What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

High GPA But Low SAT/ACT Score: What to Do

What’s Covered:


When applying to colleges, two important numbers that colleges look at are your Grade Point Average (GPA) and your SAT or ACT scores. These two scores play a key role in determining your competitiveness as a candidate for admission. 


But what if you find yourself with a high GPA and low SAT or ACT scores? Is your dream college out of reach? Not necessarily. Understanding what counts as a “low” SAT or ACT score and how to improve your chances of admission if you have one, can help.


What is Considered a Low SAT/ACT Score?


Understanding what is considered a “low” SAT or ACT score is subjective and can depend on the specific college or university you’re applying to. Each school has its own range of scores from admitted students, which is usually presented as the 25th-75th percentile range.


For example, suppose a school’s 25th-75th percentile range for the SAT is 1300-1450. This means that 25% of enrolled students scored below 1300, while another 25% scored above 1450, and the remaining 50% fell within that range. If your score is below the 25th percentile (in this case, below 1300), it would be considered “low” for that school. Conversely, if your score is near or above the 75th percentile (here, 1450), your SAT score would be considered competitive.


However, if you’re wondering how your SAT or ACT score stacks up against all test-takers, national percentiles can provide a broader perspective. According to the 2022 SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report, the median score (50th percentile) was 1030, with the 25th percentile at 880 and the 75th percentile at 1200. For the ACT, according to the ACT Newsroom, the 50th percentile was 18, with the 25th percentile at 13 and the 75th percentile at 24.


If your scores are below these percentiles, they might be considered “low” in a national context, but remember that each school has its own standards and profile of admitted students. So, it’s essential to research the score ranges at your target schools. Even with a lower SAT or ACT score, other factors, such as your GPA, extracurricular activities, and personal essays, can still give you a strong chance of admission.


Reasons for Low SAT/ACT Scores


Limited Time to Study due to Other Commitments


Life is filled with various responsibilities and commitments, from schoolwork to extracurricular activities to part-time jobs and family obligations. These commitments can significantly limit the time available for dedicated SAT or ACT preparation. Many students struggle to find a balance between these responsibilities and studying for these high-stakes tests.


Extenuating Circumstances


There are many potential extenuating circumstances that could impact a student’s SAT or ACT performance. For example, a student could experience a significant life event, such as a family member’s illness or death. Or a student might have suffered a concussion that affected memory and cognitive function. Other examples could include responsibilities like taking care of siblings or working to support the family. These and many other factors can affect a student’s ability to focus on test preparation and perform optimally on the exam day.


Inability to Afford Test Prep Resources


Test prep resources like study guides, online courses, and tutoring can be expensive. For some families, these costs are prohibitive, making it harder for those students to adequately prepare for the SAT or ACT. Unfortunately, this can create an uneven playing field where those who can afford extensive preparation may have an advantage.


Having Test Anxiety


Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety that can affect students during important exams like the SAT or ACT. Symptoms can include rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, shaky hands, and negative or distracting thoughts. This anxiety can severely impact a student’s ability to perform to their full potential on the test.


What is Considered a High GPA?


Just as with standardized test scores, what is considered a “high” GPA can also depend on the college or university. Most colleges don’t publish high school GPA data of their enrolled students, but you can sometimes find this information in their Common Data Set if available.


If you’re looking for a broad measure, a 2016 study linked at Inside Higher Ed found that the national average GPA among SAT test takers was 3.38, which corresponds to about a B+ in terms of letter grades. If your GPA is above this average, that’s a good sign. If you have a GPA of 3.5 or above, this would generally be considered “high” at most colleges and can help offset lower SAT or ACT scores.


Remember, these are just averages and each college has its unique admission requirements. Therefore, thoroughly researching your target schools and understanding their specific expectations is crucial in the admission process. A lower SAT or ACT score doesn’t necessarily exclude you from admission, especially if you have other strengths like a high GPA, extracurricular activities, or compelling personal essays. Don’t lose heart and keep working towards your goal.


How Do Colleges Evaluate Your Academic Performance?


When it comes to evaluating your academic performance, colleges use a variety of tools and methods to assess your qualifications, readiness for college, and potential contribution to their institution. One such tool, used by many selective schools, is the Academic Index (AI).


Academic Index: An Overview


The Academic Index is a tool that combines a student’s overall academic performance into a single numerical score, which includes the student’s GPA and standardized test scores (SAT or ACT). This score is used to quickly assess whether a student has the academic qualifications necessary for consideration for admission.


It’s important to note that the Academic Index serves as a screening tool for colleges and universities. If an applicant’s AI isn’t high enough, it’s very likely that admissions officers won’t even read the rest of the application. Conversely, a high Academic Index doesn’t guarantee admission but it does mean that you are considered a serious applicant and your application will be reviewed holistically.


For more detailed information on the Academic Index, how it’s calculated, and its role in the college admission process, you can read this article from CollegeVine: What is the Academic Index? How is it Calculated?


