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Understanding the Mid-50%

Posted by on Thursday, December 9, 2010 in Standardized Testing.

As a counselor at a highly selective college I frequently field questions about standardized testing.  I noticed in recent months, though, that many students I work with don’t apply testing statistics to their college search process appropriately.

Numbers aren’t helpful if you don’t understand their reference.  Here I break down testing statistics: questions to ask to be sure you understand the numbers and how to use the numbers once you understand them.

What’s your average SAT/ACT?

The answer to the above question is not helpful to prospective students.  Why?  First off, averages are susceptible to outliers.  Take the example below:

I have 5 students and their ACT scores are as follows: 30, 30, 30, 30, and 36.  Then the ACT average is 31.2.  If I go around reporting 31.2 as the ACT average a student with a 30 ACT has very little concept of how their testing fits into the picture.  They can’t see that the single 36 is pulling the average upwards.

Furthermore, there is a human tendency to process averages as a benchmark or cutoff.  I watch it happen all the time.  If I told a room of prospective students the average ACT was 31.2 the student with the score of 30 may think they are not a competitive candidate for admission.

Because of the reasons above and others, most colleges report testing as a range. Some of my students find this frustrating, as if a testing range conceals a benchmark, but I promise you they are far more illustrative.

What’s your testing range?

If I just tell you Vanderbilt’s testing range for ACT is 30 to 34 (or 1360 to 1530 for SAT), then you need to ask follow-up questions.

First, question to ask: does that range represent applied, admitted, or enrolled students?  Testing ranges for admitted students will almost always be higher than testing ranges for enrolled students simply because the highest testers have a greater number of post-secondary options.

FYI:  The ranges above are for our enrolled Class of 2014; the ranges for the admitted class were 31-34 and 1440-1540.

Another question to ask is: do you superscore tests?  At Vanderbilt we superscore the SAT and we do not superscore the ACT.  Therefore, the testing ranges we report reflect the highest Critical Reading + Math (regardless of test date) for the SAT and the highest ACT Composite in a single sitting.

What does the mid-50% mean?

The vast majority of the time you see testing ranges reported, they are reporting the 25th percentile through the 75th percentile, or the mid-50%.

Vanderbilt example: our Class of 2014 ACT mid-50% is 30-34.  Of our 1600 freshmen, 800 of those students have scores that fall at or between a 30 and 34; 400 students scored either a 35 or 36 on the exam and 400 scored 29 or below.

Reporting with ranges is helpful because outliers have less influence.  Additionally, prospective students have a broader understanding of the entire pool with the mid-50%.

I have a 29 on the ACT, am I a competitive applicant?

The answer to that question is the dreaded ‘I don’t know’.  Ranges are instructive because they help prospective students recognize we consider a wide swath of test scores.  There is no cut-off/benchmark/requirement.  There is also no formula or weight assigned to standardized testing at Vanderbilt.

We read applications in a holistic manner, looking at every piece of the puzzle.  Therefore, I won’t know if a student with a 29 ACT is a competitive applicant until I read the other chapters to their story.  Conversely, a student possessing a 35 or 36 on the ACT may look competitive from a testing perspective, but still not receive admission due to other factors.

No, seriously, am I a competitive applicant?

We read holistically, but I’m human and I understand that the testing profile is a convenient numerical way to gauge your competitiveness as an applicant.

Here’s what I tell my students: if you’re within the mid-50% you have a good foundation to your application (but remember there are many other pieces to the puzzle).

If you have a test score above our mid-50%, you have a great foundation.  Don’t slack on the rest of the application or you may not be happy with the result; also, if you have those great scores PLUS a great application we may chase you with merit money.

Finally, if you have a test score below our mid-50%, not all hope is lost!  A quarter of our current freshman class scored below that number and they’re on campus now.  However, with that lower test score, you’ve got to shine on the rest of the application.

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  • Taylor

    December 10th, 2010

    What a great post! I am counting down the days until decisions are mailed, and your posts definitely make it easier by getting more insight into the process! Keep posting :)

  • David

    December 10th, 2010

    How much weight does the essay have in the application process? I understand you want to hear the voice of the applicant, but what if the student failed to really choose an “interesting” topic or something that allowed them to stand out from the rest of the pool? As long as the grammar and spelling is correct will the counselor deny an applicant based on a weaker essay? Thank you for your response.

  • Kylie

    December 10th, 2010

    David: There is no weight to the essay. We have no weights at all in the process. For this reason a student can write a less-than-enthralling essay and still receive admission. Sam, who I described in a previous post, did not have an essay topic that popped out at me, but he had amazing letters of recommendation. The x-factor can be different for every student.

  • Elisa

    December 10th, 2010

    I have heard that some letters of acceptances will be mailed for ED1 candidates as early as today. Can you tell me if that is occurring, or are you on track to mail every letter on December 15th, as previously posted?
    Thank you.

  • Kylie

    December 10th, 2010

    Elisa: All of the letters are going out at the same time. Right now it looks as if they will mail on either the evening of the 14th or the morning of the 15th. They’re definitely not going out today!

