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

Important PSAT Facts

With so many exams to study for, there is one that tends to be underestimated. And that is the PSAT. It is actually more important than you might think. So listen up!

How the PSAT is Structured

The test is divided into three different components:

Critical Reading: 2 sections, 48 questions, 25 minutes each
Math: 2 sections, 28 questions, 25 minutes each
Writing Skills: 1 section, 39 questions, 30 minutes

Good News: NO ESSAY!

How the PSAT is Scored

The test scores range from 20-80 for each of the 3 components. Therefore the total scores range from 60-240.

The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). PSAT scores and grades are used to identify students who will receive the National Merit Scholarship. Scores of the National Merit qualifiers differ for each state, so will be up to you to research this.

When to Take the PSAT

The PSAT is given once a year in October. Although it is intended to be taken during your Junior year, it is highly encouraged that you get a head start and take it during your sophomore year as well.

What is the Difference between the PSAT & SAT?

The PSAT scores are presented on a different scale. Instead of each test being reported on a 200-800 scale, PSAT scores are on a 20-80 scale.

The SAT is much longer than the PSAT since it has an essay section. Without breaks, the SAT takes 3 hours and 45 minutes while the PSAT takes 2 hours and 10 minutes.

The questions on the PSAT are similar to the SAT except for the essay and also the PSAT has put less of an emphasis on Algebra II. The reason is because it is assumed that in for the age group of those taking the PSAT, many students may not have taken Algebra II just yet.

There you have it. Not only can you have an opportunity to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, but the PSAT is a wonderful way to begin preparation and build your confidence for the SAT. It is never too late to start!

How Do I Become a National Merit Semifinalist?

The National Merit Scholarship is an honor awarded to 2500 high school students every year to recognize their academic excellence. Bill Gates, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos all count themselves as members of this elite group. Most people know that the first step to becoming a National Merit Scholar is to take the PSAT, which is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), but after that, the process is unclear. You’re simply told to wait for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) to contact you. How exactly does one become a National Merit Scholar?

The NMSC releases some information about what a student must do to become a National Merit Scholar. Students have to take the PSAT during their junior year of high school (exceptions exist for those who are graduating early). About 1.5 million students take the PSAT every year. Of these, the NMSC selects the 50,000 with the highest scores to be selected either as a Commended Student or a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist. Drawing on these 50,000 students, 34,000 are selected as Commended Students, and are out of the running to become National Merit Scholars. The remaining 16,000 are deemed National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists, and are notified early in their senior year of high school. Of these Semifinalists, 15,000 go on to become Finalists and vie for National Merit Scholarships.

Although becoming a National Merit Scholar is a huge honor, generally speaking, even becoming a Semifinalist is enough to have a significant impact on a student’s educational opportunities. Lists of Semifinalists are released to the media and colleges, who make concerted efforts to contact these students and offer them special scholarships and programs. This is not only because NMS Semifinalists are bright students, but also because colleges stand to benefit in the rankings if more Semifinalists elect to attend. Because becoming a Semifinalist can mean so much to students, there is a heavy focus on what it takes to make the cut.

This step-the selection of Semifinalists-is where the NMSC becomes reticent to divulge information. Semifinalists are chosen on a per-state basis in order to maintain a fair geographic distribution of National Merit Scholars. According to the NMSC, the cutoffs are selected to allow the top 0.5% of each state’s students to become Semifinalists. This means that there are different Semifinalist score cut-offs per state. For example, in 2008, if you scored above a 216 in the state of Texas, you were a Semifinalist; in California, however, the cut-off was 218. They span a fairly large range: roughly from 205 to 220 each year. The cutoffs are generally not published by the NMSC. In fact, they consider the cut-offs proprietary information and have had their lawyers request that bloggers remove the information from their websites.

Because the information is not published by the NMSC, data on the internet can be of questionable reliability. To get an idea of what the Semifinalist cut-off is in your state, you can examine old data and make an educated guess. Generally, the cut-offs do not vary by more than two or three points in either direction. The best way to hedge against those fluctuations and maximize your chances of becoming a National Merit Semifinalist is to prepare for the PSAT thoroughly. Although most students will prepare for the SAT, they often neglect the PSAT, which is arguably more important (because you only get one shot at becoming a Semifinalist). A great time to get ready for the PSAT and the SAT-which cover nearly identical material-is the summer after your sophomore year.