Holistic Evaluation: Beyond the Academic Index


After passing the initial screening process, which often includes the Academic Index, your application will be evaluated holistically. This means that colleges consider several factors beyond your grades and test scores, including:


  • Grades and Course Rigor: Consistently high grades and a strong GPA are crucial, but schools also look at your course rigor. If your school offers advanced courses like AP or IB, colleges expect you to challenge yourself with these.


  • Extracurricular Activities: Your involvement in extracurricular activities, summer programs, internships, and other out-of-class experiences can demonstrate your interests, commitment, and leadership skills.


  • Essays and Personal Statements: These provide insights into your personality, experiences, goals, and values. A compelling essay can set you apart from other applicants.


  • Recommendation Letters: Letters of recommendation offer third-party perspectives on your abilities, character, and potential.


  • Interviews: Some schools use interviews to get to know you better and gauge your fit for their campus community. 


You can read more about how college applications are evaluated if you want the full rundown.


The college admission process is complex and multifaceted. While the Academic Index is a key component for many selective schools, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. By understanding how different aspects of your application are evaluated, you can better strategize to highlight your strengths and increase your chances of admission.


Can a High GPA Make Up for a Low Test Score?


Yes, to some extent, a high GPA can make up for a lower test score. Universities and colleges are increasingly looking at the entire profile of the student rather than a single metric. They aim to assess the student’s overall potential and academic consistency, and your GPA often provides a more comprehensive overview of your academic ability than a one-time test score.


Here are some reasons why a high GPA can help offset a lower test score:


  • GPA Indicates Consistent Effort: Your GPA reflects your consistent effort over several years, whereas a standardized test score represents your performance on a single day. A high GPA can show that you’re committed to your work and can handle a demanding academic schedule.


  • Course Rigor: Colleges also consider the rigor of the courses you took in high school. If you have a high GPA in challenging courses, such as honors or AP classes, it demonstrates that you’re prepared for college-level work even if your standardized test scores aren’t as high.


  • Test-Optional Policies: Many colleges and universities have adopted test-optional or test-blind policies, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that they do not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores for admission. In these cases, other factors like GPA, course rigor, and extracurricular involvement become even more important.


However, it’s important to remember that while a high GPA can help, it doesn’t completely negate the impact of low test scores, particularly at schools where test scores are a significant part of the application review process. If you have a low test score, it may be in your best interest to take advantage of test-optional policies, focus on other parts of your application, and, if possible, consider retaking the test.


How to Increase Your Admissions Chances if You Have A Low Test Score


Apply to More Target and Safety Schools


Understanding the concept of reach, target, and safety schools can help you build a balanced list of colleges. In your situation, consider applying to four target schools and three to four safety schools. A target school is one where your academic credentials fall well within (or even exceed) the school’s average range for the class of freshmen last year. A safety school is one where your academic qualifications are well above the school’s range for the average first-year student. 


Use CollegeVine’s free chancing engine to help determine which schools fall into these categories for you. Check out this article for more information: The College List, Decoded: Safeties, Targets, and Reaches


Explain Extenuating Circumstances


If you had extenuating circumstances that may have affected your test scores, use the Additional Information section of the Common Application to explain these. These could be personal or family issues, health problems, or anything else that has had a significant impact on your academic performance. Be honest and concise, but remember that this is not the place to make excuses.


Consider Test-Optional Applications


If your SAT/ACT score is below the middle 50% of enrolled students at the schools you’re applying to, you might want to consider applying test-optional if the school allows it. More and more schools are implementing test-optional policies, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they evaluate applicants holistically without test scores.


Write Stellar Essays


Your personal statement and supplemental essays offer you an opportunity to shine in your college application and set yourself apart from other candidates. Make sure to start working on your essays well in advance so that you have plenty of time to revise and polish. The Common App personal statement is a particularly crucial component of your application, so make sure to put forth your best effort. For guidance on writing the Common App essay, check out this article: How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024.


Improve Your Extracurriculars


Extracurricular activities can demonstrate your passion, commitment, and leadership skills, all of which can increase your chances of admission. If you’re in your junior or senior year, you still have time to deepen your involvement in current activities or start new ones. Consider taking on a leadership role, starting a new club or initiative, or getting involved in community service. For more tips, take a look at this article: How to Improve Your Extracurriculars Junior and Senior Year. Remember, quality over quantity is the key. Focus on a few activities that you are genuinely passionate about and where you can make a significant impact.


Navigating the college admissions process can often seem challenging, especially if you’re grappling with a low test score. However, remember that test scores are just one part of your application. By focusing on other areas like crafting compelling essays, enhancing your extracurriculars, and choosing the right schools to apply to, you can increase your chances of admission. Remember, the goal is to present a well-rounded and authentic picture of who you are as a student and individual. Stay positive, work hard, and don’t let a low test score deter you from reaching your goals.


Short Bio
Varun is a recent graduate from Arizona State University, Tempe, with a degree in Computer Science. He aims to share his knowledge of computer science, the IB Diploma Program, and all things college-related with high school students. In his free time, he can be found performing DJ sets or cooking!