Are published median SAT scores a good way to shortlist Reach/Match/Safety Schools?

The title of the post says it all.

  1. I may be in a more competitive demographic or category (eg international student/asian) for which the median score may be higher than the school’s overall median score. Or (for some of the state schools) the median score may look misleadingly low because they give preference to in-state applicants.
    If so, then should I aim at schools where the median is a notch lower than my test score?

  2. If yes to my question, then which is the best source to get median scores from - the college admissions website or some of these test prep websites?

  3. If no to my question, then what other criteria would you recommend for shortlisting?


The middle-50% bracket (25th percentile GPA, and 75th percentile GPA) can be more informative than the median, because it gives a better idea of the actual spread. Then, as you say, it’s important to consider who is filling the different quartiles. Bottom quartile acceptances are more likely to go to hooked applicants - athletes, legacies, URM. At public U’s, unhooked OOS or international applicants are wildly unlikely to get those spots. At schools that admit by major, less competitive majors (or ones that emphasize other criteria like auditions or portfolios) will fill some of that lower-GPA space. More often than not, applicants without specific admissions advantages will be better positioned if they’re around that 75th percentile mark, rather than at the median.

The college’s Common Data Set will have this info (or the collegedata website, or the prepscholar profile).


Sorry, SAT - mistyped that whole time. GPA data usually isn’t broken down that way.

Gauging by test scores is getting weirder now that test optional is becoming more prevalent, so there’s that, as well.

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@aquapt - thanks … the “test optional” environment is a factor that will take the reported numbers higher since some of the applicants who choose not to report tests will be the ones with lower scores.

one more question (or maybe i’m splitting too many hairs) - in my case the EBRW score is better than the math score so i have a number of colleges where the former is touching the 75th percentile but the math score is nearer to the 50th. if i’m applying for a non STEM major, can i be a bit brave and shortlist my colleges hoping that the math disadvantage may be ignored ?!

As a general rule. no. For example, Cornell’s CDS lists a 25/75 range of 1410 to 1550. Consider the following 3 hypothetical students.

Student A – International test submitter applying to Engineering with a 1600.
Student B – URM test submitter applying to Hotel School with a 1400.
Student C – Test optional hooked kid applying to Agriculture who is not submitting his 1300.

Based on the listed information, it’s impossible to know which of these 3 students is likely/unlikely to be admitted to Cornell, so one cannot accurately label them as reach/match/safety. There is far too little information since score is only one often small factor in the admission decisions, and there are many factors beyond score that may dramatically impact chance of admission.

A possible exception may occur at colleges for which score factors heavily in to the decision. For example, some less selective colleges primarily admit based on a combination of score and GPA. If you know score and GPA, you might be able to estimate chance of admission well and accurately label schools as reach/match/safety…

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I would say no, too. At many info sessions, those giving the presentations said if they were asked what one thing they would bring from each file if their office was on fire, they would grab the transcripts. The reasoning was because they are an overview of who that student has been over the past 4 years. Test scores are a snapshot of one day in time, LORs can be filled with fluff/biased/inaccurate but a transcript shows rigor, strengths/weaknesses, and what type of student they will be on campus.

I recommend reviewing the CDS for each school and looking at the financial aid section. I feel like I am always a wet blanket in this regard but if you need financial aid (need based or merit), you need to know how that plays out. Being a full-pay student at a school that meets full demonstrated need and is need aware in the admissions process is a big influence. Conversely, being an international student or lower income student who needs a lot of money is a big hurdle. Any school where you need competitive merit money or a lot of need based aid to be able to attend is a reach. The only thing worse than a rejection is an acceptance without enough money to pay for it.

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I agree with all that 100% and more! Especially the part about being aware about which schools are need aware. Students who require substantial FinAid should never view a need-aware school as a match, much less a safety.

