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Low SAT/ACT Scores, But High GPA: How To Boost Your Chances Of Getting Into A College?

Were you unhappily surprised to find that your ACT or SAT scores were low, even though you’ve studied pretty well and had high GPA? If so, you’re not alone: it’s a common issue among smart students who perform poorly while taking an exam. This happens for a variety of reasons that I will cover later.

First, let me cheer you up a little: even though ACT/SAT scores seem to be very important for getting into a college, having high GPA in school may be a sign of your future success.

Why GPA matters?

Standardized tests are supposed to measure students all over the country equally as the applicants complete similar tasks. It’s easier for college to rely on the scores and compare stundents’ skills.

So, low SAT/ACT scores combined with high GPA send admission officers mixed signals. On the one hand, they may suspect that your school inflated your marks or you took easy classes, and your academic potential isn’t so great. However, most admission officers know what to expect from a particular institution, so they can correlate your GPA with the academics in your school.

Moreover, admission officers are fully aware that one shouldn’t use a one size fits all approach when it comes to enrolling at the university. The tests themselves have some flaws, not to mention the human factor. We are all unique creatures with our own skills, abilities, and talents, and tests scores don’t fully determine you as a student.

That’s why high school GPA seems to be a more reliable predictor of success in college than SAT score, according to the 2013 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The researchers examined more than 30 test-optional institutions across the USA. They didn’t find significant differences in college GPA as well as in graduation rates between those who submitted their scores and those who didn’t. The conclusion here is hopeful for applicants who have high GPA due to hard work, self-discipline, and diligence: “Hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot”, the report states.

May this study boost your self-confidence. Although, good grades isn’t a panacea when it comes to entering a college. You still need to take standardized tests well enough to increase your chances of being accepted.

How to improve low ACT/SAT scores?

The best case scenario here is that you’re not satisfied with your ACT/SAT scores but you have enough time to prepare and retake it. In that case, you should dedicate some time to finding your weaknesses, and I’ll give you some advice on how to overcome them.

You aren’t prepared academically

If you didn’t study well enough, then low SAT/ACT scores should come as no surprise. The solution is obvious: you need to know the content and spend more time studying. There are a lot of websites and free apps out there, not to mention old-school prep books.

You didn’t practice

Being familiar with the format reduces the time you spend on a test as well as lowers the anxiety. You definitely should know the structure, the timing, the instructions, and the whole procedure in order to perform better.

Take several practice tests to get used to the format. Use only official SAT/ACT tests for that purpose.

You don’t analyze mistakes

Taking practice tests isn’t enough: you should review mistakes as well. You could make it all by yourself or get help from a teacher, a tutor, a classmate, you name it.

You chose the wrong tactics

If you’ve practiced enough but don’t see any improvements, maybe it’s time to change something. Make sure that you take real SATs and ACTs as a practice, use appropriate books and materials for prep, review incorrect answers, so you can get help when it’s needed.

You spend too much time on the test

When taking the test, you should be able to keep track of time. If a question seems to be too difficult, skip it, keep going, and come back to it later. The best approach here is to do easier tasks first, and dedicate the rest of the time to more difficult ones.

You need extra help

Consider hiring a tutor if you face serious problems with prepping. At least, you can ask your teacher or a classmate for help with some particular topics.

You need to change a tutor or a prep program

Maybe your class or an online-program isn’t personalized, i.e. it doesn’t take into account your strengths and weaknesses. Also, a tutor may not push you hard enough, letting you skip classes without a reason or not forcing you to complete the test in limited time.

You suffer from carelessness

If you tend to misread words or numbers, and that leads to lower scores that you actually expected, the common advice here is to read slowly and carefully, maybe even read twice to understand a question correctly. Give yourself more time for taking practice tests, gradually reducing the time to the actual SAT/ACT timing.

You’re too anxious

Test anxiety is a real thing, and it may be difficult to overcome. Getting used to the test format as well as trying some calming techniques like meditation should help reduce stress, but sometimes that isn’t enough. If you feel incredibly nervous when taking the test or just thinking about it, remember that it’s only a test and it doesn't determine your whole life. If you can’t overcome anxiety on your own, consider visiting your primary care doctor or a therapist.

You lack motivation

That is another issue that is hard to fix. First, you need to determine a root cause of the problem, which isn’t easy. If you have a hard time doing this, talk to a friend, parents, or a therapist.

Once you figure out the cause of your low SAT/ACT scores, you can make the needed changes in your prep process. Hopefully, these changes will improve the results when you take the test next time.

By the way, if you took only one test, the ACT or the SAT, I’d recommend you to take another one as well. That way you will be able to submit scores to a greater number of colleges or to decide what scores are more useful in a particular school.

What should I do if I don’t have an opportunity to retake the SAT/the ACT?

If that is your case, there are some options, too.

  • As your SAT/ACT scores are only one part of an application, put effort to make the rest of it as impressive as possible. This includes a strong entrance essay, great letters of recommendation, various extracurricular activities, and your personal achievements.
  • To get a positive recommendation, ask a teacher who can genuinely speak well of you, recognizing your strengths.
  • Don’t you even try to lie in the application: admission officers will know if something is made up, and that is definitely not the way to improve your chances of getting into college.
  • Remember that almost a third of USA colleges are test-optional: you have a choice whether to submit your SAT/ACT scores or not. If your scores are low, that is your chance to show yourself to the best advantage, putting emphasis on your high grades and a strong application.
  • Many schools allow you to choose what scores to submit. Pay attention to those colleges that accept results of the test you performed better.
  • Moreover, some colleges superscore the SAT. So, if you’ve taken the SAT more than once, your actual score might be higher than you thought.
  • If your school offers AP or IB classes and you took them, this can boost your odds of entering college: admission officers will know that your high GPA is probably the result of hard work.
  • If you feel insecure about your academic performance, I’d recommend you to choose among colleges that you are ready for academically.
  • Consider going to a community college instead of a private one.

One more thing to consider: academic performance

To tell you the truth, colleges find the standardized tests like the ACT or the SAT as well as GPA imperfect. They care much more about your academic performance that can’t be measured by tests, but the tests are the most available way to figure it out to some extent.
Basically, academic performance measures how skilled you are compared to all students in the country. It can predict whether you will do well academically once you’re into a college, and that is exactly what universities want to know.

In a few words, if you know the content very well but have problems like the lack of motivation, test anxiety, focusing issues, carelessness, and so on, you probably have high academic performance. If you just know the content very well and don’t have issues mentioned above, that’s awesome! But in this case, I believe, you have high GPA as well as high SAT/ACT scores, and this post is barely relevant to you.

On the other hand, if the main cause of your low ACT/SAT scores is the lack of knowledge, you may have low academic performance even though your marks are high. To improve the scores, you should first and foremost fill knowledge gaps.

To sum up, what to do if your SAT/ACT scores are low, but GPA is high?

  • If you have time to retake the tests, analyze your weaknesses and prepare for the next shot
  • Make your application as strong as possible if there is no time to retake the SAT/the ACT
  • Remember why high GPA is also important, and may this knowledge inspire you on your way to college life!

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