Test Prep

What A Perfect Score Can – And Can’t – Do for Your Future

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Many students take the SAT and ACT repeatedly in a quest to achieve the elusive perfect score. For those who hit the mark, it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort – and if you aren’t able to achieve a perfect 1600 or 36, it can be a bit disappointing. Therefore, it’s important to know as you continue on your test prep journey exactly what a perfect score can do for your future, and what it cannot help you accomplish.

Scores Are Just One of Many Factors


If you’re thinking that a perfect test score is your best bet to getting into the school of your dreams, keep in mind that high scores are great — but they aren’t everything.

“While strong scores certainly never hurt a student in admissions and scholarships, scores are just one element of the big picture in college admissions,” said Barbara Hettle, an independent educational consultant with Hettle College Consulting. “Grades, rigorous courses, extracurricular activities, awards and character all matter for selective admissions. Colleges are looking to build a community of learners and citizens and that’s about a lot more than test scores.”

In fact, many colleges maintain holistic admissions policies, which means they look at scores, but they look at other areas just as carefully, says Educational Consultant Whitney Laughlin, EdD.

“Even some of the largest university systems are using holistic parameters,” Laughlin said. “I tell my students that schools are looking for a broad base of citizens, they want to see you can contribute, that you have passion. That goes beyond test scores, and that’s a transition, because all parents and students hear about are test scores.”

Don’t Discount Near-Perfect Scores

If you achieve high scores and are lamenting the fact that they aren’t perfect, remember that coming close to perfect is incredibly impressive – not just to those in your inner circle, but also to admission officers.

“Students and parents often overestimate the significance of very small differences between nearly perfect and perfect scores,” says Hettle. “ACT scores of 35 and 36 are really the same for most purposes, so once the student has achieved strong scores, usually little benefit comes from retesting in quest of perfection.”

In fact, she says, admission officers understand that the difference between a perfect and near-perfect score can come down to as few as a couple of wrong answers. “Highly selective schools see many perfect and near-perfect scoring students, so scores alone won’t make a student stand out. An unusual extracurricular activity or a creatively written essay will often do more for admissions chances than getting one more point on an exam.”

Therefore, if your tests scores aren’t as high as you’d hoped, examine what you can emphasize about yourself that might mitigate your other strengths, Laughlin says. If your scores fall significantly shorter than you expected, consider applying to some test-optional schools so the scores are no longer a factor in your admissions odds.

How to Know Whether to Retest

If you’re unhappy with your less-than-perfect score and you’re thinking about taking the test again, consider your personal goals first, Hettle says. “If they are aiming for specific guaranteed scholarships from their state scholarship program or a target university, another point or two may offer a significant financial benefit,” she advises. “If they’ve already achieved a strong score, it may be time to let it go and focus on other things.”

It takes time to thoughtfully research colleges and to write strong essays, Hettle adds. “Perfect scores or not, in this competitive admissions climate every applicant needs a well-balanced college list including schools with more reasonable admissions odds.”

This doesn’t mean you should push testing aside, but it does suggest that there is much more to your college application than your test scores. “You DO want to do the best of your ability when testing, but this overarching emphasis on test scores could take you away from something you're passionate about that will make you stand out,” Laughlin said. “The key to this, like so much else in life, is everything in moderation.”