I disagree with this. To paraphrase: “It is better to have been accepted and not afford it, than to never have been accepted at all.” :wink:


@helpingmom40 So you are saying that being full pay could have a positive impact on admissions decisions at schools that guarantee meeting need? Does this imply that admissions officers look at FAFSA etc as part of the student’s" package"? I suppose a school can’t afford a class requiring full tuition scholarships for all students, but does this imply better admission chances for the student at the 50% stats mark who has zero financial need?

I am not a pro at this by any means but as a parent of a student who needed a fair amount of need-based aid, I did a lot of reading and asking questions at various schools. Being full pay is a benefit at any need aware school, regardless of whether or not they claim to meet full need. I know that admissions and FA departments work independently during their respective processes (so no, AOs do not review FA) and that inquiries from FA offices do not mean acceptance, at all. When it comes close to the finish line, there is a review of FA awards to make sure they stay within their determined budget. I know need plays a part in waitlist admittance, too.

D20 had a very clear ED favorite - need-aware, meets full demonstrated need, no student loans under a certain economic threshold - that she set her sights on as a sophomore. I followed their CDS and class profiles for a couple of cycles before she ended up applying and the cycle after. IME, as they rolled out more attractive FA policies, applications went up, acceptance rate went down, gpa went down, SAT mid-50 went down, and the overall number of students receiving need-based aid decreased. Sure, there can be other explanations for any data points but that is what my interpretation of the data suggests. YMMV.

In addition to what the others said, you need to consider acceptance rate as well. Low acceptance rate schools are reaches for all applicants.

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I don’t handle guilt, tears or sad puppy dog eyes well! :laughing:

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You can use the CDS data, but remember it can be data that is two cycles old, and it is for matriculants only, not all of those accepted. Better to get admitted student data, from the school’s website, press releases, and/or student newspaper (not all schools publish mid-50% data for admitted students).

You do need to go beyond just the mid-50% data, so look at acceptance rates and scattergrams on Naviance/Scoir if your school uses one of those. Categorizing schools is more of an art than a science.

Any school with less than a 20% acceptance is a reach for all unhooked students. Any school with less than a 50% acceptance rate is likely not a safety for any student, and safeties also have to be affordable.


I certainly wouldn’t see a median math score and a 75th percentile EBRW score, as a non-STEM applicant, as a reason not to apply. The final result will depend on many variables besides just test scores.

By shortlisting, do you mean just making the cut as far as applying or not? How many schools are you considering? At some point it’s better to just put the energy into the applications vs. the hair-splitting, because you really can’t know which factors will determine the outcome in the end. If you end up with a mix of acceptances and denials, then you’ll know your overall list was targeted reasonably. Just be clear that this is the goal and be prepared not to take a few rejections too much to heart, and then go ahead and be brave in taking your shot.


I agree that it is good to consider selectivity, which is correlated with acceptance rate. A student with stats at the school’s published 75th percentile is likely to have a very different chance of the admission at a school with an overall 10% admit rate and a school with a overall 90% admit rate.

However, there are countless exceptions to the listed rules for individual students. For example, Tulane had a <10% acceptance rate this year, yet it would still be a safety for typical in-state residents who apply ED, have a 3.6 core GPA, have a 31 ACT, and can afford the college. See Louisiana Applicants | Undergraduate Admission for more detail about Tulane’s “guaranteed admission” criteria

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Right on Tulane, Louisiana students who meet the criteria are considered to have a ‘hook’.

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The criteria listed are not typically considered “hooks.” In any case, scattergrams suggest Tulane also would not be a reach for a large portion of top stat out-of-state resident who apply ED and can afford the college (need aware). A similar statement could be made for countless other colleges.

Simple rules, such as <20% admit rate = reach or <50% admit rate != safety may be accurate for many, but there are also many particular students applying to particular colleges for which the rules are not accurate. You need to consider the individual student and particular college when estimating chance of admission, rather than just focus on overall admit rate.

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I suggest starting with colleges that offer the major that you want to study and meet your size/geography/etc. preferences.

My D22 wants to study CS. Despite a median SAT score that would be a match, schools like Swarthmore and Haverford are not on her list.

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@aquapt thanks. yes i am probably overthinking the issue.