How to Demonstrate Interest to Colleges

In recent years, “demonstrated interest” has become an increasingly important part of the college admissions process.  Most valued by colleges that are private, smaller, and more selective, this “informed” interest allows you to reveal your knowledge of the college and make a stronger case as to why the school is a good fit for you.

Demonstrated interest helps colleges assess the likelihood that students will:

  • Attend if admitted
  • Be a good fit and engage in activities on campus
  • Be loyal to the school as an alum, and donate money or time

Citing the 2014 NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) State of College Admissions Report, Money notes that about 20% of colleges say they place considerable importance on the admissions factor of a student’s demonstrated interest, 34% of colleges claim it’s of moderate importance, and about 20% of colleges state it has no importance at all. About a decade ago, only 7% of colleges assigned heavy importance to demonstrated interest.

One reason for this change is that as the numbers of applicants increases, college admissions has been more selective, and demonstrated interest helps colleges narrow the field. In addition, the US News & World Report college rankings include “yield,” or the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend the college, as one factor, so increasing yield boosts colleges’ rankings.

Inside Higher Ed points out that students who have high SAT scores can be impacted by this admissions factor the most. Colleges do not want to be considered a “safety school,” and may avoid high-scoring applicants who demonstrate little interest beyond applying.

So how do you go about demonstrating informed interest in a school? Below, we’ve developed a 10-point plan, outlining the many different ways you can communicate the strength and depth of your genuine interest to your best-fit colleges.

Collegiate Gateway’s 10-point plan: 

VISIT the college and register in the admissions office. Many colleges track campus visits as a key measure of demonstrated interest. The University of Rochester tracks all student contacts with the school. Colleges may offer many different kinds of visit opportunities. For example, many colleges, such as CornellNorthwestern and University of Michigan, offer tours and information sessions for their specialized schools in fields such as business, engineering, or communications. Some colleges offer organized visit days for students; Lehigh offers a Junior Open House in the spring and Senior Open House in the fall. However, there are other colleges, like Stanford and Brown, that do not track visits or interest.

But keep in mind that regardless of whether the college tracks your visit, being on campus still has enormous value for you in helping you understand the features that are a good fit for you, and in determining whether you wish to apply to the school.

ATTEND info sessions at your high school or local college fairs. Even if you have visited the college campus, it is still worthwhile to attend local sessions where your regional admissions officer visits your high school or participates on a panel or college fair in your community.

APPLY EARLY! Applying Early Decision shows the most interest, as the binding decision is a clear demonstration of your commitment to the school. However, only apply ED if you are sure that the college is an excellent fit for you, and is within reach. Applying Early Action (non-binding) also shows interest because you are sufficiently motivated to prepare and submit your application early.

REGISTER on the undergraduate admissions website to receive information.

FOLLOW colleges on social media, including Twitter, blogs, and Facebook. Often, the information posted will be more informal, and will give you a more “inside” look at the school. And some colleges do track your engagement with their social media.

INTERVIEW on-campus or with an alumni in your area. Colleges are reducing the availability of on-campus interviews, due to the increased numbers of students applying and the lack of available staff. Alumni interviews are an excellent option; take advantage of all opportunities.

RESEARCH the college thoroughly when you write your supplemental essays. Many colleges have a “Match Essay” asking why you want to attend the college. Write as specifically as possible about the programs and culture of the college, and about the strengths and interests you would bring to campus.

THANK college officials after college visits and interviews. Email a thank-you note to the admissions officer who conducted your information session or interview, and include specifics regarding what you learned and the features of the college that most appealed to you. In addition, if you interview with an alum in your local area, send a thank-you note including specific discussion topics that were meaningful to you.

CONTACT the regional admissions officer after you apply by sending an occasional email if you have substantive news to report (e.g. honors, awards, completion of a major school project, a special accomplishment in an activity) or a genuine question that is not answered on the website.

CHECK your online portal for your application status, once you’ve applied, as some colleges interpret this as a sign of interest.

As more and more schools rely on demonstrated interest to help them achieve their enrollment goals, it is increasingly important to show your preference for schools in an authentic way. Here at Collegiate Gateway, we are always happy to answer your questions and discuss this topic further. Feel free to contact us!

Recent College Acceptances

College Acceptances for the Classes of 2015 to the Present

We are proud of our collaboration with our students to help them achieve their dreams!

Here’s a list of recent admissions outcomes.

Private Universities

American University Northwestern University
Berklee College of Music Princeton University
Boston College Purdue University
Boston University Quinnipiac University
Brandeis University Rochester Institute of Technology
Brown University Roger Williams University
Case Western Reserve University Santa Clara University
Chapman University Stanford University
Clemson University Syracuse University
Columbia University The Catholic University of America
Cornell University Tufts University
Dartmouth University Tulane University
Drexel University University of Chicago
Duke University University of Hartford
Emory University University of Miami
Fordham University University of Pennsylvania
George Washington University University of Rochester
Georgetown University University of San Diego
Harvard University University of Scranton
Hofstra University University of Southern California
Johns Hopkins University Vanderbilt University
Loyola University Maryland Villanova University
Lynn University Wake Forest University
New York University Washington University in St. Louis
Northeastern University Yale University


Liberal Arts Colleges

Amherst College Lafayette College
Babson College Lehigh University
Barnard College Marist College
Bates College Muhlenberg College
Bucknell University Occidental College
Colgate University Providence College
Colorado College Rice University
Connecticut College Siena College
Curry College St. Joseph’s University
Denison University Swarthmore College
Elon University Trinity College
Fairfield University Union College
Franklin & Marshall College University of Richmond
Gettysburg College Vassar College
Goucher College Wellesley College
Hamilton College Wesleyan University
Iona College Williams College
Ithaca College


Public Universities

Binghamton University (SUNY) University of Delaware
Indiana University—Bloomington University of Florida
Louisiana State University University of Maryland
Miami University of Ohio University of Massachusetts—Amherst
Michigan State University University of Michigan
Ohio State University University of Pittsburgh
Penn State University University of Rhode Island
Stony Brook University (SUNY) University of Texas—Austin
University of California—Irvine University of Vermont
University of California—Los Angeles University of Virginia
University of California—Santa Barbara University of Wisconsin—Madison
University of Connecticut West Point (USMA)


International Universities

Queen’s University, Canada University of St Andrews, Scotland
University of Edinburgh, Scotland  

The Role of Grades in College Admissions

Your grades throughout high school remain the most important factor in college admissions.  While colleges also look carefully at your standardized test scores, essays, recommendations, and other personal factors, they view your grades as the strongest predictor of your academic success in college. This blog explains how colleges view your grades and curriculum in the overall admissions process.

Grades are #1

77% of colleges surveyed by NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) give considerable importance to both grades in college prep courses and grades in all your courses. The chart below shows the percentage of colleges attributing different levels of importance to various admissions factors:

Why Do Grades Matter?

 Admissions officers consistently say that your day-in-day-out grades are the best predictor of your academic performance in college.  Research shows a strong correlation between high school grades and not only academic performance in college, but retention and graduate rates as well.

While standardized test scores still play an important role, admissions staff recognize that your one-day test score may be impacted by a variety of factors such as test anxiety, inadequate sleep, lack of exposure to test-taking strategies, and test center distractions. But your grades show whether you have demonstrated persistence and focus on academic performance throughout your high school years.

Which Grades Matter?

The trend in your grades is important as well.  Often students take time to adjust to the greater freedom and responsibility of high school, and this is reflected in weaker grades during freshman year. Some colleges, such as Stanford University, explicitly state that they do not place importance on 9th grade grades. “We will focus our evaluation on your coursework and performance in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, primarily in the core academic subjects of English, mathematics, science, foreign language and history/social studies.”

All colleges place more emphasis on your grades in junior and senior year.  Your junior year grades are included on your official transcript, and colleges see your first-semester senior year grades in the Mid-Year Report (which is required by all colleges). And colleges also require your final report card for senior year, and occasionally rescind their acceptance offer if your grades significantly drop.

In addition, if you are applying to a specialized field, your grades in certain courses will receive more attention.  For example, for business or engineering programs, your math grades are particularly important.  For nursing, your science grades will be looked at closely.