  • David

    December 10th, 2010

    I had heard from several Vanderbilt students that they (in the past) received email acceptances. Was that the case and is there any chance that we will hear online or phone, this year?

  • Kylie

    December 10th, 2010

    David: We do not release decisions via email unless the applicant is currently living outside of the United States. Students cannot learn of their decisions via phone until December 21st.

  • Amber

    December 10th, 2010

    All this waiting is definitely making me nauseous. If it weren’t so obviously psychological I would strongly embrace the Pepto Bismol.

  • Sarah

    December 10th, 2010

    Of all of your students you have had for ED1, about how many have you accepted?

  • Kylie

    December 10th, 2010

    Sarah: We will publish these numbers at the close of Early Decision in February.

  • hugh

    December 10th, 2010

    do i still have a chance if my TOEFL is 95, which is below the minimum requirement?

  • Kylie

    December 12th, 2010

    Hugh: We will give every application a holistic review, but generally we are looking for TOEFL scores at 100 or above.

  • Hannah

    December 11th, 2010

    Thanks so much! This blog is helping me keep calm until ED1 decisions are mailed! This was also a helpful insight into what test scores really mean, how I fit into the numbers and how y’all view numbers!

  • Gibson

    December 12th, 2010

    So when should we expect our letters with our decision? On the 15th? Or later?

  • Christa

    December 13th, 2010

    Do Regular Decision applicants who turn in their apps. early find out any sooner than last-minute Regular Decisions? Thanks!

  • Kylie

    December 13th, 2010

    Christa: No. All RD students will receive notification according to our calendar: April 1st unless you are a scholarship recipient.

  • Sarah

    December 19th, 2010

    Hi! I hope all is well!

    If I am applying for a scholarship, will the credentials I submit for the scholarship be viewed at the same time as my application for admission is reviewed?
    I am applying ED2, fyi.

  • Travis

    December 29th, 2010

    I heard some colleges only look at the English and math sections of the ACT. Is this true for Vanderbilt?

    My highest composite ACT score is a 30. When I got the 30 I scored a 25 on the English section and a 35 on the math section. However, on another test where my composite ACT score was a 29, I got a 32 on English and 34 on math. Clearly, the english score is 7 points higher with the 29 composite score, yet 29 is a worse composite score than a 30.

    Should I send my composite score of a 30 or a 29? Please let me know! Thank you!

  • Kylie

    December 30th, 2010

    Travis: We will consider your single highest composite score.

  • Robbie

    January 28th, 2011

    Hello! I commend all of you guys who have earned a 30 or higher on the ACT. I really wish that could be me hopefully in February. My question is, honestly, what are the number or students who have been accepted with a composite of 25? I have a low composite but I have a really good subscore of 29 in English and mid 20s in the other subtests. I also have good recommendations, rank,GPA, and essay. Do you think that I still have a chance at being accepted into Vanderbilt.

  • Kylie

    January 28th, 2011

    Robbie: As much as I know this isn’t necessarily the answer you want- it depends. Of our enrolled applicants who submitted ACT scores, 25% had scores lower than a 30. Many different factors go into the application, it truly is more than just numbers. Thus, knowing your testing doesn’t help me identify if you “have a chance”. Know that admission is difficult for all of our applicants and I wish you the best of luck!

  • Christy

    August 8th, 2011

    In our town my daughter has the opportunity to attend a selective magnet high school or attend a typical high school that offers the “IB” diploma.  Which would be more attractive to Vanderbilt (all other things being equal). She really has her heart on being a student at Vandy! I was going to call and ask, but I stumbled across this blog and thought I might give this a shot.

  • Tricia

    October 25th, 2011

    Do you now superscore the ACT?

  • Ryan Burleson

    October 26th, 2011

    Thanks for your question, Tricia. We don’t superscore the ACT, we just consider a student’s highest composite score. Our position is that the ACT is not as well-suited to be superscored because of the nature of the test. There is simply not as much wiggle room for the ACT since it is only based on a 36 point scale.

  • julie

    December 20th, 2011

    Just wondering how merit money or the discount rate is at your school for strong students.  My parents have no savings for college due to loss of a job a few years in the past and the three siblings that will need college after me.  But on a financial aid form their income currently is way too high for aid.  I have a strong resume of school activities, a GPA of over 4 and ACT of 31.  I am top in my school but don’t have an ACT of 36 to put me over into the extreme numbers category. What does the picture look like for a student like me.  I am beginning to think the best colleges are only for the poor and the truly wealthy,upper middle class need not apply?

  • Carolyn Pippen

    December 20th, 2011

    Hi Julie,

    Our need-based financial aid process if very extensive and takes into account much more than just the parents’ income (things like, I have four siblings in school, or all of our money is in assets, etc).  This is why we actually require two forms – the FAFSA and the CSS Profile – to make sure we have considered all aspects of your financial situation.  Once you have filled out these forms, we garauntee to meet 100% of your demonstrated need, loan-free.  In addition, we do have merit-based scholarships as well.  I highly encourage you to apply for both of these forms of aid, regardless of what you think your package might turn out to be. For more information feel free to visit the financial aid website ( or contact our Financial Aid office at 615-322-3591.

