Perfect score on SAT not college guarantee

Admissions officials at elite institutions look for balance

March 12, 2001|By Jamie Manfuso | Jamie Manfuso,SUN STAFF

Sarah Guynn joined an elite club this past fall when she scored 1,600 -- the highest possible score -- on the SAT. Only 541 of 2.3 million test-takers in 2000 matched her achievement.

But Guynn, a senior at Francis Scott Key High School near Union Bridge, isn't counting on Ivy League schools to roll out the red carpet for her. She may get into Stanford, her top choice, but she knows it isn't certain.

With the recent suggestion that California colleges drop the SAT as a requirement for admission, just how special is a perfect score? According to experts, scoring a 1,600 is a bonus but not a key to entrance at the nation's elite colleges.

"Having a 1,600 on the SAT is not an automatic admission ticket," said Bette Johnson, an associate director of admissions at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Even with a 1,600 and a 3.85 grade point average, Columbia native Mike Kayser wasn't accepted to MIT or Princeton University, where he applied. Kayser was on the debate team and other clubs and ran junior varsity track. But he said he thinks not being a varsity athlete may have been the reason for the denials.

"The whole college admissions thing is just a crapshoot, as I see it," Kayser said.

Kayser ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, where he is a junior majoring in computer science and mathematics.

Admissions officers at the nation's top schools say they aren't fazed by a perfect score. MIT accepted barely more than half of the 196 students with perfect scores who applied there last year. Harvard accepted half of the almost 400 students with perfect scores who applied last year. And the Johns Hopkins University accepted 50 of the 71 perfect scorers who applied last year.

Those numbers are higher than the schools' overall admissions rates -- Harvard, for instance, accepted 11 percent of all applicants last year -- but not as high as one might think for students who achieve the Holy Grail of standardized testing.

"We've had some practice with perfect scores," said Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard. "We are not seduced by that."

Other strengths

A 1,600 could be a liability for a student who has not achieved in other areas, McGrath-Lewis said.

Admissions officers may get more enthusiastic about high school applicants who have good grades in challenging courses, who participate in extracurricular activities but who also might have lower SAT scores.

Harvard has accepted students whose score on one of the test's two components -- math and verbal -- dips well into the 600s or even into the 500s, she said. A score of 500 on one component represents the median score -- 50 percent of all test takers score 500 or higher.

What she said impresses Harvard admissions are students who cultivate a talent beyond the classroom, in areas like music, creative writing or athletics.

"We don't try to guess whether someone has motivation or not," she said. "We like to see the evidence for that."

Johnson said MIT looks beyond high test scores and GPAs, which most applicants have, for students who have competed on a statewide or national level.

"When they get here, they're going to be with other people who are also strong," Johnson said. "You want to make sure they have the ability to compete when they're not the best in the class."

Sam McNair, director of admissions at Johns Hopkins, said parents who visit the school's information sessions are floored when he tells them that a 1,600 SAT score doesn't guarantee admission.

"They have certain preconceptions about what it is admissions people are after," McNair said. McNair said he once received an application from a student who had taken the test 11 times.

Opposition to test

Many top schools continue to use the SAT despite a nascent movement to end its use or make it optional.

The movement got a boost last month when the president of the University of California system proposed ending the use of SAT scores as a requirement for admission.

California's public universities would still require students' scores on the SAT subject tests. Other schools have made the test optional.

For a test that has faced so much scrutiny in recent years, the SAT had honorable origins. The questions used in the SAT evolved from the tests given to enlisted men during the World War I mobilization effort, said Bob Mislevy, a researcher with the Educational Testing Service in New Jersey, which administers the test for the College Board.

A soldier's ability to complete sentences and compare analogies might determine if he would be digging trenches or decoding enemy transmissions.

Now the SAT serves the same function for millions of college-bound high school students each year. Through continual refinement of questions, Mislevy said, researchers learned to make tests that provided useful -- albeit imperfect -- data about a person.

Scoring perfectly on it gives students a kind of celebrity status.

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