How Important is the Rigor of Your Curriculum?

The strength of your curriculum plays an equally important role. Rigorous courses include accelerated, honors, AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate), and dual-enrollment courses (in which you receive college credit as well). Admissions officers encourage students to take the most challenging curriculum that they can reasonably manage. Williams College advises, “Applicants to Williams should pursue the strongest program of study offered by their secondary schools.”

Students who are especially ambitious and talented sometimes choose to take courses beyond what is offered at their high school at local colleges or online; one of the most common is Multi-Variable Calculus, which is the next course in the math sequence after AP Calculus BC, and rarely offered in secondary schools. So if you are planning to major in a math-based field, such as engineering or physics, and you complete AP Calculus in junior year, your candidacy would be enhanced by taking Multi-Variable Calculus in senior year, in a local college or an online course.  Similarly, students interested in pursuing art in college often take specialized art courses in their community if their high school has a limited selection.

For admission to the most selective colleges in the US, competitive students typically take courses to the end of the sequence in four or five of the core curriculum subjects of English, history, language, math, and science.  The “end of the sequence” would be defined as an AP-level course or a High-Level IB course.

If a student has a particular interest in one of the core subjects and is planning to major in that area, a competitive curriculum might include high-level courses in four of the five core areas, with a doubling-up in the student’s area of interest. For example, a future history major might take AP Government, AP Economics, AP Calculus (AB or BC), and AP science, and not take a high-level language course.

Trends in Admissions Factors

Over the past decade, grades in college prep courses has remained the top factor, and over the past few years, grades in all courses has become an equally important factor.  The next most important factor is the strength of the curriculum. Until this year, strength of curriculum was viewed as more important than standardized testing; but now these two factors are tied for third and fourth place. The chart below shows trends over the past decade.

How Do Admissions Officers View Your Transcript?

 Admissions staff always view your transcript within the context of your high school. Colleges recognize that schools vary greatly. As Northwestern states, “Every secondary school is different in its level of competitiveness and in the range of courses offered. These factors are also considered when admission decisions are rendered.”

In addition to evaluating your school’s transcript, colleges typically recalculate your GPA using a standard formula, so that they can compare students from different schools with different GPA scales.  Usually, colleges will use a 4.0 scale, where A+ and A = 4.0, B+ = 3.7, B- = 3.3, B = 3.0, and so on.

Action Plan

We recommend that you develop a preliminary plan of courses when you begin high school as a freshman. You can then re-evaluate your plan each year, based on your academic performance, your interests, your college goals, and your commitments to extracurricular activities. Your coursework should be your top priority in high school, and at the same time try to live a balanced life with sufficient time for activities, family, friends, and sleep!

There are many ways that you can reach your potential with your academic performance.  Most importantly, engage in your courses. Keep up with homework, try to review your notes regularly, and don’t wait until the last minute to study for tests or write your papers.  If you need help, see your teacher, work with other students, and use review books.

The college admissions process is complex, and success requires thoughtful planning from the start of high school. Feel free to contact us at As always, we’re happy to help!

Who Benefits From Early Decision?

Early Decision is a relatively new phenomenon in the college admissions landscape. But in the few decades since its inception, it’s become such a prominent feature of college admissions that many colleges fill up to half their freshman class through Early Decision applications. There is much controversy surrounding its impact on students and families because it tends to advantage affluent students who attend top secondary schools. This blog explores who stands to benefit from Early Decision, and how it affects the constituent groups of students, families, high schools, and colleges.

Historical Background

In the early centuries of college admissions, say from 1636 through the 1950s, all students applied through a Regular Admissions process, in which the deadline typically was January 1, and students received notification decisions by mid-April. But that all changed in the 1950s when a group of five smaller colleges that dubbed themselves the “Pentagonals” – Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Williams – decided to offer a binding Early Decision option in order to grab top students before they applied to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

As Early Decision became an increasingly popular option—and admissions became increasingly competitive—students felt increasing pressure to apply early, in order to maximize their chances of admission. In 2004, Yale and Stanford switched from ED to SCEA in order to decrease the stress on students. The non-binding option, they argued, would alleviate the additional pressure students face in having to commit before they’re fully ready.

Objections to Early Admissions, however, soon took on an additional dimension. In 2006, Harvard, Princeton, and UVA made the bold move to no longer offer any kind of early admissions program because of research suggesting that such programs disadvantage students from lower socioeconomic groups for a variety of reasons. These families needed to compare financial aid offers from more than one college, and often students in under-resourced high schools were not made aware of early admissions options, often missing out altogether.

Harvard, Princeton, and UVA hoped to serve as role models, and expected that other colleges would follow suit. While other colleges, such as Stanford, publicly supported their new policy, no colleges followed. This strategically disadvantaged Harvard, Princeton, and UVA, since other colleges could now grab top students through binding early programs, and within several years, all three resumed an early admissions program, with Harvard and Princeton offering SCEA, and UVA offering EA.

In fact, more and more colleges are now offering binding ED plans. In 2016, University of Chicago, Haverford, Wake Forest, and Wellesley added ED plans; and Tulane replaced its SCEA with ED. Very few of the most selective private colleges in the country now offer a non-restrictive early admissions option; these include Georgetown and MIT.

Impact of Early Decisions on Regular Decisions

37 colleges are now filling at least 40% of their incoming freshman class through Early Decision, as we discuss in our blog on trends in the Early Admissions process. This leaves significantly fewer spots for the vastly greater numbers of students who apply through Regular Decision. For example, at the University of Pennsylvania, 7,074 ED applications were submitted for the Class of 2022, and 18.5% were accepted, filling about 55% of Penn’s incoming freshman class. That means that the significantly larger regular pool must compete for the remaining spots. For the Class of 2021, 34,266 students applied in Regular Decision, and only 7% were admitted.

These numbers can affect the quality of review of an applicant’s file. On the one hand, admissions officers have about twice as much time to review applications in the Regular Round, as they typically have three months for RD applications, from January 1 through April 1, and 1 ½ months for ED applications, from November 1 – December 15. But if the admissions staff receive a whopping 5x as many RD applications, as in Penn’s case, the review process will be much more compressed, and students who have a unique story to tell may not receive the same quality of consideration.

Who Benefits from Early Decision?


  • Students from families who do not need to compare financial aid packages
  • Strong academic students who have sufficiently compelling GPAs by the end of junior year and test scores by October of senior year, and who do not need further testing or 1stsemester grades to bolster their candidacy
  • Students from top high schools with sufficient resources to provide individualized guidance in educating students about the benefits of early decision
  • Students from educated parents who are familiar with early decision options
  • Students who have private test prep tutors who advise them to take standardized tests in junior year so that they will have scores in time to submit for early deadlines

High Schools

  • Top high schools whose students take advantage of early decision to selective college; and who consequently are admitted at higher rates. High schools publicize their college acceptance and matriculation outcomes, and successful outcomes makes the school district more desirable for families who value education, increases property values, and draws new residents.


  • Colleges who value students’ demonstrated interest. ED is often used by small to medium sized colleges who want to build a tight-knit community of students who are especially loyal to the school.

How Do Students Benefit?

  • Great acceptance rate. Simply put, students are more likely to be accepted. Typically the acceptance rate is higher for students who apply through a restrictive early program, such as ED or SCEA, because the applicants are demonstrating a strong degree of interest in attending the college. A landmark studyconducted in 2001 by Christopher Avery, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, along with colleagues, found that applying ED provided the advantage of an additional 100 points on the SAT.
  • A more relaxed senior year. Students know where they will be attending by December 15. This eliminates the stress of waiting to find out where they have been accepted, enables the seniors to have a relaxed second semester, and provides them with a longer time in which to plan for the start of college.
  • Access to scholarships. Many merit scholarships are open only to students who apply by fall deadlines.
  • Access to interviews. Some colleges, such as MIT, only offer interviews to students who apply by fall deadlines.

How Do Colleges Benefit?

