Bradshaw College Consulting

Monday, February 14, 2011


Bradshaw College Consulting


Dear Mr. Bradshaw: -- Our son is a top high school junior, but doesn’t take tests very well. He has straight A’s in all his classes, including Advanced Placement and dual-credit classes at Purdue University.

We are worried that his low SAT scores will lower his chances when applying to Notre Dame and other top colleges, including Harvard.

In all other respects, he is an outstanding student. I am sending you his transcripts and a resume of his accomplishments. We hope admissions are not all based on test scores. — Parent

SAT just one part
of your college application

Dear Parent —

You are wise to be concerned about rejection because of low test scores. Based on the colleges to which he is applying, that means a score of below 720 on any part of the SAT.

On the other hand, students ought not to take admissions for granted, no matter how high they score. The good news is that even if they have low scores, they should not be discouraged from applying, if other parts of their application show unusually strong promise.

After reviewing his transcripts and resume, I recommend he apply to all the schools on his list. There are three areas working in his favor that I believe colleges may consider to be worth more than his relatively low scores on the SAT.

The first is his 3,600-word essay. It is brilliantly written and outlines his goals for law or business school after graduation. He explains who he is and from where he came. It is an unusually candid insight into his personality, and shows remarkable maturity.

He also explains why he thinks he doesn’t test well, and uses such clear language that I believe it will help the admissions committee put his low test scores in proper perspective.

One of my clients got into Harvard under similar circumstances. He didn’t get into every school to which he applied — he was rejected by his top choices, including Yale and the University of Pennsylvania — but apparently, Harvard saw something in him that went beyond his poor showing on the SAT.

Your son’s second outstanding characteristic is his decision to skip his senior year in high school and spend it instead at Purdue University. In my 15 years interviewing students for Harvard, I never have found that level of commitment in an applicant.

By the time he graduates high school, he will have accumulated enough credits through his AP classes and Purdue to enter most colleges as a sophomore. That doesn’t mean other colleges will automatically accept these credits. But it does show your son is highly motivated and intellectually capable of doing college-level work.

Last on the list of reasons to apply is human nature. Admissions decisions can work for or against you, depending on the normal human biases inherent in the admission process.

For example, I see your son wants to apply to several top colleges, not just Harvard. Some colleges take a slightly more conservative view than I do about picking students.

To compete for students with Harvard and other top schools, many colleges place more emphasis on test scores and might tend to ignore the impact of his essay and unique high school education.

These two pieces of evidence, if presented correctly, could catapult him to the top of the list at a top college. One reason is that Harvard, sitting on a $28 billion endowment, can afford to be more forgiving in that regard — really to be more insightful and willing to give more weight to his unique background and accomplishments.

Top colleges must compete against Harvard, and one way for them to compete is to place more emphasis on test scores.

Harvard has no need to pad its reputation. For that reason, I’ve often felt that a student’s “subjective” accomplishments rate slightly higher with Harvard than with most other top schools.

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