It is human nature to selectively showcase only our best moments while simultaneously sweeping those that are less flattering out of sight. When serious high school athletes put together highlight reels for recruitment videos, they cherry-pick touchdowns, dunks, or homeruns; not fumbles, air balls, and strikeouts. On social media, people can’t wait to post pictures of engagement rings, new material acquisitions, and flattering selfies—marital disputes, money troubles, and uncomplimentary photos rarely grace one’s newsfeed.

College applicants feel much the same way as they present themselves to prospective schools and thanks to the practice of superscoring, they get just that opportunity when submitting standardized test scores.

What is superscoring?

Understanding the significance of superscoring is best conveyed through a simple example:

Johnny takes the SAT for the first time in spring of his junior year, scoring a 610 on the critical reading section and a 550 on the math section for a total score of 1160. He takes the test again in the fall of his senior year, scoring a 570 in critical reading and a 590 in math for an identical total score of 1160. Johnny scored no better the 2nd time around which would qualify as a pretty big disappointment, right?

Wrong. The vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States will take an applicant’s superscore—that is, their best combined critical reading and math score. This means Johnny now has a 610 reading + 590 math for a total of 1200 making him a more competitive candidate for admission/merit aid at his target schools.

Why are colleges so nice?

They’re not. Colleges are forever enmeshed in prestige/rankings wars with other comparable institutions. Returning to our friend Johnny, admitting an applicant with a 1200 is better for a school’s perceived selectivity than admitting an applicant with an 1160.

It’s no wonder 99% of schools are eager to make their applicants’ test scores look as strong as possible. The list of big-name colleges that does not superscore is fairly short but does include some prominent state institutions such as Penn State, the University of Wisconsin, and Arizona State. Be sure to check out your prospective institutions’ admissions websites for the most up-to-date superscore policies.

Is the ACT different?

The higher education community was a bit late to the ACT superscore party, but things are now picking up steam. The ACT’s composite score is calculated by averaging together a student’s scores (from 1-36) on English, math, reading, and science. Roughly 100 schools will now average together a student’s highest subtest scores from any administration of the exam, the ACT equivalent of superscoring. Included on this list are elite schools like Duke, Johns Hopkins, Vassar, MIT, and UNC.

Remember, the ACT will round up a composite score of 26.5 to a 27, meaning you don’t have to improve very much on any one section to have an ACT superscore potentially receive a 1 point boost.

Second (or third) time is a charm

Students typically take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year. Those who elect to retake the test the following fall improve their overall score by an average of 40 points on the SAT. It makes sense that students would receive a natural boost for two reasons: 1) it’s not their first rodeo, they know the routine, the timing of the test, the format, etc. and 2) they’ve been exposed to more relevant academic material in the classroom since the last sitting. And these advantages don’t even account for the biggest difference of all—you have an entire summer to learn the secrets of the SAT/ACT backward and forward.

Remember, you only have to improve one section of either exam to improve your standing as an applicant.

An aid to merit aid

Even if you already sport scores that put you in good shape to be granted acceptance at the schools to which you will be applying, there is still a compelling reason to sit for the ACT/SAT one more time. Standardized test scores play a huge role in determining which applicants receive offers of merit aid. Remember, the point of non-need based merit aid from an institutional standpoint is to offer enough of a discount to attract top talented students.

There are two metrics that will clue you in on your chances of scoring merit aid at a given college or university. The first is the percentage of students that receive merit aid, numbers which are readily accessible online. The second is to look at the 75th percentile of SAT/ACT scores for accepted students, also easy to track down online or in literally any college guidebook. If your score falls at or above that number and a given school is known for being relatively generous with merit aid, chances are you will get a substantial offer.

Bottom Line

The superscore is your friend and an overwhelming percentage of schools utilize this tool for the SAT and a growing number will do so for the ACT as well. Understanding the superscore should provide inspiration to take whichever test you choose two to three times. Doing so can make you more competitive from an admissions and merit aid standpoint. After all, the more selfies you snap, the better chance you’ll stumble upon that “perfect” profile pic.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).