Early Decision plans benefit the college in numerous ways:

  • The accepted students are more devoted and loyal to the college; they will be stronger spokespeople for the college, and their positive feelings will affect other students
  • As alums, the graduates will likely donate more money because the college was a top choice, and that college accepted them in the early round
  • The colleges’ “yield” (the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend) will increase, which increases predictability in calculating the freshman year
  • With increased yield, US News & World Report’s rankings increase

Who is Disadvantaged by Early Decision?


  • Students from families who need to compare financial aid packages
  • Students from large public high schools with over-burdened guidance counselors who do not have the resources to educate students about the benefits of early decision
  • First-generation students whose parents may not speak English, may not be as actively involved in the high school, and may not be as aware of all the options of admissions plans
  • Students who do not have the financial resources for private test preparation, and are not knowledgeable about the timeline required to obtain scores in time for early deadlines

High Schools

  • Under-resourced high schools whose students do not take advantage of ED options, and have a lower chance of acceptance through RD


  • Colleges who philosophically oppose ED, such as Catholic colleges, and may lose out on top students who would rather have the certainty of an ED acceptance.


White House Report in 2014 cited that “While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do,” concluding that “college access and attainment remains unequal.” It is widely acknowledged that early admissions policies reward the affluent and penalize the poor. Yet it is strategically challenging to address this issue at the level of college institutions, due to the zero- sum-game element in which a small number of colleges with a steady number of slots compete for an ever-growing number of talented applicants.

The issue may be most effectively addressed by individuals and organizations that provide outreach to lower-income students. Former NYC Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is now Executive Director of the Cooke Foundation, whose mission is to award scholarships to high-potential students with financial need. He is an ardent advocate for the end of early admissions, and argues that not only do such policies disadvantage low-income students, but that “our nation is being deprived of the talents of young people who could go on to become doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers and government leaders — and who could fill many other vital jobs if only they had the chance to get a college education.”

For guidance on the college admissions process, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!

Early Admissions Trends for the Class of 2022

As the pool of early applicants increases and schools continue to expand early admissions options, applying early has become a game of strategic calculations and daunting choices for students. This year alone, early applications rose by over 10% at many highly-selective schools. In turn, more applications have led to greater selectivity.

By now, most students have received their early admissions decisions and are either overjoyed by acceptance, disappointed with rejection, or stuck waiting with a deferral. Whatever your early admissions outcomes, it is important to have an open mind and to maintain faith in the process of finding your “best-fit” school. In this blog, we have put together an in-depth analysis of this year’s trends and statistics.

Overall Early Application Trends

It was another record-breaking year, as many schools, including Dartmouth, Georgetown, MIT, Penn, UVA, and Yale, received their highest number of early applications yet. This trend points to the pressure placed on students to demonstrate interest by applying early and hopefully benefit from slightly higher early admit rates (compared to regular admit rates).

Schools that saw a double-digit bump in early apps this year include Brown (10%), Cornell (17.4%), Dartmouth (13.5%), Duke (16.3%), MIT (13.9%), Penn (15%), and Yale (13%). Rising applications have also led to dipping acceptance rates. Schools that accepted record-low rates of early applicants include Duke (21%), MIT (6.9%), and Penn (18.5%).

Many schools with Early Decision programs also continue to fill almost half or more of their incoming class from the early applicant pool, including Dartmouth (47%), Duke (51%), Middlebury (45%), Northwestern (50%), and Penn (55%). The binding Early Decisions admissions plan benefits accepted students, who know where they will attend by December; and benefits the colleges in terms of controlling their yield (number of admitted students who choose to enroll).

Public universities do not typically release their early application data, but US News notes that in general applications at top public universities are on the rise and, therefore, their acceptance rates are dropping. Affordability and quality may be attracting more and more students, and public institutions are marketing to high-performing applicants.

Overall Early Application Numbers

The following chart compares early admissions application numbers and acceptance rates for the class of 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018. As a refresher, early decision (ED) is binding and mandates enrollment, single choice early action (SCEA) is restrictive but allows the student to wait until May 1st to decide, and early action (EA) is unrestrictive and non-binding. Early decision is typically associated with higher acceptance rates because the school is guaranteed enrollment, which increases the yield factor, and brings to campus students who have demonstrated a high degree of interest.

Early Admissions Statistics for a Sampling of Selective Colleges
School Class of 2022 Class of 2021 Class of 2020 Class of 2019 Class of 2018 % Increase in EA/ED Apps 2018-2022
Brown University (ED) 3,502 3,186 3,030 3,043 3,088 13.4%
Cornell University (ED) 6,319 5,384 4,882 4,560 4,775 32.3%
Dartmouth College (ED) 2,270 1,999 1,927 1,859 1,678 35.2%
Duke University (ED) 4,090 3,516 3,455 3,180 3,180 28.6%
Georgetown University (REA) 8,383 7,822 7,027 6,840 6,749 24.2%
Harvard University (SCEA) 6,630 6,473 6,173 5,919 4,692 41.3%
Johns Hopkins University (ED) 2,037 1,934 1,929 1,865 1,595 27.7%
Middlebury College (ED) 650 673 636 667 686 -5.2%
MIT (EA) 9,557 8,394 7,767 6,519 6,820 40.1%
Northwestern University (ED) 4,058 3,736 3,022 2,793 2,863 41.7%
Princeton University (SCEA) 5,402 5,003 4,229 3,850 3,854 40.2%
Stanford University (REA) n/a n/a 7,822 7,297 6,948 12.5% since 2016
University of Notre Dame (REA) 6,598 6,020 5,321 4,700* 6,551 40.4% since REA began in 2015
University of Pennsylvania (ED) 7,074 6,147 5,762 5,489 5,149 37.4%
Williams College (ED) n/a 728 585 593 554 31.4% since 2017
Yale University (SCEA) 5,733 5,086 4,662 4,693 4,750 20.7%

*Notre Dame changed its early admissions program from Early Action to Restrictive Early Action in 2015.

*Stanford last released early admissions stats in 2016. As of 2017, all admissions results are published at the end of the admissions cycle.

*This year, Williams did not release their early decision stats yet.



Acceptance Rate

Class of 2022

Acceptance Rate

Class of 2021

Acceptance Rate

Class of 2020

Acceptance Rate

Class of 2019

Acceptance Rate

Class of 2018

Percent Point (pp) Difference  


Brown University (ED) 21.1% 21.9% 22% 20.3% 18.8% 2.3pp
Cornell University (ED) 24.3% 25.8% 27.4% 26.1% 27.7% -3.4pp
Dartmouth College (ED) 24.9% 27.8% 26% 26% 27.9% -3pp
Duke University (ED) 21.4% 24.5% 23.5% 26% 25% -3.6pp
Georgetown University (REA) 11.9% 11.9% 13% 13% 14% -2pp
Harvard University (SCEA) 14.5% 14.5% 14.8% 16.5% 21.1% -6.6pp
Johns Hopkins University (ED) 29.9% 30.5% 30.3% 28.9% 33% -3.1pp
Middlebury College (ED) 50.1% 51% 53.1% 42% 41.8% 8.3pp
MIT (EA) 6.9% 7.8% 8.4% 9.6% 9% -2.1pp
Northwestern University (ED) n/a 26% 35% 36.2% 32.3% -6.3pp since 2017
Princeton University (SCEA) 14.7% 15.4% 18.5% 19.9% 18.5% -3.7pp
Stanford University (REA) n/a n/a 9.5% 10.2% 10.8%


since 2016

University of Notre Dame (REA) 24.8% 24.4% 30.2% 29.8% 29.9% -5pp since REA began in 2015
University of Pennsylvania (ED) 18.5% 22% 23.2% 24% 25.2% -6.7pp
Williams College (ED) n/a 35% 42% 41% 42.8% -7.8pp since 2017
Yale University (SCEA) 14.7% 17.1% 17% 16% 15.5% -0.8pp

*Notre Dame changed its early admissions program from Early Action to Restrictive Early Action in 2015.

*Northwestern Univ. has not yet released their acceptance rate for the ED class of 2022.

*Stanford last published early admissions stats in 2016. As of 2017, all admissions results are published at the end of the admissions cycle.

*Williams has not yet released this year’s early decision stats.

Deferral Stats

Deferral rates are not as widely published as acceptance rates. However,  available information shows that many schools defer more than half of their early applicant pool to the regular admissions round.

