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What is the Middle 50%?


Posted by on Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In the world of selective college admissions, it’s important to understand standardized testing. Knowing how your personal test results fit with a college’s testing profile is a useful part of the process of finding your fit. Unfortunately, this can also be a confusing part of the process for many applicants. What is an average score? What is a competitive score? What the heck is a middle 50%?

In order to make sense of the numbers, you have to first understand the right questions to ask. In this post, I’m going to take a closer look at frequent standardized testing questions to help you better understand the metrics and how to use them.

What’s your average SAT/ACT?

This seems like an obvious first question any prospective student would want to pose to an admissions officer. Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t really helpful.  Why?  Because averages are susceptible to outliers.

For example, take a hypothetical college applicant pool with ACT scores of 30, 30, 30, 30, and 36. The average score of this group is 31.2, a number that doesn’t really help you to understand the makeup of the pool. Reporting an average ACT of 31.2 might give students with a 30 ACT the wrong picture of how they fit in the applicant pool. From the average, they can’t see that the single 36 is pulling the result upwards.

Beyond the fact that it can be statistically misleading, there is a further problem with reporting an average score:  it could be perceived as a benchmark or a cutoff. As an admissions office with a holistic approach, we view test scores as one component of an application. We don’t use a benchmark test score to determine which applications we consider, and if we reported an average test score, some students would undoubtedly view the average as a requirement. Think back to the hypothetical applicant pool – reporting an average ACT of 31.2 could cause some students with a 30 to think they aren’t competitive, when in fact their scores are in line with most of the other applicants in the pool.

This is the reason Vanderbilt, like most selective colleges, reports testing as a range. Some prospective students find this frustrating – as if a testing range conceals a true benchmark they should be aiming for – but trust me, a range is a much more helpful indicator.

Ok, so what’s your testing range?

Not so fast! First, we need to ask a couple of questions.

First:  Are we talking about the testing range of applicants, admitted students, or enrolled students? These ranges vary because the groups themselves are different. As you might guess for selective colleges, the testing range for admitted students will be higher than those who are not admitted. The testing range for admitted students will often also be higher than those for enrolled students because the highest testers typically have a greater number of college options (e.g. some of the top testers we admit will also be admitted to other selective colleges, but they can only enroll in one school).

Second:  Do you superscore tests? Superscoring means a college considers the highest section scores across all testing dates. At Vanderbilt we superscore the SAT and we do not superscore the ACT. For example, if you take the SAT twice, we will consider your highest Critical Reading and Math section scores even if those didn’t come from the same testing date. When looking at reported testing ranges, you should consider whether or not they reflect superscoring.

Once you have the answers to these questions , what you really want to know is the middle 50%.

I thought we were talking about range? What does the middle 50% mean?

The middle 50% is a range, specifically the range of scores between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile for the given group. It’s the “half in the middle” that’s left if you throw out the top 25% and the bottom 25%. Remember those outliers from our hypothetical? They’ve conveniently disappeared now that we’re just looking at the middle 50%.

For example, at Vanderbilt last year the middle 50% testing range on the ACT for enrolling first-year students (the Class of 2018) was 32-34. This means that of the approximately 1,600 enrolled students, about 800 (the half in the middle) had a score that was in the 32-34 range. From this you also know that about 400 of enrolled students scored higher than this range, either a 35 or 36, and about 400 scored a 31 or below.

Now you can see how this system gives prospective students more information. With the middle 50% you get a broader understanding of the pool, without worrying about those pesky outliers.

That’s great, but I have a 31 on the ACT. Am I a competitive applicant?

The answer to that question is the dreaded “I don’t know.” While testing ranges can help you see that we admit students with differing levels of testing, they can’t tell you if any one student with a particular score (i.e. you) will be admitted. Remember that thing about holistic admissions? That means we consider the whole application – things like academic record, high school context, extracurricular involvement, teacher recommendations, and your essay, as well as standardized testing. Each piece of information is like a piece in a puzzle, and no one piece alone will tell us if a student is a competitive.

The bottom line is that your test score is one piece of information that Vanderbilt and other selective colleges will consider. Understanding the middle 50% can be useful in putting your test scores into the context of a given college’s applicant pool.

If you have more detailed questions about selective admissions at Vanderbilt, contact your admissions counselor. We’re here to help you understand the process!


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  • TT

    My daughter is really struggling to decide about early decision 1 because her ACT score is below the middle 50% by 3 points. All other aspects of her resume and recommendations are great but she’s scared since there is no option to be wait listed. Vandy is her one and only top tier school she is applying too.

    • Thanks for your question! You are correct that with Early Decision at Vanderbilt students are either admitted or not, with no waitlist option. Your daughter might also want to consider EDII, since it would allow for another round of testing, as well as including her first semester grades (which she couldn’t do with EDI).

      Ultimately, the decision to apply early is really about deciding if a school is truly your first choice. If so, and if you know you will enroll if admitted, then ED (1 or 2) are a good fit, even without the waitlist option.

      • LO

        Curious as to the reasoning behind there being no wait list option. It shouldn’t be a disadvantage to apply ED.

        • With our Early Decision plans, students get a definitive decision earlier in the process … if you have to wait until wait list, it’s no longer an early decision. And, in general, an applicant’s chances of admission are stronger at ED than at RD. But as I mentioned in a previous comment, the decision to apply early should really be about deciding that a school is truly your first choice. Thanks for the question!

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