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A perfect SAT score isn't everything

Here’s some advice from a UC Berkeley undergrad who aced the SAT – and got rejected by 5 of the 7 Ivy League schools he applied to (don’t worry, things turned out great)
BY Sean Yuan |   10-03-2017
Don’t fret – there is life after SAT (Image by Caio Jhonny, used under CC license)

I remember the moment that I first found out very well. I was a junior at boarding school and I was visiting a friend in her dorm. I didn’t know that was the day scores were supposed to be released, but then she brought it up, so I decided to check my portal.

Back then I was a pretty apathetic student. The SAT wasn’t something that I gave much thought so I wasn’t expecting much or feeling nervous or anything. When I pulled up my portal and she and I saw my score, we both screamed so loudly that the dorm mom came hurtling down the stairs in full combat mode, reading to defend her girls against god-knows-what this boy was trying to pull. It took several bumbled explanations before she put down her metaphorical broomstick and retreated upstairs, eyeing me suspiciously the whole way.

Word got out fast. I felt like a rock star at school for the next week. I thought I was all set for life (ha) and I’m surprised I still fit through doors with how big my head had inflated. The rest of the year flew by, and while I didn’t exactly do poorly in my classes, I definitely did not do as well as I could have, in large part due to my complacency.

But who cares! Thousands, even millions, of high school students get great grades. How many have a 2400? was basically my thought processthat whole summer. Still oblivious to my own shortcomings, senior year rolled around and, armed with my 2400, I thought I would have my pick of the schools. I applied early to Stanford, not so delusional as to think I was guaranteed admission, but thinking the worst-case scenario would be a wait-list.

Getting that rejection in early December was a huge shock. I sat there an hour, staring into space and wondering what the heck happened. I was confused and upset, but there was nothing to do except move on and apply to more schools.

Out of the 7 Ivy League schools I applied to, I was rejected by 5, waitlisted by 1, and accepted by 1 that I didn’t want to go to and only applied to because they didn’t require a supplementary application. I was also rejected from 4 liberal arts colleges and several other high-ranking, non-Ivy private schools.

Everything turned out okay in the end. I’m at an amazing institution, and having visited friends at some of the Ivies I had wanted to attend, I don’t think I would have been happy at those places. But I did learn a few lessons from the whole experience.

Do not be complacent about your strengths

Do you have one part of your app that really shines? Awesome. Keep excelling at it, but stop patting yourself on the back and go work on the other parts. In my case, my grades were above-average, but not Harvard material, and I deluded myself into thinking that my SAT would make up for it. No way. College admissions is not a see-saw with GPA on one side and SAT on the other. You have to excel at both.

In addition, my extracurriculars were pretty bland stuff that I’m sure half of the other applicants had. I had chances to distinguish myself but did not take them, and that showed right through. Finally, compared to my peers at my school who were also applying to the same Ivies, my course load was weak. I had a chance to take Calc BC, multivariable, and linear algebra, and I only got up to Calc AB. I could have taken AP Euro and AP chem, but chose not to. When dozens of your classmates are applying to the same schools for a few spots, it’s ugly to be the one who chose the path of least resistance.

It’s important to be self-critical, and realize that doing something very well once doesn’t mean much unless you can back it up with impressive work in other areas, and consistently over a long period of time.

Sustained effort is more impressive than one test

I’ve had many conversations with friends about whether GPA or SAT is more important. In my mind, it is without a doubt GPA. Sustaining good grades over four years demonstrates a discipline and work habit that are important for college and work success. And while doing well on the SAT is no small feat, it’s much easier to get in the zone for several hours and destroy a single test than to do the same thing for four years with a tough course load. Naturally, being good at taking standardized tests is a plus, but you must leverage that strength into unshakeable study habits.

It’s okay if you don’t go to an Ivy League

Back then, I thought not going to an Ivy League was a huge failure, and that I’d be very limited in life. Not true at all. I ended up at my state school, and I think it was the best possible outcome. I’ve spent a fraction of what I would’ve spent for an Ivy tuition, I’ve had the chance to do research and get jobs that some of the Ivies can’t offer, I’ve been close to my family, and I’m all set to go into my field of work of choice. The Ivies are amazing schools and the prestige definitely helps, but all that will still be just a fraction of what determines your future. Work hard and do your best to get in, but there is zero reason to be dissatisfied with your back-up option.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Quora. You can read the original here.

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