Notable exceptions include Duke, Middlebury, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Stanford, who deny most applicants who are not accepted in the early round. For these schools, deferral is used to indicate that your application is competitive and will be given serious consideration in the regular admissions process.

Some schools, like the University of Michigan, use large numbers of deferrals to control class size as they have continued to receive increasingly large early applicant pools. Some colleges defer especially strong candidates who may view the college as a “safe” school, wait to see if the student withdraws the application based on acceptance by more selective colleges, and then may accept the student late-January through March.

For deferred students, there are several steps you can take to increase your chances of admission in Regular Decision, including re-visiting, arranging for an additional letter of recommendation from a 12th grade teacher, and sending a follow-up letter with updates. Above all, stay positive, and continue to do your best academically.

Percent of Early Apps Deferred for Recent Classes
School Class of 2022 Class of 2021 Class of 2020 Class of 2019 Class of 2018
Brown University (ED) n/a 60% 63% 65% n/a
Cornell University (ED) n/a 20.9% 23.6% 20% n/a
Duke University (ED) 21.5% 20% 19% 19% 22%
Georgetown University (REA) 88.1%* 88.1%* 87% 87% 86%
Harvard University (SCEA) 72.7% n/a 75.7% 72.5% 68%
Middlebury College (ED) 6% 9% 11.6% 12% 14%
MIT (EA) 65% 69.7% 61.5% 68.4% 66.5%
Princeton University (SCEA) n/a n/a n/a n/a 78.9%
Stanford University (REA) n/a n/a 9% 7.7% 8.5%
University of Notre Dame (REA) n/a 14.8% 15.4% 17% 13.7%
Yale University (SCEA) 55% 53% 53% 57% 58%

*Georgetown defers all students who are not accepted early action.


There is a trend towards more standardized testing flexibility in college admissions. More small liberal arts colleges have become test-optional, and more schools, such as Penn, now super-score the ACT/SAT. Also, increasingly, colleges are not requiring Subject Tests. Over 925 colleges and universities have decided that standardized test scores are not as predictive of academic success in college as the day-to-day academic performance reflected by a high school GPA. Current test-optional colleges include Wake ForestSmith, and Bowdoin.

Several others, including NYUMiddlebury, and Hamilton fall under the category of “test-flexible,” meaning that applicants have the option to submit alternative college entrance examinations, such as SAT Subject, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate examinations in place of SAT and ACT scores.

It is interesting to note that of the 50 highest-ranked national universities, only four have test-optional or test-flexible policies, including Wake Forest, University of Rochester, Brandeis, and NYU, whereas 21 of the top-ranked liberal arts universities offer such testing options. One possible reason is that to attract applicants, the national universities rely more on US News & World Report’s rankings, which factor in test scores. In addition, small liberal arts universities are typically more holistic in their evaluations of candidates.

Finally, more colleges are allowing students to self-report testing, and then only requiring them to send their testing to the school they commit to. For more information about current trends in test-optional and test-flexible policies, read our blog.

Increased Diversity Continues to be a Priority

Many of the most selective colleges continue to use early admissions for the big “hooks”:  underrepresented minorities, lower socioeconomic, first-generation, and international students, as well as recruited athletes, and legacies. Schools with a high percentage of students who self-identify as students of color include Brown (38%), Cornell (37%), Dartmouth (33%), Duke (40%), Harvard (49.7%), Princeton (44%), Penn (43%),

Legacy is another major factor, and schools accepting large numbers of early applicants with a family history of attending the school include Cornell (22%), Dartmouth (16%), Princeton (17%), and Penn (25%). In the Ivy League, Penn has the highest rate of legacy acceptances, and recently the Daily Pennsylvanian wrote an article exploring the benefits and drawbacks of this policy.

International early admits continues to grow, despite the political climate in the United States. Universities with high international early acceptances include Cornell (14.3%), Dartmouth (10%), Princeton (11%), and Penn (12%).

Yale has made increasing diversity an institutional priority and according to Director of Outreach and Communications, Mark Dunn, their efforts have included mailing campaigns to high-achieving low-income students, the Yale Ambassadors Program, and the Multicultural Open House.

If you applied early to a highly selective college and do not fall into one of these categories, consider the even higher odds that you are up against in seeking early admission.

Colleges Marketing and Recruiting Students after Early Acceptance

Many colleges are reaching out to students in new ways to increase early applications and foster a connection to the schools that will result in higher enrollment and yield. Dartmouth points to a connection between higher applications and its new initiative of recruitment, programming activities, and communications narrative. Also, almost every Dartmouth early applicant was paired with an alumni interviewer (of which there are 5,100) through the Admissions Ambassador Program.

Harvard uses comprehensive recruiting efforts which include 10,000 alumni who go to college nights, interview candidates, host admit parties, and contact admitted students. Harvard also asks its staff to write personal letters, make phone calls, connect through social media, and meet with accepted students.

Remarkably, Georgetown’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Charles Deacon, finds it difficult to explain the spikes in early applications over the past two years as the result of any planned initiative. Deacon says, “It’s really hard to pinpoint precisely why. We haven’t done anything unusual to make that happen.” He suggests that Georgetown’s location in Washington, D.C., and its excellent programs in government, public policy and foreign service, may be increasing its draw in conjunction with the political climate following President Trump’s election.

Notable Moments in Early Admissions for the Class of 2022

  • Many schools, including Penn, extended early application deadlines for students affected by natural disasters this year.
  • Brown’s accepted early decision cohort includes 430 females and 308 males.
  • Stanford will not release early admissions statistics for the Class of 2022 until the end of the admissions cycle. Last year, Stanford filled 35% of the class of 2021 from the early applicant pool.
  • There is more variety in application materials, including videos. For example, Goucher still accepts the Common Application, but also provides the option to submit the Goucher Video App.
  • Following Trump’s presidential election, there has been a movement among college admissions directors to recruit white students from low-income, rural areas (Inside Higher Ed).

Deciding whether and where to apply early can be daunting. But here at Collegiate Gateway we are happy to help you decipher your options and understand the changing landscape of early admissions. Please feel free to contact us!

Everything You Need to Know About the New MCAT!

In April 2015, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) officially launched a new version of the MCAT, the MCAT15. According to the AAMC, the test was changed “to help better prepare tomorrow’s doctors for the rapidly advancing and transforming health care system.” The new MCAT is double in length, includes a fourth section on the social sciences, and has a revamped scoring system. Medical schools vary in their policy about whether they will still accept the old MCAT for the 2018 application cycle.

Before we provide you with a detailed look at the new MCAT, it’s important to keep in mind that the MCAT is just one of various factors used by medical schools. The evaluation process also reviews college grades, trends in grades, extracurricular activities, and medically-related experiences such as research, shadowing, and clinical work.

New Structure of the MCAT2015

The MCAT changed in several major ways. Most notably, it has doubled in length. The MCAT2015 consists of 230 questions over 6 hours and 15 minutes.

The MCAT2015 includes both new topic areas and different types of questions. The first three sections are organized around “big ideas” in the sciences. According to the AAMC, these sections “reflect current research about the most effective ways for students to learn and use science, emphasizing deep knowledge of the most important scientific concepts over knowledge simply of many discrete facts.”

The new content will also test additional skills, including research design, graphical analysis and data interpretation. Kaplan claims that the “passages will be restructured to test all of the natural sciences within biological systems,” giving the test a more medical focus by showing the application of the sciences to medicine.

The new section, “Psychological, Social, and Behavioral Foundations of Behavior,” comprises 25% of the test, and recognizes the role of social science in treating patients effectively. Catherine Lucey, a member of the MCAT review committee and vice dean of the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, observed:

“One hundred years ago, all you really needed to know was the science. We were all looking for the magic bullet that would cure disease. Now we have problems like obesity and diabetes that require doctors to form therapeutic alliances with patients and convince them to change their lifestyle.”

Ripal Shah, an MCAT test prep tutor for Advantage Testing, agrees that training in the social sciences is beneficial for a career in medicine, because “many studies have shown that communication skills are often the most indicative of patient satisfaction and medication compliance.”

