurricular activities that could be beneficial for you, read this article.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation provide admissions officers a crucial glimpse into the way others view you as a college student or community member and individual. Since they’re anonymous they’re frequently viewed as honest and genuine insights into your character and whether you’re able to be successful in college.

Note: Some colleges don’t require letters of recommendation, nor personal essays. So be sure you check the admissions site for your preferred colleges.

You’ll want fantastic letters of recommendations which talk about your character as a person, what your interests are and how good you are at what you love to do. Look over these great examples of letters of recommendation as well as the explanation of why they are exceptional.

Personal Essays

A letter of recommendation or personal essay (if required) must be a reflection of the person you are and what you hope to gain from your education, and beyond. These essays offer admissions officers greater insight into the person you are as a person and how you’ll be a part of their campus.

They are a crucial element for your college applications, so make certain to get them started long before the due date. Don’t fret you’ll find plenty of college admissions essay examples to help you! Take a look at these personal essays for college and strategies to write an unforgettable essay. And of course make sure to check out this blog post that covers all you should be aware of when starting the writing process for an essay for yourself.

Other Test Scores

Other tests include AP/IB score, SAT Subject Tests ( These are only valid until June 2021 after which they’re getting canceled) and any other tests that aren’t SAT/ACT you’ve completed that you’re planning to add to your application. Like the ACT and SAT the colleges will look at these tests to determine the level of your preparation for admissions to their. Furthermore, many schools offer college credits or placements when you score well on the AP or IB tests.

Colleges will use these other tests to confirm whether you’re prepared for their college. If you have an outstanding SAT score, but failed every AP test you attempted and an admissions representative could ask if you’re well-prepared for their course. In essence, don’t let other scores from tests be an indicator. Consider your other scores seriously, but remember that they won’t harm your chances, unless the scores are low (failing to pass AP or IB tests).

However, do not stress over one less than stellar AP exam–your AP tests are only going to be detrimental if they’re the entirebad. Make sure you get the best scores you can achieve on those AP and IB exams, so that you can give colleges a reason to consider you!

Why Is Your SAT/ACT Score so Important?

There are two reasons why your SAT/ACT scores are vital for colleges. Let’s look at each in turn.

Reason #1 Your SAT/ACT Score is the way colleges evaluate you against other applicants across the world. Around the World

Although applicants to one institution have different backgrounds, they will have attended various high schools, had different classes and may have engaged in different additional curricular events, all of the applicants have been tested by the SAT or ACT (at minimum at schools that are not test-optional colleges).

Your SAT/ACT scores will show the extent to which your transcript and GPA accurately reflect your ability to attend college. Colleges use your score on the SAT/ACT to determine the extent to which your grades in high school were exaggerated or true. If, for instance, you have a 4.0 GPA, and you have an excellent SAT or ACT score, college admissions officers will be impressed and believe that your GPA reflects your academic abilities (since the scores you scored were high). But, if you’ve got a 4.0 GPA with a 1000 SAT score or a 20 ACT score, some colleges might consider your grades to be exaggerated.

Furthermore, a high SAT/ACT score may also be a reason for the less than average GPA. If you have a 3.0 GPA and a perfect SAT/ACT score, colleges may prefer to overlook your low GPA and take your SAT/ACT score as an indication of your readiness for college.

As we’ve mentioned, some schools do not need applicants to pass any exam. However, even test-optional schools might make use of SAT as well as ACT scores to judge candidates. For instance when you have a 4.0 GPA, but have not a single test score, yet an applicant with a 4.0 GPA and high scores on tests, this student is more convincing of their academic ability than you (and could be chosen over you). The best way to ensure your eligibility is taking tests like the SAT or ACT even if the school you are considering is not test-free.

Reason #2: Colleges Are Judged by Their SAT/ACT Score Ranges

Yes, the SAT/ACT test is crucial to schools since they rely on it to determine your college readiness. But, it’s also important to colleges because, once you’ve been accepted the school, your SAT/ACT scores will be included in the yearly SAT/ACT scores.

