The myth of the balanced score

There’s a story going around that colleges prefer balanced scores on admission tests. By “balanced” I mean that the scores in the separate subjects are approximately the same. For example, in 2003 when I trained to teach the MCAT I was taught that while a total score of 301 was a good target for many students2, it was much better if that 30 was composed of component scores of 10/10/103 than of, say, 14/10/6. That’s what I was taught, and that’s what I told my students.

I have heard the same story about other tests with separate subject matter scores. In fact, it’s generally accepted that balance is important on just about every standardized test.

Unfortunately, there are a couple problems with this story. The first is that I know of no proof that it’s actually true. Sure, it makes sense, but that something makes sense doesn’t make it right. Over the years I’ve talked to many people with behind-the-scenes knowledge of the admission process at various undergrad and graduate schools, and none has ever confirmed that they actually look for balance. (Some have told me, for whatever it’s worth, that preferring balance “makes sense” but that they don’t know that it happens.) Might it matter? Maybe, but I have no evidence that it does.

The second problem is that the sort of wildly unbalanced scores that would catch an admission committee’s eye almost never happen… and when they do, there’s usually a good reason for them.4 Look again at my hypothetical unbalanced MCAT score: 14/10/6. That is very unbalanced, almost unrealistically so. Only a small fraction of test-takers show discrepancies that large between subjects. A more likely “unbalanced” breakdown of a 30 total might be something like 9/12/9. And once we’re talking about more likely scores like that, the imbalances are usually small enough when considered against normal random variation5 that no admission committee is likely to care. Somewhat strong in verbal (for example), somewhat weaker in the sciences… it’s either a wash or close enough that it’s not worth worrying about. And the same principle applies to unbalanced scores in other tests, from the SAT and ACT to the GMAT and GRE.

So you shouldn’t care at all about this, right?

Um… no, you probably should.

You should care because even if balance doesn’t matter at all you’re still trying to get the highest possible total score. And almost all students can get the best bang for their studying bucks by concentrating more of their efforts on their weakest areas… just as if they were trying to achieve balanced scores. It’s not that the admissions committees are looking for balance, it’s that your best efforts to increase your scores will tend to create balance anyway.

The reason is simple: If you’re relatively weak at one area, you’ve got a lot more room to improve there than in one in which you’re much stronger. It’s almost always easier to get better at something that you’re just OK at than at something you already have just about locked down. This not only makes sense,6 it’s what I’ve seen time and again on every test I teach. You can get more points in your weak area than your strong one.

Most people understand this on some level, but here’s the rub: Many students know they should address their weak spots but they still don’t, choosing instead to work mostly on their strengths. I don’t know why; maybe it’s that they feel more comfortable working that way. But the hard truth is that if you’re studying for a standardized test you have an important goal in mind and that goal isn’t comfort, it’s getting the score you need. And the way to do that is to hit your weak spots head on.

So if you know there’s an area that’s a problem for you, that’s where you need to focus because that’s where you’re going to see your biggest gains. Study that subject first. (Do not neglect your stronger areas, just emphasize the weak ones.) Maybe put in extra time or do extra drills. Seek extra help in that area. Do whatever it takes, but do not put something on the back burner just because you’re not comfortable with it.

Your family or friends may tell you you’re doing it wrong; they may suggest you play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. My advice if this happens is to smile and tell them you’re just trying to achieve a balanced score. 😉

 

Notes

  1. The range at the time was 3–45.
  2. This was mostly true, though an oversimplification; a realistic target should depend on many factors, especially the student’s GPA; also, note that 30 was an appropriate target for admission to some medical school, but not necessarily the student’s top choice.
  3. physical sciences, verbal reasoning, and biological sciences, respectively; the new MCAT has a different breakdown
  4. I’ll more on this possibility in a subsequent post.
  5. AAMC now reports confidence ranges for scores with a range of two points per subject — in other words, the official line is that our hypothetical 9/12/9 isn’t statistically distinguishable from 10/11/10… which is almost perfectly balanced.
  6. argh!

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