The following visual, from Kaplan Test Prep, illustrates the structural and content changes between the two tests.

The US News blog, “Medical School Admissions Doctor,” estimates that the vast amount of information covered on the MCAT2015 requires significantly more than standard medical school prerequisites:

  • One year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics
  • One semester of biochemistry, psychology, and sociology
  • A year of humanities (recommended)

MCAT Test Dates and Centers

The MCAT is offered 30 times throughout the year, from January through September, with scores released five weeks after administration. You can find a local test center here.

MCAT Score Scale

Each of the four sections will be scored individually, from 118 to 132, with a midpoint of 125. Scores are combined to create a total score ranging from 472 to 528, with a midpoint of 500. The test is not graded on a curve, and there is no penalty for wrong answers.

Below is the distribution of total scores for the new MCAT taken in 2015 and 2016 for a total of 150,893 exams. 18% of test-takers took the exam multiple times. The mean for each of the four individual sections was about 125.

The score reports provide details on your test performance, and combines MCAT scores, percentile ranks, confidence bands, and score profiles. See the sample score report below.


What Are Percentile Ranks?

Percentile ranks are included so examinees can compare their performance to others who took the new exam. Percentile ranks are updated May 1 of every year. This info has been particularly useful to med schools in the first 1-2 years after the new MCAT was implemented, before sufficient historical data was available to evaluate applicant’s scores.

Importantly, on May 1, 2018, the percentile ranks will be based on the MCATs from the entire three preceding years; having this history will provide much more useful information to both students and med schools.

What Are Confidence Bands?

Confidence bands show the ranges of scores an examinee could expect on another MCAT attempt. Score profiles provide information about applicants’ strengths and weaknesses across the four sections of the exam. According to the AAMC, “non-overlapping confidence bands show a test taker’s likely strengths and weaknesses. Overlapping confidence bands suggest that there are not meaningful differences in performance between sections.” For instance, in the example above, the student would have strengths in the BBFL and PSBB areas, and relative weaknesses in the CPBS and CARS areas, but would have comparable strengths between BBFL and PSBB; and between CPBS and CARS.

Note that the confidence bands for each of the four section scores are two points, whereas the confidence band for the overall total is four points. So if your total score is 501, and you retake the MCAT, you have a reasonable chance of scoring anywhere from 499 – 503.

Who Has Taken the New MCAT?

According to the most recently published data of the AAMC, over 125,000 students took the new MCAT in 2015 and 2016. This included 54% females, 46% males; 48% whites, 27% Asians, 11% each of African-American and Hispanic; and 3% other; 18% repeaters (having taken the new MCAT before).

Average MCAT Scores for Selected Medical Schools

Below are the median new MCAT scores and GPAs for accepted students at a variety of medical schools.

Medical School US News Rank MEDIAN
Columbia 6 3.87 519
Drexel 83 3.73 511
Emory 23 3.79 515
Georgetown 45 3.74 5.12
Harvard 1 3.92 518
NYU 12 3.9 520
Stanford 2 3.89 518
Temple 55 3.79 512
Washington Univ 7 3.89 521
Univ of Miami 48 3.8 513


Policies About Accepting Old vs New MCAT Scores

For the 2018 application cycle, many medical schools are only accepting the new scores, but some are still accepting the old scores, and others express a preference for the new test but will still accept the old. The following charts shows a selection of med schools with each of these policies:

Brown University (Warrren Alpert Medical School) Albert Einstein College of Medicine Northwestern University Feinberg SOM
Dartmouth (Geisel SOM) Boston University School of Medicine U Chicago (Pritzker SOM)
Hofstra North Shore Emory University SOM U Rochester
Mount Sinai George Washington University
Johns Hopkins U SOM Harvard Medical School Medical School
USC (Keck) UPenn Perelman SOM
NYU SOM Stanford U SOM
Weill Cornell Medical College Tufts University SOM
Vanderbilt University
Wash University in St. Louis
Yale SOM


Applying to medical school is a long and challenging process. For more information or guidance regarding the MCAT, or any other aspect of the admissions process, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.

Summer Activities for Pre-Med Students

You’ve decided you want to go into medicine, and to embark upon the arduous path to becoming a physician. You’re busy studying for biology exams, conducting experiments in chemistry lab, trying to squeeze in some volunteering and (if you’re really ambitious) conducting a bit of research. Now, January rolls around and it’s time to start thinking about the summer. Regardless of how far along you are in your undergraduate pre-med training, carefully choosing your summer plans is essential.

Summer provides an excellent time to further explore the areas of clinical medicine, research, or global health, while also enhancing your medical school application. In fact, according to Liza Thompson, a medical school admissions consultant, “pre-med students who are productively engaged during the summer months have an advantage during the medical school application process.”

It is essential to dedicate sufficient time, often during the summer, to study for the MCAT, take classes if needed, and prepare your medical school application by writing your personal statement and brainstorming for secondary applications. However, many experts including the Princeton Review stress the importance of expanding your learning beyond the classroom setting.

Clinical Experience

Clinical experience will enable you to directly observe the patient-physician relationship. The importance of clinical experience cannot be stressed enough; in fact, Emory University School of Medicine lists “exposure to patients in a clinical setting” as one of its application requirements. This can take a variety of forms, including shadowing a family member or friend who is in the medical profession or participating in a more formalized summer program.

Some of the more structured programs can be very demanding, but the rewards are quite evident. For example, Project Healthcare created by the Bellevue Hospital Center Emergency Department is an immersive program involving participation in clinical rotations, research and informational lectures, as well as extensive engagement with the community. If you’re hoping to make money while gaining clinical experience, certain jobs, such as a hospital scribe, may be of particular interest.


Doing research is another ideal summer activity, as pre-med students can often continue research already started during the school-year or pursue an entirely new area of interest. There are a multitude of structured summer research programs at various institutions across the nation. A comprehensive list by the AAMC can be found here.

Similar to clinical experience, research experience is yet another critical element of the typical medical school application. Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine reports that 92% of their entering class of 2019 engaged in research at the undergraduate or graduate level.

Volunteer Work

Summer volunteering can allow you to continue pursuing an existent volunteer placement from the school-year or an entirely new volunteering experience. US News stresses the importance of carefully considering the nature of the volunteering, as well as how long you’re doing it. It may be most beneficial to volunteer in a medical setting, such as a nursing home, where you can continue to gain relevant experience.

Any sort of volunteering is certainly valuable as it reflects an innate desire to help others: a trait that every pre-med student should possess. Some students choose to engage in more extensive types of volunteering, such as obtaining an EMT certification or volunteering overseas. Volunteering internationally can be particularly valuable for pre-med students, as many are not able to study abroad during the school-year due to course requirements.

With any volunteering experience, you must carefully assess how meaningful your actual involvement in the activity will be. To start, it can be helpful to explore global health organizations that may have chapters at your university, such as GlobeMed or Medical Brigades.

Additional Options

Although these ideas provide a starting point, they do not provide a comprehensive list of all available opportunities for pre-med students. If you have more specialized interests in the area of public health for example, you may want to explore internships through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, your undergraduate institution may be a valuable resource for identifying summer opportunities. For example, Swarthmore provides a comprehensive list of summer options for pre-meds that can be found here.

The summer provides an ideal time for pre-med students to further clarify their interest in medicine and explore the various facets of a profession in healthcare. For guidance on pursuing a pre-med track and applying to medical school, feel free to contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!

The Clinical Years of Med School: What to Expect

Once medical students complete their time in the classroom, they move on to what many consider to be the real reason they went to med school in the first place: treating patients. This transition usually occurs during the second or third year depending on the length of a school’s pre-clinical curriculum, and is comprised of clerkships, selectives, electives, sub-internships, away rotations, and various other scholarly pursuits. If you are considering medical school, here is an overview of the opportunities and experiences during these clinical years.

Clerkships, Selectives and Electives

The core clerkships beginning in the second or third year of medical school are mandatory for all students. They typically include rotations through some variation of the following: neurology, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery. Each core clerkship lasts several weeks, with many schools also mandating a certain number of selectives interspersed throughout.