Every year, colleges post their freshman admissions profiles (see this example by Princeton). In the profile, colleges share the information about their students who have been accepted. The information includes either the 25th or 75th percentile of SAT/ACT scores (sometimes called the middle 50 percent) as well as the SAT/ACT average scores for admitted students. The score of the 25th percentile means the 25% students admitted scored below or above this score (and consequently 75% of students admitted were above). The score of 75th percentile means 75 percent of the admitted students scored below this score (and that’s why 25% of students admitted scored higher). The score average is what it says it is a sum of all admitted students’ scores.

It is the general population that is looking at this data in order to judge the level of selection at the school (the greater the range higher the range, it is more competitive, and “better” the general public believes that the college experience is). If you think of top-of-the-line schools like Dartmouth, Brown and Columbia and Columbia, you probably consider, “Wow those are good schools!”

Why do you think that these are great schools? It is possible to think of their campuses or alumni. However, many lesser-ranked schools, like Denison, have beautiful campuses and famous alumni such as the billionaire Michael Eisner. You may be thinking of their low acceptance rates however, there are many colleges that offer similar admissions rates to Ivies and their rates do not necessarily reflect the academic quality of students they accept.

The primary reasons why you associate top-tier schools with a reputation is their public scores for SAT/ACT and their position in comparison to the other schools. When doing research about schools to apply to where you can apply, you’ve probably come upon an US News & World Report list of US colleges. Every year US News & World Report publishes its rankings based upon a variety of areas such as the SAT/ACT score of students who are accepted.

If you’re accepted to the college the SAT/ACT score will be incorporated into the school’s overall rating according to US News & World Report. The top colleges like Princeton, Yale, and Stanford require you to see your SAT results to be high so that they reflect positively on them. And even “second tier schools” such as Vanderbilt, USC, and Emory are concerned about this since they want to keep climbing on their US News & World Report rankings.

What Does This Mean for You?

Admissions officials judge you with a lot of reliance on your SAT/ACT score, then you need to score that meets the requirements of their institution. As I mentioned earlier, colleges are looking to accept students within the upper or middle of their SAT/ACT range (or in or more than that of the median).

We at PrepScholar, we recommend that you work to get your score to be at or over the 75th percentile of scores of SAT/ACT students who are admitted to ensure you have the best chance to be admitted. Let’s set that as your SAT/ACT score target.

Setting a Score Goal

For the greatest chance of being accepted to the school of your dreams, you need to establish a score goal that is equal to or greater than the 75th percentile of SAT/ACT scores for the particular school.

What is the best way to determine the 75th percentile score on SAT/ACT for the particular school? Here at PrepScholar we’ve developed an amazing resource that will reveal the score of each college’s 25th/75th percentile and also calculate your chances of getting into a school according to your SAT/ACT scores and GPA.

As we have mentioned previously, aim for a score of at least the 75th percentile which, for Emory this is a score of 34 or higher on the ACT or a score of 1520 or more for the SAT. Why do you want to aim this high? You would like to ensure that you have the greatest chance of acceptance. You want to be among the top 10% of applicants. You want the admissions representative to read your application and think, “duh, they should get in.” It’s likely that they’ll make a more compelling argument however, you’ll get my idea.

You may be thinking ” 25% of admits score below the 25th percentile, can’t I just score slightly below the 25th percentile and get in? “ In the sense of theory, yes you could. However, in reality, it’s not likely.

Colleges are able to accept students with lower SAT/ACT scores due to the fact that the college requires that student for an underlying reason. For example, colleges will sometimes take in sportsmen, legacies or students with an extraordinary talent (the top debater from the US or an internationally acclaimed violinist) with lower scores on the SAT/ACT. In addition, some colleges will accept students with lower scores that happen to be parents of major alumni donors or children of famous or wealthy people.

If you do not belong to one of the above categories, you should try to score higher than 75th percentile. While these students might not constitute 25% of all accepted students, it’s better to be prudent instead of regretting. You should score higher than the 75th percentile in order to stand a better chance!

Planning Your Prep

Once you’ve established your SAT/ACT score goals it’s time to develop an approach to achieving the goal. Check out our guide for organizing your studies according to the level of improvement you’re aiming for and the time that you’ll need to spend studying.

Looking for a launch place for your exam preparation? Check out our comprehensive guides on SAT as well as preparation for the ACT. Are you taking the test in the near future (within one month)? Check out our guide to cramming for both the SAT as well as to the ACT.

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