What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

This is the foliage of destiny.

Last time, we discussed the number one, most important part of your application: grades. In this post, we will turn to the next most important, and easy to measure, part of your application: standardized test scores.

Should I take the SAT or the ACT? Do I need a perfect score? Do I have to be a National Merit Finalist? All these questions and more will be addressed in this post.

First of all, let’s discuss the two most common exams requested by almost all colleges: the SAT and the ACT. Elite, Ivy League-type colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT, and don’t have a preference between the two. It is thus common for aspiring students to take both exams and submit the scores from whichever one they did better on. Some students prefer one, others prefer the other. This blog has many resources dedicated to these tests, so I won’t dwell on comparing and contrasting them.

As to what score you need, consider the following: College Board currently states that at Harvard, the middle 50% of admitted students scored 690-790 on the Verbal section of the SAT, 700-800 on Math, and 690-790 on Writing; on the ACT, the middle 50% received a composite score of 31-35. So you don’t need a perfect score in order to get into Harvard (although that would help you to stand out). The ACT composite score is pretty self-explanatory, but for the SAT scores, remember that kids who scored 690 on Verbal probably got closer to 800 on Math, so a combined score of 2100 is probably a safe lower limit that you want to try to surpass, since that’s the score you would get if you got 700 on each section. For a really solid chance at getting in, I’d recommend aiming for a 2200-2250 combined score, and of course, the closer you get to that 2400, the better prepared you are.

K-Pop stars like these brainwash Korean kids with lyrics such as, “Come on baby, let’s study all night long” from the 2010 hit song, “All Nighter.”

The good thing about these standardized tests is that practice really does make perfect. I am firmly convinced that with enough practice, any college bound kid can make a perfect score on these exams. There are only so many things these exams test, and after doing practice, you begin to recognize the same old types of questions and vocab words coming up again and again. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can get your score as high as you want. A friend of mine at Columbia from Korea said that at her high school, they had an entire class just dedicated to the SAT, so they did SAT prep every school day for at least a year. If you did that you’d get a pretty amazing SAT score, too.

I also strongly recommend taking the exams multiple times. Most schools allow you to mix and match Verbal, Math, and Writing scores from different exams so that you can take your highest scores from each exam. In my case, I got an 800 on Verbal and a 790 on Writing one time I took the SAT, and a 760 on Math another time, but I still got to say I got a 2350 overall. The first time I took the SAT was in 7th grade, as part of Duke TIP’s 7th Grade Talent Search program (back before they added the writing section), and then, if I remember correctly, I took it two more times early in high school before taking it the two “real” times my Junior and Senior year. It is true that you can take it too many times your Junior and Senior year, but colleges don’t really care about exams you took before then.

I would thus recommend taking the standardized exam of your choice once your freshman or sophomore year of high school just to see what it’s like – four hours of test taking is taxing, and it’s nice to be able to familiarize yourself with the exam in a low stress situation where your score isn’t really going to count for college admissions. Then I would take it again at the end of your Junior year and at the beginning of your Senior year. There are, of course, many test prep services available where you can take classes or receive one-on-one help from SAT and ACT experts like me (if you would like to actually study for these exams with either me or one of my distinguished collegues at Test Masters, click here). If you feel that you could benefit from the structure and expert feedback provided by these programs, I would highly recommend you sign up for one during the summer between your Junior and Senior year (although starting earlier can help a lot, too).

For 1,300 years in Imperial China, entry into the elite civil service was determined by rigorous standardized exams that could last up to 72 hours.

As for the PSAT, preparing for the SAT will prepare you for the PSAT. The main differences between the two exams are that the PSAT is shorter and doesn’t have an essay section. The PSAT determines your national merit scholar status, which can be quite a feather in your cap, since the names of students who qualify as National Merit Semifinalists are released to colleges across the nation so they can start recruiting you and offering you scholarships. The PSAT score you need in order to qualify for national merit varies from state to state, since only the top 0.5% of scorers in each state qualify for consideration. Thus, if you live in a more populous state, or in a state with more money, or in a state with a better school system, it’s going to be harder to qualify because you’ll have more competition (if you want your state to have a better school system, register to vote when you turn 18 and start participating in state and local government!). You can find a list of score cutoffs here, and a more thorough explanation of the national merit process here.

