Understanding the Mid-50%
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.