Between Superscoring and Score Choice, What Scores Do Colleges See?

A question I hear all the time from parents and students is what SAT scores should I send with my college application?  The concern behind the question is that a student may have SAT or ACT scores that either the student or the parents, or both, do not want to send to colleges with a college application.  The idea is that the family will pick and choose which scores to send to colleges during the application process.  It turns out that this plan is flawed and the worry that the students and parents have about colleges seeing your test scores is misplaced.

When a student fills out college applications, whether by paper, through the Common App website, or through individual colleges’ websites, the student will enter an SAT or ACT score. Students generally enter their best score, which is a reasonable thing to do when trying to impress a college or university.  Almost all colleges and universities require students to send an official score report from the College Board or ACT to verify this information.  Most of the time, students select the four colleges to receive reports at no additional cost to the student at the time when students sign up for that test date.  They must then pay for extra reports to any additional colleges to which they are applying during their application process.

The concern that parents and students have is that if a student has made use of the option provided by the College Board or ACT to send official score reports for free to those four colleges or universities, these schools will potentially see lower scores produced by students at previous testings.  This would also be true of any additional colleges that a student pays to send a report.  Most score reports issued by the College Board or ACT include a list of previous scores on the last page of the report.

The solution many parents and students devise is that students go out of their way to not make use of the aforementioned option.  Students make the choice not to fill out the codes for colleges, and therefore do not send the free score reports to schools.  The down side to this strategy is that a student has to make this choice before taking the SAT.  Once a student determines which scores make the student look the best, the family must then pay extra to send those scores to the various colleges to which the student is applying.

To reduce the extra expense that foregoing the free score reports generates, the College Board has provided another option to families: Score Choice.  Score Choice allows you to select which of your scores go to your four free schools even after the deadline for avoiding the late fee has past. You can select up to four colleges to receive the specific scores from one or more particular test dates during your application process, and a score report containing only those results will be sent to those colleges.

Of course, if you have already selected four schools to send scores when you signed up for an SAT date, then you may not be able to utilize the Score Choice option.  A bigger problem with Score Choice is that many colleges and universities require students to submit all standardized test results.  The College Board even acknowledges this both on the Score Choice webpage and in the Score Choice video imbedded therein.

Colleges ask for scores from multiple testings due to a concept known as superscoring.  Superscoring means that a college will take the higher Math score from one testing and the higher Evidence Based Reading & Writing (English) score from another testing and create an artificial combination score that is actually better than a student’s real best score.  Colleges do this not only to allow students to present the best version of themselves, but also to maximize the score ranges of the students they accept for admission.  In other words, superscoring makes the 25th percentile through 75th percentile numbers that colleges report look better.

An example of superscoring would be if a student, who we will name Grace for this example, took the March 2018 SAT and scored a 580 on Math and a 630 on English, resulting in a total score of 1210.  Then, after building her math skills in a test prep program, she takes the upcoming October 2018 SAT and scores 650 on Math.  Having not studied for the English side of the test, though, Grace scores a 600 on English, resulting in a total score of 1250.  This is an improvement overall.  When colleges receive all of Grace’s scores, though, they will take the higher English score from the March test date (630) and the higher Math score from the October test date (650), and create an artificial total score of 1280, higher than any actual score Grace earned.

Superscoring is practiced by virtually all colleges and university admissions offices in the United States, which is why so many schools require that students submit all of their scores.  Another artifact of suprescoring is that while college admissions officers may receive old or lower scores, they do not consider them.  They will, in fact, ignore lower or older scores, preferring to only consider the single highest Math and English scores.

So the question that prompted this discussion, “What scores should my student send to colleges?” actually leads to an unexpected answer.  Send all of your scores.  There is no penalty in the admissions process for having a low or unhelpful score in your score report.  Colleges will never hold such a score against an applicant.  Furthermore, it is my opinion that Score Choice doesn’t make a difference.  Whether you choose to send scores to four colleges right away or at a later date, most families end up paying for additional score reports, since the average high school student in 2018 applied to 9 or 10 colleges, more than the four free reports offered by the College Board.

Rather than stress about this part of the process, I advise families to focus on the non-numerical, or qualitative, part of the admissions process.  Let your transcripts and score reports give colleges the numbers, and spend more time enhancing the narrative parts of your application: your letters of recommendation, your application essay, your supplemental writing samples, your resume, and the story you are telling with those documents.