How College Admission Works

SAT Scores and Minority Students

It may come as a surprise, but most schools consider how you did academically in school to be more important than SAT scores. And most colleges don't have a cutoff SAT score. The way SAT scores are perceived has changed somewhat since, several years ago, colleges began to report scores differently. (To read more about the SAT and related issues, take a look at Secrets of the SAT from PBS.)

For example, many colleges now report the middle 50 percent of admits. An easy way to think of it is like this: If your SAT scores are in the bottom 25 percent of what the school reports, you have to be better than most other students the school admits in other areas to make up for that. If you're in the middle of the 50 percent, it doesn't matter much where your scores fall. "There's a very fine distinction between a score of 1460 and a score of 1410," Guttentag says. "Going back to our baseball analogy, it doesn't matter if you got your double by hitting a 300-foot shot to the back wall or whether you took what should have been a single and hustled extra hard and made it to second base. A double is a double, no matter how you get there."

Bear in mind, however, that it's all relative. If your SAT score is under 1000 and you're trying to get into a highly selective school that admits less than one-third of its applicants, you'll have to do some pretty fast talking to qualify!

There are other factors that can affect admission besides grades, scores and activities. A big question is whether the color of your skin or your heritage can actually make a difference when you're applying to schools.

While the debate about the role of affirmative action in college admissions continues around the country, Guttentag says he doesn't believe most selective schools (those that admit a third or fewer of their applicants) will admit students simply to make the school's minority numbers look better. "Most schools want students who are going to succeed there. To admit someone who isn't likely to be successful is not good for anybody -- not for the university and not for the student," he says.

So does race matter when it comes to college admissions? "Diversity matters," Guttentag says. "The working world in the 21st century is going to be increasingly diverse, particularly racially diverse. I tell students that the diversity of college is a transitional place between the homogeneity of high school and the diversity of the 'real world.'"

Again, he advises all students who are looking at various colleges to ask themselves the "comfortable and challenging" question and to think about something else, too: "A big part of college is having your assumptions challenged. The way this happens is through interacting with people whose values and backgrounds and experience are different from yours," he says. (If you have questions, check out the College Board's document responding to the Office of Civil Rights Resource Guide.)

Back to basics -- when do you actually start applying to these schools you've chosen?