A selective will be in a more specialized area as compared to the more general core clerkships. Georgetown University School of Medicine offers a multitude of selectives ranging from anesthesia to child psychiatry. Schools also require a certain amount of elective time, which can span a variety of areas. Thus, even in the universal core clerkships, there is still substantial room for personalization during the clinical years.


During a sub-internship, the medical student assumes even more responsibility than he or she would during a clerkship or elective. According to Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, the level of clinical responsibility expected during a sub-internship is comparable to that of an intern (someone who already graduated medical school). Students typically choose their sub-internship in an area that they are considering applying to for residency.

Away Rotations

Away rotations provide a unique opportunity for fourth year medical students to explore residency opportunities at other institutions. To streamline the process of applying, there is a universal application through the AAMC, known as VSAS. However, policies vary by school so it is important to carefully research the specific program you are planning on applying to. Pritzker School of Medicine explains that some specialties, such as dermatology and emergency medicine, essentially require students to complete away rotations before applying for residency.

Other Opportunities

There are a number of additional opportunities available to medical students during their clinical years. Many schools offer a focused, in-depth experience in a specific area of interest. Several medical programs, such as Weill Cornell Medical College, Alpert Medical School, and Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons offer a scholarly concentration program, which allows students to participate in an in-depth study of a particular area of medical practice or research under the mentorship of faculty. Certain schools, such as Duke University School of Medicine, dedicate an entire year to scholarly research.

Another important element of these years is dedicating sufficient time to prepare for the United States Medical Licensing Examinations (USMLE) Step 1 and Step 2. However, it should be noted that the timing of these exams varies widely among different medical schools.

The clinical years of medical school are fundamental in shaping students’ future paths. During this time, students gain in-depth clinical experience while pursuing scholarly endeavors and delving deeper into their individual interests. It is essential to carefully compare the curricula of various medical schools so that you ultimately attend one that is compatible with your future goals.

For guidance on navigating the medical school application process, feel free to contact us. As always at Collegiate Gateway, we’re happy to help!

Applying to Med School: The Importance of Secondary Applications

If you are applying to medical school for the Class of 2022, chances are you have completed your AMCAS Personal Statement, and are in the final stages of perfecting a powerful discussion of why you want to become a physician.

Take a breath… and then begin to prepare for individual medical school’s secondary applications! The purpose of secondary (or supplemental) applications is to further differentiate among candidates, and to determine whether you’d be a good fit for the particular medical school.

Who Receives Secondaries

Most schools, such as Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, Yale School of Medicine and the University of Michigan Medical School, send all of their applicants a secondary. Some schools, such as Harvard Medical School and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, send all “verified” applicants a secondary, meaning that they wait until AMCAS verifies the student’s transcript.

Others review the primary AMCAS application holistically, and are selective in determining who receives supplemental applications, such as Emory School of Medicine. For example, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine has three independent evaluators review the AMCAS application for academic accomplishment, motivation, personal qualities, leadership skills and educational background, and offers secondaries to only about one-third of its applicants.

A few others have no secondaries, such as University of Rochester.

The Timing of Secondaries

Try to submit your primary AMCAS application as close as possible to June 5th, the day that the 2018 AMCAS application submission begins, and certainly by the end of June. The sooner you submit, the sooner your application will be reviewed.

You can expect to receive secondaries from late June through December. You may even receive secondaries before your AMCAS application is verified. If you submit your primary AMCAS application in June, you will likely be completing your secondaries in July and August. Secondary applications are time sensitive, in that the faster you return them to the institution, the more strongly you convey your enthusiasm for that school. A quality secondary application submitted within one to two weeks will increase your likelihood of getting an interview.

Secondary Essay Prompts

Once you submit your primary AMCAS, you can begin preparing for secondaries, which typically include a variety of essays on assigned topics, such as the following:

  • Define a physician.
  • Tell us about your diverse talents, experiences, opinions, and backgrounds. What would you bring to the medical school community?
  • Why do you feel that you are a good fit for our particular medical school?
  • Are you expecting to go on to medical school directly after completing your undergraduate degree? If no, explain.
  • Describe the personal accomplishment that makes you most proud. Why is this important to you?
  • Where do you see your future medical career (academic medicine, research, public health, primary care, business/law, etc.) and why?
  • Please describe a challenge you faced and how you addressed it.
Unusual prompts

While there is great overlap among many of the secondary prompts, some medical schools offer unusual prompts such as those below:

  • What challenges do you expect to arise from living and working in a complex urban environment? How will you meet them?
  • Are there any areas of medicine that are of particular interest to you? If so, please comment.
  • Write a sentence that is not true, then tell us why you wish it were.
  • What is the most fun you’ve had lately?

Secondary Application Tips

Start brainstorming, outlining and drafting the above essays so that you can respond quickly. Here are some tips for writing the most effective secondaries:

  • Provide new information.Remember that the admissions committees have already seen your transcript, primary AMCAS personal statement and activity essays.
  • Show your fit with the program.Make a compelling case for why you are a good fit for each medical school. Research the school’s academic programs and approach to clinical practice. Follow them on social media to learn more. Does the school require research or a thesis? Be specific about the resources at the medical school that you will take advantage of, and the unique strengths you will bring.
  • Answer the prompt. Though it is sometimes effective to recycle other essays (see below), always make sure you’re answering the question fully and directly.
  • Connect your past, present and future.How have your past experiences influenced the person you are today? How do your future goals link with your talents, accomplishments and values?Proofread and edit. Carve out enough time in your schedule to edit several drafts for each essay. It takes time to ensure that your essays are well-written and represent you both strongly and authentically.
  • Stay organized. Create a spreadsheet listing your medical schools, dates that you received and submitted secondaries, secondary essay topics, and dates of interviews.
  • Take advantage of overlaps.Evaluate the various secondary essay prompts of your medical schools to see if there are any commonalities. Adapt essays for additional medical schools, but only if appropriate.

Applying to medical school is a challenging process, and the secondaries are no exception. For more information and guidance, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.


The redesigned SAT debuted a year ago, which means that high school students can now choose between the standardized tests of the “new” SAT and ACT.

But which to choose?

As part of our ongoing series of “Ask the Experts,” we surveyed top test prep tutors from around the country, and asked them a series of questions about these two tests. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to which test to take, and each student is a unique test-taker. But by asking the right questions, we can provide you with the proper tools to make an informed decision.

Here are our expert test prep tutors:

  • Advantage Testing, Alex Freedman, Director of Connecticut office and senior tutor in Manhattan. Advantage has 16 offices throughout the US, and an office in Paris.
  • Applerouth, Jed Applerouth, Founder. Applerouth has offices in NYC, DC, LA, Atlanta, Seattle, Savannah, Chicago.
  • Peter Baumtest prep tutor in NYC and San Francisco.
  • Compass Education Group, Matt Steiner, Senior Director of Outreach. Compass has offices in Northern California and Southern California.
  • Inspirica, Lisa Jacobson, Founder and CEO. Inspirica has offices in NYC, Boston and Philadelphia.
  • Phyllis Jencius, test prep tutor on Long Island for verbal content.
  • Bill Ma, test prep tutor on Long Island for math content, author of CliffNotes SAT CramPlanCliffNotes ACT CramPlan, 5 Steps to a 5 AP Calculus AB and BC.
  • Signet Education, Jay Bacrania, Co-founder and CEO. Signet has offices in Cambridge MA and NYC.
  • Summit Educational Group, Drew Heilpern, Brand Ambassador, offices in Connecticut/New York and Massachusetts.
  • TestTakers, Frank Pomilla, President and Founder, with 11 offices throughout the Greater New York area.

Below are the questions we asked, and the responses of our expert tutors. In some cases, tutors have a consensus, and in others, there is a wide range of opinion. We hope this is helpful as you evaluate what course of action is best for your needs! 

What are the differences between the ACT and New SAT? 

  • The SAT and the ACT have a similar structure and cover similar materials.
  • The SAT questions are trickier and require more complex thought.
  • The ACT is more straightforward, but much faster with more time pressure.

