Some readers are probably thinking “Okay, so some of the bigger universities have large numbers of strong math students, but the average student is nowhere near as capable as those at the most selective schools.” Let’s look at that assumption.

First we’ll take the median SAT score for each college in three groups of schools and look at the average of the median scores for those groups:

Harvard/Yale/Princeton

Vassar/Tulane/U Michigan

Lafayette/U Texas–Austin/Santa Clara U

1515

1433

1358

So, there’s a difference of 78 points between the first two groups, and another 75 points between the second and third. Meaning there’s clearly a huge difference in the intellectual abilities of students at these three sets of schools, right?

Well, no.

Have you ever looked at College Board’s graph of the distribution of SAT scores? It’s important to understand how they’re distributed if you’re going to make conclusions about differences in scores.

SAT Score

1500

1400

1300

1200

1100

Percentile

99

97

91

81

67

As you might guess, a score of 1500 lands you solidly in the top 1% of high schoolers. But did you know that those with a 1400 are in the top 3%? And that those with a 1300 are still firmly in the top 10%?

Knowing this, let’s look at those differences between those three groups again.

Median SAT Percentile

Harvard/Yale/Princeton

Vassar/Tulane/U Michigan

Lafayette/U Texas–Austin/Santa Clara U

99

98

95

Wow, right?!! Sure, the average student at a college in the first group is in the top 1%, but you can see that the distance between them and average students at schools in the second and third groups isn’t nearly as big as it appears when you look at the scores, with the average student in the group with the lowest scores still in the top 5% of nationwide teens. How much of a difference will that small spread really make in a student’s experience?

Not much. Colleges need to challenge their students at an appropriate level for their academic abilities, and there’s not enough of a difference between those in the 99th percentile and those in the 95th to see a big difference in the rigor of classes. Some, but certainly not enough to worry that you won’t be able to get a strong education if you’re not admitted to one of the most selective schools. Or that you’ll notice a significantly different level of ability between your classmates and you. Students at all of these schools are very smart.

Below are lists of some of the colleges in each of the top 5 percentiles on median SAT scores. Because quite a few schools don’t require that test scores be submitted by all applicants, and because some don’t make their data public, these lists are not complete. But the intent of providing them is not to create a definitive list, but rather to show how much closer many colleges are than is implied by college rankings.

Be sure to note that beginning even in the 98th percentile, colleges that are used as ‘safety schools’ by many top applicants begin to appear. Also note that since the percentiles provided are for median scores, students are evenly distributed on either side of that percentile. Thus, colleges in the 95th percentile will have almost all of their students in the top 10% of test-takers.

99th Percentile

Amherst College

Carleton College

Dartmouth

Georgetown

Haverford College

Northwestern

Rice

U Pennsylvania

Washington U in St. Louis

Brown

Carnegie Mellon

Duke

Harvard

Middlebury

Notre Dame

Stanford

U Southern California

Yale

CalTech

Cornell

Emory

Harvey Mudd College

MIT

Princeton

Tufts

Vanderbilt

98th Percentile

Barnard College

Claremont McKenna

UC Berkeley

Vassar College

Rensselear (RPI)

Boston U*

Reed College

U Michigan

Washington and Lee College

William and Mary

Case Western Reserve

Tulane

U Virginia

Wellesley College

Boston College

97th Percentile

Colgate

Scripps College

U North Carolina Chapel Hill

Georgia Tech

U Florida

U Wisconsin

Macalester College

UC Los Angeles

Villanova

96th Percentile

Lehigh

UC Santa Barbara

Oberlin College

U Richmond

U Maryland College Park

Trinity U (TX)

95th Percentile

Colorado School of Mines

U Miami

Trinity U

Kenyon College

Santa Clara U

UC San Diego

U Texas Austin

Lafayette College

SUNY Binghamton

U Minnesota

* Footnote: Boston U doesn’t require test scores for Fine Arts majors, but that doesn’t seem likely to have altered their mean score much, so I’ve included them here. Maybe they’re in the 97th percentile instead of the 98th.