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.

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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.

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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

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  1. 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..

    1. 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.


  2. 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..)


    1. 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!


  3. Hi,
    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?

    1. 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.


  4. 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 ?


    1. Jack,

      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!

  5. 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?

    1. Ashwin,

      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!

  6. Slightly off topic. Calvin, do you know where I can get data on PSAT/SAT test scores prior to 1995. These were very different tests then.

    1. Damien,

      The actual exam booklets for PSATs that old are not readily available. However, if you are just simply looking for more information about the PSAT/SAT and the history of standardized testing in the United States, you can read an interesting article on the topic here.

      Hope this helps!

  7. I took the SAT for the second time and received good scores (above 700) in critical reading and writing. However, I got a 650 in math. I plan on being an English major in college (which I’m going to express on my application). Will my math score disqualify me from top schools? My SAT composite is still in the 2100+ range (barely, but there).


    1. Anon,

      You’re right on the edge. If you can, I think it would probably be best if you could try to raise your score some. Your current score is nothing that would get your application dismissed immediately, however you have to keep in mind that other applicants your stacking up against (even those hoping to major in English) may very well have broken 700 on all three sections. At this point though, a little practice and studying will go a long way, and, who knows, you may even improve your reading or writing score, too.

      Hopefully this helps.

  8. Dear sir, I want to start of 7 by saying thank you for taking the time to put all this wonderful information online. I am a freshman right now and have been dreaming of going to Yale or Harvard since I was little. I am living in a small town with a population of 500 called arnett in oklahoma and there is no AP or extracurricular classes for me. I love art and cello but there is no way of taking classes for them and the closest big town is almost 3 hours away. My mom is talking about relocating (Ma, ct, me) so she can give me the chance to excell in a school that had more to offer. She is getting to get me in a prep school. My question is do you have any advice for us because I want to go to an ivy and I have worked hard to have the top grades since I started school. My mom is willing to do whatever it takes to get me there as long asi do my part and work hard for it and that is exactly what I’m doing and will keep doing.
    Thank you for taking the time for me.

    1. Pashynce,

      You do not necessarily need to relocate to achieve your academic goals. You should consider taking online courses with accredited colleges and/or high schools. Distance/online learning is an increasingly valid and available teaching medium. Additionally, the effort and willingness to learn you will demonstrate by searching out these and other educational resources to better yourself may make for an excellent college essay topic.

      Hope this helps!

  9. I received a 2150 SAT with an 800 in math but then took the ACT and got a 35C with all 35’s except science which was a 36. For the Ivy’s should I not submit my SAT even though I had an 800 in math because it was so low? Or it is good to show my 800? My writing was only a 660. Thanks

    1. Anony,

      Those are both excellent scores. Submit both SAT and ACT score reports to the universities you apply to.

      Hope this helps!

  10. Hi,

    I took the ACT in June because I wasn’t happy with my SAT score. I received a 33 composite (35 English, 35 Reading, 28 Math, 33 Science, 10 Essay) and was pleasantly surprised, as I didn’t prep at all for the exam. I’m happy with my score, however, I’m worried that my math section score will instantly disqualify me from top schools (my dream school is an Ivy).

    I’m afraid to retake because I don’t want my English subscores to go down (it’s one of my intended majors, and math is not).

    Thanks for any advice! 🙂

    1. A,

      That is an excellent score! A composite score of 33 is consistent with the score range of students admitted to Ivy League universities. If you are still considering taking the ACT again, you should go ahead and do it. Most universities, including schools as prestigious as Harvard, will only look at your best scores and will not penalize you if you only take whichever exam no more than two times.

      From Harvard’s FAQ page: “We consider your best test scores, but it is generally our experience that taking tests more than twice offers diminishing returns.”

      Hope this helps!

  11. Hello Bill,
    I’ve taken the SAT twice now, receiving a 2370 most recently. I am fully aware that getting a 2400 at this point has no impact on my college admissions- it is rather for myself personally that I really want a 2400. So my question is that if I were to obtain the 2400, would colleges see the test taking as excessive and/or obsessive and rather HURT my admissions?
    Thank you so much!

    1. Samantha,

      With a score of 2370, I would strongly recommend against taking the SAT again. Ivy League schools will consider all previous scores when making an admissions decision, and generally frown on taking standardized tests any more than twice. As Harvard politely puts it on this FAQ page, “We consider your best test scores, but it is generally our experience that taking tests more than twice offers diminishing returns.”

      My advice would be to concentrate now on other things – essays, recommendations, financial aid, and other standardized tests, like the SAT Subject Tests or ACT – are all equally important aspects of your application.

      Hope this helps!

  12. I have an 1830 SAT score and I wish to apply to harvard as a transfer applicant . I have a CGPA of 3.11 and community service skills. How much chances do I have? I have already given SAT twice last year so the option of retake doesn’t apply to me since harvard doesn’t accept too many retakes

    1. Maheen,

      Your scores and GPA are not consistent with students usually admitted to Ivy League universities. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from consideration; however, the other aspects of your application would have to be exceptional in order for you to be seriously considered. If your plan is to matriculate as a transfer student, the most important thing you can do is maintain a very high college GPA.

      Hope this helps!

  13. Greetings Bill,
    I recently scored a perfect score on the SAT. Funny enough, I have heard a couple things about how the score can actually be a detriment to you because colleges “love to reject 2400s to boost their selectivity” and such. Are such claims cause for concern, i.e. do they have any basis in legitimacy?
    I am aware that this is a slightly ridiculous question but would really appreciate your answer nevertheless. Thank you so much.

    1. Matt,

      I’ve spoken with reps from Harvard and other extremely selective schools that, as you’ve suggested, have boasted about rejecting more perfect score applicants than they accept, and that may be the case -they certainly won’t release admission statistics regarding rejected applicants- however, the fact of the matter is that a perfect score on the SAT places you in the top 1% of SAT test takers world wide. It is an incredibly significant accomplishment and will only help, not hurt, your application. That said, a perfect SAT score by itself, while impressive enough on its own to earn you admission to virtually every other college in they country, will not guarantee you admission to an Ivy League school. Every other aspect of your application needs to be ‘on point’ as well. This means elite level SAT Subject Test scores (700+), on at least three SAT Subject Tests (yes, these schools only require two Subject Tests; we recommend you take three), a correspondingly high GPA, teacher/professional recommendations, and well written personal statement/essay.

      Hope this helps!

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