In general, the SAT and the ACT have a similar structure and cover similar materials; however tutors agree that the questions on the SAT are trickier and require more complex thought, while the ACT is a much faster test with much more time pressure. As TestTakers’ Frank Pomilla describes “An exam is considered to be ‘speeded’ if the score significantly depends on the rate at which tester answers the questions. Simply put, the ACT is much more speeded than the SAT.

According to Drew Heilpern of Summit Education Group: “Generally speaking, students feel that the ACT questions are more straightforward than those on the SAT, but the difficulty stems from the fast pace of the ACT. Many students walk out of an ACT test thinking that they understood what the questions were asking but wishing that they had another 5 or 10 minutes per section.” As a result, Peter Baum explains, “there is more advantage to getting extra time on the ACT than on the SAT.” He recommends that students who are allotted extra time take the ACT.

The chart below shows major differences between the two tests:


  SAT Exam ACT Exam
Test Structure

Reading (65 min)

Writing & Language (35 min)

Math (55 min) – With calculator

Math (25 min) – No calculator

Optional Essay (50 min)

Reading (35 min)

English (45 min)

Math (60 min) – With calculator

Science (35 min)

Optional Essay/Writing (40 min)

Total Length

3 hours (without essay)

3 hours, 50 minutes (with essay)

2 hours, 55 minutes (without essay)

3 hours, 40 minutes (with essay)

Test Style

Questions are evidence- and context-based in an effort to focus on real-world situations and multi-step problem-solving

Questions increase in difficulty level as you move through that question type in a section


Questions may be long but are usually less difficult to decipher

Difficulty level of the questions is random

Reading Content

5 reading passages

Relevant words in context

Grammar & usage

4 reading passages

Grammar & usage

Math Content


Problem-solving & data analysis

Heart of algebra



Formulas provided

Calculator allowed for 38  the questions, including advanced (TI-89)


Algebra I and II




No formulas provided

Calculator allowed for all sections, but not advanced (such as TI-89)

Science Content None Tests critical thinking skills, not specific science knowledge
Optional Essays Tests your comprehension of a source text Tests how well you evaluate and analyze complex issues

Evidence-Based Reading & Writing: 200-800

Math: 200-800

Composite SAT score is the sum of the two  section scores ranging from 400-1600

* You do not lose points for incorrect answers

English: 1-36

Math: 1-36

Reading: 1-36

Science: 1-36

Composite ACT score is the average of your scores on the four sections ranging from 1-36

* You do not lose points for incorrect answers


Tends to be more popular with private schools and schools on the East and West coasts

* Every four-year college in the US accepts SAT

Tends to be more popular with public schools and schools in the Midwest and South

* Every four-year college in the US accepts ACT

More Information


  • Both tests require reading passages and answering questions about their content.
  • SAT passages are harder – harder vocabulary and sentence structures.
  • SAT questions are harder – require understanding author’s intent.
  • ACT is easier, but faster – requires quickly finding details in the passage.

The reading sections of the two tests are structurally very similar; both require students to read written passages and then answer questions about their content. But again, the SAT section is generally harder, while the ACT requires students to answer the questions more quickly.

As Jed Applerouth of Applerouth Tutors explains, “SAT reading passages typically have a higher level of vocabulary and more sophisticated sentence structures. Particular SAT passages, frequently pulled from historical documents or American or English literature, are significantly harder than anything found on the ACT.”

SAT questions also require more in-depth understanding, requiring students to analyze the author’s intent, while the ACT typically requires the student to quickly locate details in the passage. An example of the difference in difficulty is provided by Peter Baum: “The classic SAT question is inferential – for instance, ‘Why did they mention dinosaurs in line 57?’ On the ACT, it’s more direct but there’s no line reference, ‘What did the author say about dinosaurs?’ ”

Unsurprisingly, the ACT reading section is also much more “speeded” than the SAT. As Drew Heilpern summarizes, the SAT Reading Test consists of 5 passages, typically 500-750 words each, with roughly 10 questions per section, providing students an average of 13 minutes per section. The ACT test consists of 4 passages, typically 700-900 words each, and also roughly 10 questions per section. However, even though the ACT passages are longer, students have on average only 8.5 minutes per passage. Also, as several of the tutors pointed out, unlike the SAT, the ACT questions do not appear in any order, requiring a greater ability to skim and scan. As Heilpern explains, “For most students, it is a total sprint from start to finish.”

If students have not had a lot of experience taking faster tests, they may initially score poorly on ACT practice tests. However, as Phyllis Jencius notes, they should not be discouraged, because speed can be improved with practice! She advises: “A low reading score on an initial practice ACT test should not automatically discourage students from taking this exam. A tutor should be able to discern whether the score is the result of time pressure rather than the understanding of the material. If so… [reading] under time constraints while maintaining accuracy is a skill that can often be taught.”

  • Writing section is the most similar – both involve reading a passage and then answering questions about errors in it.
  • SAT passages are harder; ACT passages are shorter and written at high school level.
  • SAT passages require understanding of author’s intent.
  • ACT section is much faster.

Tutors agree the writing sections are nearly identical, requiring students to “answer questions about specific errors in passages,” says Jay Bacrania. According to Alex Freedman of Advantage Testing, “Both test fundamental concepts of grammar, idiom, diction, and clarity of expression.” However, the writing section also follows the same trends in terms of difficulty and speed. The SAT passages typically resemble the reading passages in complexity, while the ACT passages are written at a much simpler level. According to Drew Heilpern, “The ACT English Test has passages that are shorter in length and resemble essays that might be written by a high school student. On the other hand, the SAT passages are well-written essays that, similar to the Reading passages, range in complexity from grades 9-10 to early college.” The SAT passages require a deeper understanding of the author’s intent, while the ACT questions are more straightforward, dealing with basic grammar.

And as always, the ACT section is much faster. As Frank Pomilla explains, “On the ACT, students are allotted 45 minutes to answer 75 questions; on the SAT, it’s 35 minutes for 44 questions. That’s 33% more time per SAT question than ACT question.”

  • SAT has calculator and no calculator section; ACT allows calculator (but no TI-89).
  • SAT covers more limited topics (more focus on algebra and functions).
  • ACT covers wider range (more focus on geometry and trigonometry).
  • SAT is more conceptual and more difficult (math concepts in combination, interpretation of math).
  • ACT is more straightforward but faster-paced.

There are a few basic structural differences between the math portion of the two tests. The SAT Math Test is divided into sections: a calculator section (including advanced calculators like the TI-89) and a non-calculator section. The SAT also includes two types of questions: multiple-choice and grid-in. The ACT, on the other hand, consists of a single section, all multiple-choice, with a calculator allowed (but not a TI-89).

Another difference is in the scope of topics – the SAT covers a more limited set of topics, with a big focus on algebra, functions, and data analysis, while the ACT covers a wider array of topics, with a big focus on geometry and trigonometry, and also touches on more advanced topics like matrices and logarithms.

Similar to the reading and writing sections, the SAT math section is more difficult, requiring a deeper understanding of the topics, but the ACT test is more of a time crunch (students have 38% more time for each SAT math question). As Jed Applerouth explains, “SAT math has a greater reading burden, tests more math concepts in combination, and focuses more on translation and interpretation of math (i.e., math fluency) than upon direct solving.” While some feel the ACT Math has become harder, Matt Steiner of Compass Prep points out that “the perceived ‘hardness’ of ACT Math is less an issue of difficulty; more an issue of familiarity and exposure” with the handful of new topics added.

  • ACT has separate science section; SAT has 21 science questions scattered throughout test (no actual science section).
  • Both involve science questions based on passages.
  • Neither tests knowledge of facts; both test understanding of scientific method and experiments, interpretation of charts and graphs.
  • ACT section is more difficult. 

The crucial difference between the science content on the two tests is that the ACT has a separate science section, while the SAT has 21 science-related questions scattered throughout the test. For example, the SAT may include a chart as part of one of the reading passages and consider questions about the chart to be science-related. On the SAT, students receive an “Analysis in Science” score on a 10-40 scale, which combines the science questions from the various sections, but colleges do not look at this separate score. For all intents and purposes, while the SAT includes science-based questions, it does not have a science section.

