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What Colleges Can I Get Into with Low SAT Scores?

At College Coach, we see a lot of students with immaculate high school transcripts who just aren’t very good standardized test takers. Admissions offices are fond of saying they care much more about how you do over four years of high school (your grades) than four hours on a Saturday (the SAT), but that doesn’t change the reality that some test scores can be prohibitively low for certain colleges. Many students who have worked hard to earn their excellent grades yet struggled with their performance on the SAT might find themselves with fewer options than they had hoped when it comes time to submit applications in the fall. But take heart! Even if your scores are lower than the rest of your academic profile, there are steps you can take to find yourself a great college match.

Take the ACT

It’s amazing how many parents and students believe that the SAT is the only option for students who want to apply to college. In fact, the ACT has been gaining ground on the SAT over the last couple of decades, and just last year more students took the ACT than took the SAT. Because of the relative popularity of these two exams, all colleges have no preference which of the two exams you submit. If you’ve only ever taken the SAT and you’ve been disappointed with your scores, you should sign yourself up for the ACT in November or December.

The ACT is a subject-driven exam testing English, Reading, Math, and Science (with optional Writing), so students who tend to be solid in their academic courses tend to do better on the ACT than the SAT. The pace of the ACT is also much more similar to an in-school exam, with five sections (one for each subject) between 35 and 60 minutes rather than the 10 quickly-paced sections of the SAT. If you struggle with difficult vocabulary, logic, and critical reasoning, moving from the SAT to the ACT might be the right choice. Taking the ACT also may relieve you from the responsibility of submitting SAT Subject Test scores. Many schools that ask for two SAT Subject Tests along with your SAT scores are willing to accept just the ACT instead.

Look Into Test-Optional Colleges

Over the last few years, a number of colleges have migrated to test-optional policies in admissions. This helps the institution’s statistical profile because only top testers are likely to send their scores, and it helps students with lower scores because the academic focus is entirely on the transcript and teacher letters of recommendation in the admissions process. Top schools like Wesleyan, Bates, Wake Forest, Smith, and Brandeis are test-optional, and there are many others. Visit www.fairtest.org for an unofficial list of schools that do not require the submission of scores with your application.

Consider Smaller Colleges

Lower scores are going to be a bigger barrier at hyper-selective schools (like the Ivies) and at larger schools that may not have the administrative bandwidth to read essays and letters of recommendation (like your state’s flagship institution). If you want a “fair hearing” in the admission process, applying to smaller schools with a more holistic review process can allow you to plead your case in greater detail. A college that is focused on building a supportive and collaborative academic community may be more likely to overlook your test scores than a 30,000-student public institution that needs applicants with strong numbers to fill their lecture halls.

The bottom line is that your lower scores are not the end of your college search process. While some schools may be out of play, you simply need to find ways to put the focus of admissions officers onto your strengths. By adjusting to the ACT, applying to test-optional colleges, or choosing schools with more holistic review processes, you’ll be able to make your top GPA work towards an acceptance.



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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.