Test scores: What’s the recipe for success?

Alia Georges

The most common question students ask me about test scores is, “What test scores do I need to get into Olin?” After asking, they wait for me to utter a single magic number that will get them admitted. If their own test scores are at or above this number, they’ll be delighted. If they’re not, they’ll be disappointed, but hey, at least they’ll know for sure.

It can be frustrating, then, to learn that the way colleges actually use test scores when reviewing applications is not that simple. I think about food pretty much constantly, so the best way I can explain how Olin uses test scores is to say that it’s more like cooking than baking.

What’s the difference? Personally, I love baking. My idea of a perfect weekend afternoon is trying new recipes while watching reruns of the Great British Bakeoff. Baking is precise. It’s challenging, but it’s an organized kind of challenge. My recipe books are comforting. They assure me that while new baking experiments may fail (I’m looking at you, neon blue blobs that were supposed to be macarons…), there’s a specific reason underlying what went wrong that I can identify and avoid next time. It’s more science than art, but you still get to make it look pretty.

On the other hand, I don’t care for cooking, which is funny, considering that my father is a cook. He’s worked in all kinds of restaurants over the years (a falafel truck, a pizza place, a chicken restaurant, etc.), and he never uses recipes. Instead, he’s inspired by what’s in his garden, what’s on the discounted produce rack at Market Basket, and what simply sounds good in the moment. He creates fascinating and delicious combinations (and a huge mess). Cooking is part science, but it’s also a whole lot of art. “But how MUCH of the cumin do I add?” I’ll ask him. “I don’t know, you just add some until it’s enough!” he’ll reply.

For colleges like Olin that use a holistic admission review process, here’s how it’s more like cooking than baking:

Test scores are one ingredient

In cooking there are required and optional ingredients. If you’re making mashed potatoes, you can bet that potatoes are going to be required. The parsley garnish on top can be a nice touch (as long as you don’t go overboard with it!), but it’ll be perfectly fine without it.

The same is true for college applications. If something is required, you can count on the college taking that element into consideration when reviewing your application. Otherwise, they wouldn’t require it! At Olin, we require students to submit test scores. They’re an ingredient that you can’t leave out, and we do consider them.

BUT they’re not the only ingredient that matters

Test scores are not, however, the only ingredient or the most important one. They’re not the potatoes, but they might be the cream that balances the texture, or the splash of lemon juice that enhances the flavors.

We use our judgment

Like my dad’s cooking, there’s no standardized formula, or recipe, for success. We’re looking at the bigger picture of how the elements of your application work together in context.

Now, back to that original question of “What test scores do I need to get in?” If you ask me this, I’m likely to respond to a different question by sharing with you our most recent enrolling class’s middle 50% ranges for the SAT and ACT, which can be found in the Class of 2023 Profile*. This is different from a minimum score requirement or “cutoff.” It doesn’t mean that if your scores fall within or above this range, you are automatically getting in. Likewise, it doesn’t mean that if your scores fall below this range, you are definitely not getting in. By definition, 25% of enrolling students had scores higher than this range, and 25% had lower.  

It does mean that these score ranges are one metric we can share to portray the academic caliber of Olin students. It’s a point of reference, but it shouldn’t in and of itself make or break a student’s decision to apply to a college, just like it doesn’t make or break their actual application when we review it.

So, my advice to you is to learn how different colleges use test scores in their application review process and to keep everything in perspective. Nuance is difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s important (in applying to college, in engineering, and in life!).

*The profile contains lots of information about our first-year class (both academic metrics and descriptions of some of the interests and activities that students shared in their applications). As you can see, Olin students are a lot more than just numbers!

Posted in: Alia, All Admission Staff Blogs