Highest SAT Score Averages at Top Schools


The Schools With the Highest SAT Score Averages, and Why You Shouldn’t Care

You probably think that the schools with the highest SAT score averages are the same as the schools with the highest ranking, right?


A study published by Forbes indicated that, in fact, average test scores does not correlate directly with school ranking.

Figure 1 - 25 Schools With Highest SAT Score Averages (Forbes)  

highest SAT score

Forbes,Top 100 SAT Scores Rankings

You may be surprised to see both CalTech and University of Chicago edging out Harvard. After all, Harvard is...well, Harvard. At this point, you may be asking yourself several questions: If these schools have higher average test scores, shouldn’t they be ranked higher? Does this mean that better students attend those schools? Do I not need perfect scores to get into Harvard? What on earth is Franklin W Olin College of Engineering!?

Why is This the Case?

The answer to all of this lies in the rankings system used by US News and World Report. You may not have thought too deeply about it, but US News uses a fairly consistent method to rank schools. And because schools shouldn’t be judged by their test scores alone, this method employs dozens of variables, such as “faculty resources” or “alumni donation rate” - which comprise 20% and 5% of the rankings, respectively.

Nestled among these variables is - you guessed it - test scores and selectivity. So what does this mean? It means that for schools with fewer financial resources to increase their rankings, they also need to increase their selectivity. By topping the list of highest SAT score averages, schools will actually improve their ranking as a national university. And once the rankings increase, then the financial resources are almost sure to follow.

Take, for example, UChicago. Less than ten years ago, UChicago was not considered on the same level as any of the Ivy League schools. It was often a safety school for students interested in more “prestigious” schools like Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth, etc. But today? UChicago is ranked fourth - tied with Stanford! How could that be?

There are several reasons for it, but among them is that it consistently accepts students with the highest SAT score averages. By increasing its selectivity, UChicago has in turn experienced a rise in rankings since 2005.

Are These Students More Qualified?

Before moving along, we should address one last critical question: do schools accept students with higher average scores because they are more talented or better qualified? Not always. There is not a single higher education professional who doesn’t already know that the highest SAT score averages correlate poorly with academic performance and intelligence. In short, a student with a 2400 is not necessarily qualified or guaranteed to succeed academically than a student with a 2100.

In fact, one of the variables that correlates best with the highest SAT and ACT score averages is family wealth. Figure 2 below shows that students from families with annual income over $200,000 receive, on average, 400 more points on the SAT than students from poor families. That’s the difference between a perfect score (2400) and a score barely good enough for NYU or the UC Schools (2000).

Figure 2 - Correlation of Test Scores and Wealth

highest SAT score

Wall Street Journal, “SAT Scores and Income Inequality

So why do colleges care? Simple: they need the rankings. Without the rankings, they will struggle to attract the most talented students, alumni donations, and national press coverage. If UChicago had not increased its selectivity, then it would not be the leading institution - on par with Stanford - that it is today.

Will The Surge in Rankings Last?

So what about these schools like UChicago, Vanderbilt, or Northwestern - will they continue to rise? Will they continue to sit atop the rankings? Possibly, but maybe not.

Here’s why: similar to applicants themselves, top universities’ rankings tends to correlate with wealth. That is, the schools with the largest endowments tend to be ranked highest.

Looking at Figure 3, this correlation seems obvious. The universities with the four largest endowments all happen to each be ranked in the top four - but they don't all have the highest SAT score averages. These schools have more money than their lesser-endowed counterparts to put into professor salaries and recruiting, PR, student life, etc. As a result, those with larger endowments tend to float above the rest (and hence, the Ivy League schools - which all have among the largest endowments - have remained at the top of the rankings for decades).

Similarly, the endowment drop-off is extreme. These top four schools all have growing endowments over $20 billion. The next closest is almost half of that, and when we are talking in billions, then that money actually matters in making a difference.

Figure 3 - Top 5 Largest University Endowments

University Name Endowment SizeNational University Rank
Harvard University (MA)$36,429,256,0002, National Universities
Yale University (CT)$23,858,561,0003, National Universities
Stanford University (CA)$21,466,006,0004 (tie), National Universities
Princeton University (NJ)$20,576,361,0001, National Universities
Massachusetts Institute of Technology$12,425,131,0007, National Universities

US News, “10 Universities with the Largest Endowments

Why Should You Care?

You should care about all of this for two reasons:

First, if you are choosing between a school like UChicago/Northwestern or an Ivy League school, you may want to compare them on factors outside of their rankings. Why would you chose Vanderbilt over Stanford?

Maybe it’s the location, maybe it’s the cost, maybe you want to be an educator and study at the Peabody College of Education. Same deal for picking a school like Caltech over Yale. Your personal academic interests should play into your decision. Choosing to attend a school only because of its rankings is never a good idea. Your individual fit at a college needs to be your biggest consideration.

Second, and obviously, if you are applying to schools with the highest SAT score averages, you will need higher scores to get in. They are deliberately keeping their average scores high, so if they have an opportunity to choose a student with higher test scores than you (without sacrificing other variables) they will do so. There are some spectacular schools (among them several Ivy League schools) that are not on the list above. Consider applying there, as well, if your scores are not as high.

When you’re making your school list, these facts are just a few things to consider - because your test scores are never the end-all-be-all. The numbers from Figure 1 are simply averages, which means that if you have a 31 on your ACT, you can still get into UChicago. Or CalTech. Or Stanford or Harvard or Vanderbilt or Rice. Nothing is guaranteed in college admissions.

What you can do to guarantee yourself the best chance, though, is to take these statistics - the highest SAT score averages - and ignore them. As long as you put together a comprehensive list of reach, fit, and safety schools, you should be in good shape going into the admissions process. 

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