College Admissions Explained: Breaking Down the SAT’s New Adversity Score


Among some of the most selective institutions, low-income students have a low representation--a fact that’s “relatively unchanged from 20 years ago.” The adversity score has been created perhaps in response to this achievement gap and in an effort to support students who are beating all odds by applying to college in spite of their circumstances. Here’s what you need to know about the SAT’s new adversity score.

It’s a number focused on providing context  

Scott Jaschik, Editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed notes that the score will provide better context for admissions officers to take into consideration. The idea of the adversity score is to demonstrate students that have overcome obstacles. It’s given in a range from 0 to 100, and is derived from 31 pieces of information that fall under the following three categories:

  1. Neighborhood Environment

  2. High School Environment

  3. Family Environment

From median family income to family stability, the adversity score uses an Environmental Context Framework to determine a student’s adversity. As an example, The New York Times lists some of the factors for Neighborhood Environment:

  • Percentage of households in poverty

  • Percentage of single-parent households

  • Percentage of vacant housing units

  • Percentage of adults without a high school degree

In creating the adversity index for admissions officers, the goal is to contextualize each applicant’s history and environment, telling a bigger story than an SAT score alone can tell. According to CollegeBoard,

Throughout our discussions with admission practitioners over the past year, they repeatedly expressed an interest in more systematic information about applicants who may have overcome environmental obstacles before applying to college.

Meanwhile, as noted by The Washington Post, “Skeptics, including the rival ACT, say it is foolhardy to attempt to distill adversity to a single number from 1 to 100 that can add value to the review of applications.” This time next year, we’ll have a better idea of whether the new number will impact admissions. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.  


It doesn’t take race into consideration  

Sparking some criticism, the College Board’s adversity score does not include race as one of the factors for determining the score. Andre J. Washington and Daniel Hemel at The Times, note that the “differences in the life experiences of white and African-American children — even children who live in the same neighborhood and attend the same school — start early.” Without including race, the adversity score isn’t giving the entire context of a students’ experience.   

Meanwhile, Richard D. Kahlenberg, Senior fellow at The Century Foundation, argues that “even an imperfect adversity score is better than failing to account for the difficulty so many students overcome.”

It could have a positive impact on your admissions

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Harvard ran a study of a pilot program found that the Environmental Factors dashboard “resulted in more offers of admission to low-income applicants.” In other words, admissions officers view lower scores or areas for growth with more forgiving eyes when they understand the other environmental factors at play in the student’s life.

While not perfect, many argue that the adversity score is better than nothings. “It’s not as though, in the absence of such a score, colleges have done a good job of admitting substantial numbers of students who have overcome tough odds,” reminds Kahlenberg.