I didn’t expect Farnam Street to relate so directly to college admissions, but it does, and in a way that is as important as it is deep.
According to the post linked above, the outcome of a “winner’s game” is determined mostly by the actions of the winner; the outcome of a “loser’s game” is determined mostly by the actions of the loser.
So, in a winner’s game, superior skill matters, whereas in a loser’s game, it’s consistency that matters.
Everyone acts as though the SAT and ACT are winners’ games. And, for middle-tier scorers, they probably are. But for high scorers, these tests are loser’s games, 100%.
In other words, you don’t get from 1400 to 1550 by becoming smarter or more knowledgeable. You get there by consistently avoiding mistakes.
You show me a 1400 scorer, and I’ll show you someone who already has the necessary knowledge, but who also experiences some combination of anxiety, hubris, wandering attention, and/or magical thinking when it comes to answering the hard questions.
Getting rid of such bad habits is really hard. That’s why so few people get perfect scores.
That’s also why high scores are so prized.