In India there are so many different tests, that often we forget to ask about their varying uses by the institutions which evaluate them. Whether it is the CAT, JEE, NEET, CLAT or even ICSE and HSC board exams, these tests are primarily used for entrance or placement. That is, a particular score acts as a cut off – if your score is below a certain number, you cannot be admitted. For the most part, the tests in the US and UK are not used in this way – they are only one data point that is used in relation to several others to determine admissions. The names themselves indicate that the scores are assessing aptitude or achievement at the point when the student takes the test. They are not entrance exams; rather they are used as an indication of a student’s capacity for a particular level of academic work.
Ultimately what this means is that in a batch of admissions there is a range of scores represented by incoming students. A student with a lower score on the SAT may have other factors in their profile that can make up it. Sometimes these other factors are within the applicants control (e.g. school grades or extra curriculars) and sometimes they are not (e.g. legacy status or institutional priorities). Applicants are often confused by the idea that they could have top marks and top standardized test scores, but still not be admitted to their first choice university.
The consensus among admissions officers is that a high score on a standardized test is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for admissions. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, repeats, year after year, that they turn away more students with a perfect SAT score than they admit. However, all the lip service to the idea that the SAT or ACT scores are not terribly important to admissions decisions can be misleading. What it really means is that once a student has demonstrated high academic aptitude through grades and test scores, the it is other criteria which tip the admissions decision one way or another. If the student is in the high academics bucket already, then recommendations, essays and extracurriculars are used to decide between two academically equivalent students.
The same is true for the GMAT or GRE at top MBA programs – a high GMAT score is needed to get an applicant over the fence so that their other data points will be considered. As the Poets and Quants web blog reports: “last year’s survey by Kaplan Test Prep of business school admissions officers at 265 MBA programs across the United States – including 17 of the top 25 – showed that a low GMAT or GRE score is the single biggest reason why business schools ding MBA applicants.” This is true despite MBA admissions officers saying that they look at everything and you should apply even if your GMAT score is below their published average. Why do they say this? Because it is true, they do admit students with lower GMAT scores, but very few. And those who are admitted have other factors in their application to make up for it – they have done military service in Afghanistan, they were on the Olympic sailing team or they are the scion of an influential business family. If the rest of your profile is average, your scores need to be above average to get a second look.