  • Tootie

    January 2nd, 2012

    hi i graduate in 2019 and ive been researching on collages and before i decided to do this my only choices were harverd or yale to get my law degree but now you guys are in my options list! You guys rock and thanks for being their for us and hopefully i get the right SAT or ACT score to be accepted!

  • What Advice Would You Give to this (hypothetical) Child? - Higher education - Page 2 - City-Data Forum

    February 17th, 2013

    […] From Vanderbilt, read the section under I have a 29 on the ACT, am I a competitive applicant? Understanding the Mid-50% | The Vandy Admissions Blog | Vanderbilt University And for U Mich: Frequently Asked Questions | Alumni Association of the University of Michigan UM […]

  • hsuh

    February 28th, 2013

    what about the gpa

  • Ryan Burleson

    February 28th, 2013

    Can you clarify your question?

  • Mihika

    December 14th, 2014

    Hello, my Sat score is quite low and my score was 1640. Should i still apply to Vanderbilt University or not? What are my chances?

  • Jay Watson

    December 15th, 2014

    Hi Mihika, thanks for your question. The best resource to start with is the profile of our current students (here: With the profile, you can see how your scores compare to our middle 50%. As we say in the post, we can’t know your chances without reviewing the rest of your application (not to mention the rest of the applicant pool). The middle 50% gives you a good starting place to evaluate your application – beyond that, it would be a good idea to speak with your admissions counselor to discuss other aspects of your application. You can find your counselor’s contact information at Thanks!

  • Grace

    October 2nd, 2015

    Does the fact that I have not joined one club in high school lower my chances of being accepted?

  • Jay Watson

    October 2nd, 2015

    Thanks for your question. Just as we don’t have cut-off scores for testing, we don’t have minimums for club or organization involvement. Instead, we evaluate activities outside the classroom in terms of depth of involvement, roles and responsibilities, and leadership. We want to know what you spend your time on and what you’re passionate about. That doesn’t have to be a high school club – it could be volunteer work, a business or non-profit you started or work for, some kind of artistic or athletic endeavor, or many other things. Again, thanks for your question!

  • Jason Knapp

    January 12th, 2016

    How does a high rising trend look to the committee? Example: Someone who started off with a 3.1 freshman year, 3.4 sophomore year and a 3.9 this year. Also I am a volunteer EMT, so would that help at all? Thanks!

  • Jay Watson

    January 12th, 2016

    Hi Jason, thank you for your question. A positive trend in your GPA through high school is definitely favorable. Remember that our academic evaluation takes into consideration the rigor of your curriculum – we’re not just looking for strong grades, but we also want to see that you are making those strong grades in classes that are challenging. Your experience as an EMT is also something that will be considered. If that is something you are truly passionate about, make sure that comes through in your application. Again, thanks for your question and your interest in Vanderbilt!

  • Connor Castleberry

    February 22nd, 2016

    How much is the ACT writing portion considered? I got a 35 ACT composite score but a 14 for my writing. Thank you for your response.

  • Jay Watson

    February 29th, 2016

    Thanks for your question. First, remember that standardized testing is only a part of our holistic application process. And while the writing portion of the ACT is required, the composite score is the more important factor in our process.

  • Vivian Hsu

    April 19th, 2016

    As an international student from Asia, I studied high school since my freshman year. English is not my native language. May I have an idea if you will consider it being a factor for lower SAT 2040?

  • Jay Watson

    April 21st, 2016

    Thanks for your question. Applicants whose native language is not English have specific admissions requirements. You should check our requirements for international students page at

  • Harrison

    May 3rd, 2016

    How much does the score of your essay on an ACT affect the admissions process? For example, I got a 35 composite ACT score but I messed up the essay and only got an 18 on the essay. Also, I have a 750 on SAT English section. If i were to send both SAT and ACT scores, do I need to worry about the essay score or do you think the low essay score might be disregarded considering my admissions essays and high SAT English score? Thanks!

  • Jay Watson

    May 11th, 2016

    Thanks for your question, Harrison. Beginning with admission for the Class of 2021, the writing section of the ACT and the Essay section of the SAT are not required. You can also talk more thoroughly about your individual testing with your Vanderbilt admissions counselor. Thanks.

  • Cristina

    September 6th, 2016

    I have a question regarding gpa. Do you guys count the weighted gpa or unweighted gpa? Also, I volunteer at the Audobon Center, which works with environmental matters and what I want to major in is environmental science and I took AP Environmental Science and passed with a 4, would this favor me when it comes to admissions?

  • Jay Watson

    September 20th, 2016

    Hi Cristina, thanks for your questions. Regarding GPA, we evaluate based on what your high school reports on your official transcript. And, yes, we do consider your “fit” for the academic school to which you are applying, and your academic record and outside involvement are certainly considered. Again, thanks for your interest.

  • Avijit Biswas

    December 31st, 2016

    Your blog is so helpful.I m continuously following you.your doing a gr8 job. Nice work done. Keep us updating with this stuffs thank you .