Neither test requires any specific knowledge of scientific facts, but rather tests students’ ability to reason deductively. Students are provided with passages about scientific topics that they may not know much about, and must interpret them to answer the questions. According to Matt Steiner, “ACT Science is simply another Reading section disguised by science-y flourishes: charts and graphs, descriptions of experiments, and other quantitative elements.”

However, tutors agree that the ACT science section is more difficult than the SAT science questions, requiring a higher level of data interpretation and understanding of experimental design. According to Frank Pomilla, the ACT tests “an ability to understand graphs and tables, and to analyze the design and results of hypothetical scientific experiments.” Drew Heilpern notes that as students read the passages, it will help them to consider the following types of questions: “What scientific question is being asked? What was the experimental design? What was the data that was collected? What conclusions did the author draw?”

And as you’ve probably come to understand by this point, students must go through the ACT Science section very quickly.

  • Both offer optional essay; good idea to sit for the essay anyway.
  • SAT provides a written essay; students analyze the author’s argument.
  • ACT provides three perspectives on an issue; students defend their own perspective.  

Both the SAT and the ACT offer optional essay sections. According to Matt Steiner, “only 10% of the top 360 colleges in the US require students to submit their SAT or ACT Essay results.” However most tutors recommend that students sit for the essay anyway in order to have the option to apply to a wider selection of colleges.

Both tests require students to analyze a rhetorical argument, however there are basic differences. “In essence,” according to Alex Freedman, “the ACT essay asks students to construct an argument, while the SAT asks students to analyze an argument.” As Phyllis Jencius explains, the 50-minute SAT section “provides a written essay and asks students to analyze it using textual evidence to determine how the writer effectively builds his or her argument.” Drew Heilpern adds, “It is a rhetorical analysis essay where students are not asked for their opinion on the topic, but rather to analyze what rhetorical devices the author used and their effectiveness.”

The 40-minute ACT on the other hand, according to Jay Bacrania of Signet, “presents a societal issue with three different perspectives on the issue and asks students to analyze the problem and defend a perspective of their own (which can be wholly or partially taken from one of the given perspectives, or not at all).” As noted out by Lisa Jacobson of Inspirica, “Consequently, the student need not get into too much depth about any one opinion… The SAT requires more depth and complexity… [and] is generally more challenging.”

As Peter Baum advises: “For a more literal student, the SAT essay, which is analyzing how an author made his or her points, is a better fit. For a more free-thinking student, the ACT essay allows him or her to find a path to individual expression.”

What kind of student would be better served by taking either the ACT or SAT?

  • Colleges accept either test and don’t have a preference.
  • Best strategy is to take both practice tests and compare scores.
  • SAT is better for more complex thinkers and slower test takers.
  • ACT better for more straightforward thinkers and faster test takers.
  • SAT is better for strong readers; ACT is better for strong math students.
  • Best to choose one test and stick with it to maximize prep.

The testing landscape has evolved considerably in recent years. Only a decade ago, the SAT was more commonly taken by students on the East and West coasts, while the ACT was more popular in the Midwest. Additionally, the most selective colleges expressed a preference for the SAT. But, “nowadays, both are accepted at all universities and are equally regarded, so students should prepare for and take the test on which they will receive the higher score,” according to Alex Freedman.

Some tutors feel that due to the similarities between the SAT and the ACT, students frequently will get comparable scores on the two tests. In this case, the decision comes down to personal preference. As Peter Baum emphasizes, “there’s at least a 70% overlap between the tests at this point. You’re not going to find many students who score much higher on one than on the other.”

However based on the general differences between the tests (especially complexity of the SAT vs. speed of the ACT) certain students may fare better on one or the other. Tutors are in agreement that the best way to figure out which test is for you is very simple: take full practice tests of both, then compare your scores using the College Board’s concordance table, which will tell you exactly which scores are equivalent on the two tests.

Though the tests are similar, tutors do have some thoughts on the type of students who may prefer one or the other. According to Jay Bacrania, “Generally speaking, the SAT is well suited for students who are good at more complicated problem solving but are slower test takers. The ACT on the other hand is often good for students who like to see more predictable, straightforward problems and are good at being efficient and accurate while under time pressure.” Additionally, according to Alex Freedman of Advantage, “students who are put off by the ACT’s Science section might be better off taking the SAT.”

Several tutors noted that the SAT is more reading-heavy than the ACT so strong readers might prefer the SAT, while the math on the ACT is more advanced, so stronger math students might prefer the ACT.

Lisa Jacobson of Inspirica adds that test anxiety may play a role. She explains that due to the difference in pace, the SAT may be a better fit for “one who has trouble with time, perhaps a little more prone to test anxiety. One who works more methodically and thoroughly.”

While some students choose to take both tests, tutors generally advise picking one test and sticking with it in order to put all of your test prep time into that test. Frank Pomilla notes that, “While the tests are quite similar, there is a disadvantage to splitting time between two exams, when colleges need to see only your best performance on either one.”


What is the percentage of your students who take SAT-only, ACT-only, or both?

  • The distribution across tests varies widely across tutors and states.
  • While many opt to take the ACT only, some have shifted back to the SAT.
  • Yet, while there is great variation between the percentages of students taking either test, only a very small percentage currently take both.

The distribution of students taking both tests or just one test varies by tutor, by state, and by historical time frame.

During the period when the SAT overhauled its exam in spring of 2016, many students opted for ACT-only, due to the uncertainty of the new SAT exam and the lack of practice tests issued by the College Board. But in recent times, there is some shifting back to the SAT.

Some states choose to offer either the SAT or ACT as their standard state assessment test for public schools, so this impacts test prep as well. For example, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and New Hampshire have chosen the SAT as their state-wide assessment test; while Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, and North Carolina have chosen the ACT (among other states).

Finally, tutors’ own philosophy about whether it makes sense to focus on one test or take both tests impacts students’ test prep approach as well. According to Lisa Jacobson, the breakdown includes 37% SAT-only, 62% ACT-only, and less than 1% take both tests. This breakdown is comparable to Signet (about 30% SAT-only, 65% ACT-only, 5% both) and Applerouth (45.3% SAT-only, 49.2% ACT-only and 5.5% both). In contrast, Peter Baum’s split is 55% SAT-only, 25% ACT-only, and 20% both. And Frank Pomilla notes, “In the New York area, where TestTakers operates, it’s been my experience that the SAT is still the more popular exam.”


Is there a maximum number of either SAT or ACT tests that you recommend to your students? In other words, do you find that scores tend to plateau after a certain number of tests?

  • No maximum, but tutors recommend taking the test 2-3 times.

Most tutors agree that the sweet spot for the number of tests is 2-3. Of course every student is different so this should not be used as a hard and fast rule. According to Peter Baum, “My breakdown by number of times is 35% 1, 55% 2, 10% 3. There is, of course, selection bias involved since the kids who ace it the first time don’t take it again.”

Beyond three tests, it is rare to see a significant increase in scores, and small increases may take so much extra prep that it becomes a poor use of the student’s time. Alex Freedman states, “If scores do begin to plateau at a certain point, for example, our analysis of the data and our assessment of the student’s progress will indicate whether the plateau suggests an approaching ceiling, or whether there is still room for improvement. Of course, we also take into consideration the student’s personal goals.”


When do you feel is the ideal time for students to begin test prep for the SAT or ACT?

  • Tutors recommend spring of sophomore year or summer before junior year.
  • Best to start prep before heavy work load junior year.
  • Aim for first test date in late fall or early spring of junior year, with cushion of senior year for retests.

Most tutors recommend that students begin to prepare during the spring of their sophomore year, while some recommend the summer between sophomore and junior year. The advantage of beginning before junior year is that students usually have more time for test prep before adding their junior year schoolwork.   As Jed Applerouth notes: “The right time is determined by the most spacious time in a student’s schedule.  Don’t begin prep during your most intense time for academics/activities.”

One point to be aware of is that students may not have learned everything they need to know until the end of sophomore year. As Frank Pomilla points out, “I don’t generally recommend starting during sophomore year, as the student might not have had all the math required for either the SAT or ACT; for virtually all students, it’s just too early.”

Beginning test prep the summer before junior year or earlier would typically allow students to aim for a first test date in late fall or early spring of junior year, with a cushion of senior year for retests if necessary.