Can a Good SAT/ACT Score Offset a Bad GPA?
If you are a student with less-than-stellar grades and you receive outstanding standardized test scores, you may be wondering how this will reflect on your college applications. Can getting great scores on your SAT or ACT make up for poor grades? In this post, we will discuss how your standardized test scores can help your application in some circumstances when you have a low GPA.
Demonstrating an Upward Grade Trend
If you have a valid reason for why your grades were initially low, and you can demonstrate that your grades improved over high school and you are now receiving stronger grades, high SAT or ACT scores may help. As we discuss in “What Is an Upward Grade Trend?, demonstrating significant improvement shows colleges that you are capable of performing well and meeting challenges, and that you worked to improve over time.
Having strong SAT or ACT scores will help you show colleges that you do have the skills to succeed in a demanding environment.
However, it is important to note that a declining GPA will reflect poorly on you, even if your tests scores are high. If your GPA started out high when you were a freshman and lowered significantly in your junior year, colleges may believe you are not working as hard or are not capable of meeting the challenges of higher level coursework, regardless of whether you have earned high test scores.
If your GPA is low because of extenuating life circumstances, high SAT or ACT scores may help demonstrate to colleges that you are capable of succeeding. As we discuss in “How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications,” admissions committees will understand if you have personal circumstances that interfere with your academics; therefore, it is important to take the time to explain them.
Not only does this show admissions committees that your GPA may not reflect your true potential, but it also demonstrates maturity on your part, since you are owning up to your mistakes and learning from them.
When you earn high test scores, it further proves to admissions committees that you are capable of excelling in a demanding environment, even if this isn’t reflected in your GPA. Of course, if you justify poor grades with personal life circumstances and receive poor scores on your standardized test, colleges may doubt that your grades are really due to events beyond your control.
If your high school is particularly demanding, and grades are known to be low across the board, you are unlikely to be penalized. This is one of the reasons admissions committees take class rank into account—no two high schools are the same or grade the same way, so colleges will need to put you into the context of your class to understand how well your performed.
If your GPA seems objectively low, but you have a high class rank and strong standardized test scores, colleges are likely to understand that you are performing well in the context of your school, and your scores prove that you can perform well in a larger context as well. For more information on how colleges compare high schools, check out “Do Schools Take Grade Inflation/Deflation into Account?”
Want insider tips for the SAT?
With our free SAT guide, you'll get CollegeVine’s top tips for mastering the SAT. Enter your name and email below to download the checklist.
Poor Grades and High SAT / ACT Scores
If you had poor grades in high school mainly because you didn’t work very hard, but then receive outstanding test scores, that tells colleges that you are smart enough and capable of meeting the challenges of demanding work, but may be unwilling or unable to put in the effort. It is better to get a high score than a low one, of course, but it won’t go a long way in convincing colleges to admit you if your academic performance is poor.
Competitive Colleges vs. Less Competitive Colleges
If you are not applying to extremely competitive colleges, a higher test score can probably do more to offset a weaker GPA. However, scoring well on tests doesn’t mean you can completely forget about academics; your grades still need to be within or close to the average range for admitted students.
However, if you are applying to top-tier colleges, strong SAT or ACT scores will not have as much of an impact, because most of the applicants to these schools have strong scores as well as high GPAs.
Ultimately, succeeding in college academically is about more than just being smart. Colleges want students who are intellectually curious and engage with their work in the classroom and beyond. So if you receive high standardized test scores but show weak academic high school performance, admissions committees may think you are not capable of good time management, you are not that dedicated to your studies, or you are simply lazy—and consequently, they may be less inclined to admit you.
Of course, demonstrating an upward grade trend or explaining extenuating personal circumstances may help your case, and there are other aspects of your application, such as extracurricular activities, that may also compensate for relatively low grades. However, if you are hoping to attend an extremely competitive college, it is always important to have good grades.
For more information on taking the SATs or ACTs, how colleges consider your academic performance, and more, check out some of the posts below:
Looking for more guidance on your college applications? Check out our College Applications Guidance Program, in which you will meet one-on-one with a Personal Admissions Specialist who will help you with the process.
Want more college admissions tips?
We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.