Oct 1, 2009

Do ACT Scores Play Better at Some Schools?

Every now and again, I hear a peculiar rumor from college counselors and others keeping close watch on college admissions trends. It goes something like this: the bar for college admissions is slightly lower for students submitting ACT scores at some schools than it is for those submitting SAT’s. In other words, when comparing a school’s average SAT scores with their average ACT’s, using a concordance table to translate, the ACT generally represents a slightly lower number. For example, Fiske lists mid-range SAT’s for the University of Mary Washington as 1090-1290 (M + CR). Mary Washington’s mid-range for ACT’s is 23-27, which translates to 1070-1220, using the ACT/SAT approved concordance table.

East coast students have traditionally taken the SAT’s. Midwestern and some western states promote the ACT. In fact, several states use the ACT for their statewide high school assessment program—the equivalent to Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) or Maryland School Assessment (MSA). It’s only been in recent years, with a little push from skilled counselors, that local students have begun to take the ACT in addition to the SAT. Because virtually all colleges and universities find the tests interchangeable and will accept either set of scores, it makes sense to probe the possibility that a student might do substantially better on one test than the other.

Now we come to find that what was a general “feeling” among counselors may in fact be true. A post by Jenifer Fox, contributor to The Huffington Post, documents a case in which a talented dancer whose SAT scores were somewhat below average for a particular liberal arts school was denied admission despite a strong GPA and wonderful recommendations. Determined and talented, she seemed a perfect fit for the school minus the lowly standardized tests. Incredulous at such a poor admissions decision, her counselor asked the college why she wasn’t admitted. The admissions rep coolly responded that had the student submitted her ACT scores instead of SAT’s, she would have been admitted. Evidently, this was because US News and World Report only collects SAT scores for this particular college leaving ACT’s unreported and a nonfactor in the computation of the school’s national ranking. Although the two sets of scores were virtually equivalent, the school was unwilling to have the girl bring them down in the all-important college rankings with her lower-than-school-average SAT scores. Without the USNWR reporting requirement, they would have taken a chance on her potential success.

Thus it appears that colleges could have some motivation for making exceptions for students whose scores don’t factor into their national prestige. And as a result, some of the standardized test score discrepancies—the lower mid-range averages for ACT’s—might just be founded in reality. Food for thought.


  1. There's something odd about Ms. Fox's story. Clearly, US News reports ACT scores in their rankings. Just look at Centre College, St. Olaf, Rhodes, Lawrence, and Beloit. I think what Ms. Fox means to say is that US News only computes rankings based on the plurality of test scores received by that school--for east and west coast schools, that's the SAT. From an applicant's point of view, it makes sense to take both the ACT and the SAT, and then only submit the best score, even if it is the ACT to an east coast school or the SAT to a midwestern school.

  2. You're absolutely correct. I should have been clearer. Colleges may report either SAT or ACT 25th-75th percentile scores to US News and World Report. The vast majority report SAT's (97 out of 128 first group national universities and 97 out of 122 first group liberal arts colleges). In addition to those schools you mention, the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, etc. report ACT's. In this case, the liberal arts college must have been reporting SAT's. Remember, the scores were equivalent. Hence the decision with regard to the dancer was driven by a desire not to report a score that was not favorable to the ranking computation. This effectively established two admissions standards based on which score was reported to USNWR.

    Absent the Score Choice complication, it seems reasonable to report best scores. It's just too bad that something as silly as the USNWR rankings could affect how a college would view a particular application. It also might explain differences in mid-range scores reported at some schools.

    Thanks for the clarification.