Do you have to be a National Merit Finalist in order to get into the Ivy League? Well, in 2007 I was one of 56 National Merit Finalists at my high school (Bellaire Senior High School, in Houston, Texas – a public school, mind you!), and I think that included most of the people who got into elite colleges, so I would say try to make Semifinalist status at least. To prepare for the PSAT, you might consider doing some SAT prep the summer between Sophomore and Junior year, since the PSAT is normally taken your Junior year. Test Masters summer prep courses were like an annual rite of passage for most of my friends at Bellaire, so if it can work for them, it can work for you, too.

Next time on “What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?” we discuss AP, IB, and SAT II exams. In the mean time, keep studying!

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

This entry was posted in Advice, Advice for Freshmen, Advice for Juniors, Advice for Seniors, Advice for Sophomores, Standardized Tests and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

  1. Pingback: What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

  2. Lena says:

    Wait but Shinee doesn’t have a song called All nighter LOL?
    At least, I think that’s Shinee. The picture’s too blurry for me to tell for sure..

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Lena,

      This was meant as a joke. I have no idea what group this is – I just did a google image search for “k pop” and that’s what came up. I then attached the snarky comment for your viewing pleasure. I guess I shouldn’t quit my day job to do stand up comedy.


  3. A says:

    Hi, I was wondering when the SAT actually starts counting for college. I recently read from other college forum websites that starting from freshman year of high school, any and all SAT’s will be counted/checked. So is it true that a person may choose which SAT score(s) to be sent for college admission and the ones taken in, say, freshman and sophomore years are overlooked?

    P.S. Being an incoming freshman this year, I took advantage of junior high and took the SAT as an indicator of how much I should study. To my dismay, I received around 1800 (peers were getting around 2000’s) How long/often should one study, if he/she plans on getting around 2300-2400? Do you have any recommendations to which prep books are the most accurate and reliable? (I practice mostly from the Kaplan prep books, but I heard it was easier than the actual SAT..)


    • Calvin says:

      Dear A,

      SAT Score Choice allows you to choose which scores you send to colleges. In the past, when you sent your scores, colleges received every score from every SAT you ever took. Now, you get to choose which exams they will see, so you can take it as many times as you want and only send your best score or two and colleges will never know how many times you took it. Now, some schools (Yale, for instance) request that you not use Score Choice, but if you do there is no way for them to find out.

      As for how long you should study – it depends. Different students progress at different rates, especially when studying on their own. You might consider taking a course with Test Masters. We have experienced instructors (like me) who know what it takes to get into the Ivy League and who know what it takes to get a perfect score. In addition to our unique course notes and strategies, we always recommend the SAT Official Guide, since it is the only one put out by College Board, the company that produces the SAT. Hope this helps!


  4. A says:

    Thank you! This was very helpful!

  5. Isaac says:

    I did fairly well on the actual SAT (2280), but did much worse on the PSAT, scoring a 214. In my state, this results in me being only commended rather than a finalist. Apart from the lack of available scholarships, will this have a negative affect on my chances of acceptance at top schools, or will my SAT score trump the bad PSAT?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Isaac,

      While National Merit Finalist is a nice feather to put in your college admissions cap, your SAT score is more important. Commended is nothing to sneeze at either. Don’t worry! 2280 is a great score and is way more important than 214.


  6. jack says:

    from 0% to 100%, how many chances do I have to get in harvard with 1500 sat (620 math) points but a great cv, with full of activities, sports, voluntary work, great knowledge in the major I am applying, etc etc ?


    • Bill says:


      You may have as many as two or three chances to get into Harvard, if you apply multiple times throughout your undergraduate career. In terms of your percentage chance of admission applying as a first year college freshman – Harvard is extremely competitive. To be perfectly honest a composite score of 1500, which includes SAT Math, Reading, and Writing, is right around the national average, and Harvard does not regularly admit students with average scores. Even with an otherwise impeccable application, that low a score will be difficult to overcome. If you are determined to attend Harvard, or an equally competitive school, then you should consider either retaking the SAT (also, don’t forget that you will also have to take SAT Subject Tests) or prepare to apply as a transfer student.

      Hope this helps!

  7. Ashwin says:

    Hi Calvin,

    I got a 194 on my psat which is extremely low but got a 2300 on my SAT and 35 on the ACT. Will I be at a disadvantage for not getting event the semifinalist position for the national merit?

    • Bill says:


      The short answer is NO! In your case, I would not even include your PSAT score on your resume/application unless the university specifically asks for it.

      Hope this helps!

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