Low GPA but High SAT/ACT Score: What to Do
- What is a Low GPA?
- Reasons for a Low GPA
- What is a High SAT/ACT Score?
- How Do Colleges Evaluate Your Academic Performance?
- Can a High SAT/ACT Score Make Up for a Low GPA?
- How to Increase Your Admissions Chances if You Have a Low GPA
Colleges consider numerous factors when making admissions decisions, weighing everything from grades to test scores to extracurriculars to essays. However, how do colleges evaluate applicants who rank highly in one area but underwhelm in another? For example, students with low unweighted GPAs and high SAT/ACT scores? Do they see a candidate with untapped talent or someone who failed to reach their potential?
Keep reading to learn what a low GPA and a high SAT or ACT score mean for your college prospects.
What Is a Low GPA?
The difference between a low and high GPA is a matter of perspective. Different colleges have different academic standards, and an outstanding GPA at one school may be subpar at another. Most colleges don’t publish information about the high school GPA of their students, but searching can turn up some useful information. A good place to start your search is with a school’s common data set.
Ideally, your GPA will fall within the middle 50% of enrolled students. The higher end of the range you’re in, the better your odds of admission. For example, the middle 50% unweighted GPA at UCLA is 3.95 to 4.0. The closer you are to a 4.0, the greater your chance of getting into UCLA.
Another method for gauging the strength of your GPA is to compare it against the average student. A 2016 study found that the average GPA among SAT takers nationally is 3.38. Or, in terms of letter grades, roughly a B+. By this standard, a GPA under 3.0 is low, because it fails to meet a B average.
Reasons for a Low GPA
If you have a low GPA and high standardized test scores, expect college admissions offices to ask about it and have an explanation prepared.
Any number of events outside your control can affect your GPA—requiring treatment for a medical condition that caused you to miss class time or suffering a concussion on the football field which hurt your ability to concentrate in the classroom, for example. Or, perhaps you became the primary caretaker for your younger siblings when a parent became ill or had to go back to work.
Don’t make excuses, but do let colleges know the unique challenges you faced and how they impacted your grades.
Limited Time to Study Due to Other Commitments
It’s common for high schoolers to have a lot going on outside the classroom. Whether you’re head of the debate team, organizing food drives for the local shelter, or star of the jazz band, it’s easy for extracurriculars to take priority over studying and ultimately lead to a substandard GPA.
The good news is that colleges are looking for talented and passionate students. Plus, an impressive extracurricular activity in combination with a high test score is a good recipe for overcoming a low GPA.
Attending an Academically Rigorous School
It’s common for colleges to consider the academic rigor of the school you attended when making admissions. This is especially true at selective schools. Admissions offices often consult school profiles to better understand the grading scale, average grades, test scores, and class size at the high school you attend.
It’s likely admissions offices will know that your imperfect GPA is the result of attending a particularly tough school.
Choosing to Take More Challenging AP/IB/Dual Enrollment Classes to Boost Weighted GPA
Unweighted GPAs don’t reflect the level of coursework taken. For example, it’s much more difficult to earn an A in AP World History than it is in a standard world history course. However, an A in the AP class and an A in the standard class have the same value when calculating an unweighted GPA.
Most college admission offices recalculate GPA to account for course rigor when making their decisions. In fact, many colleges look for students who pushed themselves and pursued challenging coursework in high school.
Being Unengaged in Class (Low Motivation, Finding the Content/Difficulty Boring, Different Learning Style)
Sometimes high schoolers just don’t connect with their coursework or teachers. It can negatively affect your GPA if you find it difficult to get excited about the classes you’re taking or if your classes are aimed at students with different learning styles from yours.
College offers more academic freedom than high school and some admission offices might bet that your high test scores are a sign you’ll flourish in a more independent environment.
What is a High SAT/ACT Score?
Similar to what is a good GPA, a good SAT/ACT score is dependent on the schools you are considering. In general, you want to aim for anything within the middle 50% of enrolled students. A strong score is anything at or above the 75th percentile. For example, the middle 50% SAT score at Vanderbilt University is 1480 to 1570. In this case, a score at or above 1570 is very good. Information about the standardized test scores of enrolled students is often found in the school’s common data set.
A more general approach to gauging the strength of your SAT/ACT score is to compare it against national averages. According to the 2022 SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report, the middle 50% SAT score was 880 to 1200. In 2022, the ACT Newsroom reported that the middle 50% ACT score was 13 to 24. Judging through this lens, the closer you got to the 75th percentile, the better your score.
How Do Colleges Evaluate Your Academic Performance?
Many selective colleges use a tool known as the Academic Index to screen candidates. Academic Index accounts for two primary factors—grades and standardized test scores—and converts the information into a single score. If you fail to meet a school’s Academic Index threshold, your application is at risk of not being given serious consideration.
If you do meet a school’s Academic Index minimums, the higher you land in the middle 50% of enrolled students, the greater your odds of an admissions office thoroughly evaluating your application. That is, they will look past just your academic performance and consider factors like your activities outside of the classroom, recommendations, and essays.
Can a High SAT/ACT Score Make Up for a Low GPA?
The simple answer is yes, a high SAT/ACT score can make up for a low GPA. Because your Academic Index is based on grades and test scores, a strong performance on the SAT or ACT can buoy a disappointing GPA. More so, it can help you pass a school’s Academic Index thresholds and ensure your application receives a comprehensive review.
Many schools also view standardized test scores as an indicator of academic ability. To these schools, a strong test score demonstrates that you’re prepared for the academic rigor of college coursework and won’t flounder once you’re on campus.
That all said, even a perfect SAT/ACT score can only do so much for your odds of college admission, especially at selective schools. In the end, high test scores can help ensure your application gets seen and demonstrate your academic aptitude, but you’ll need a well-rounded profile including attention-grabbing extracurriculars, wow-worthy recommendations, and expertly crafted essays to get into a top school.
How to Increase Your Admissions Chances if You Have a Low GPA
There are a variety of proven strategies to improve your odds of college admission, even if you have a suboptimal GPA.
Build a Balanced College List
A balanced college list should include reach, target, and safety schools—schools where your candidacy is extremely competitive, schools where you have a good chance of gaining admission, and schools where you have a very high probability of getting into, respectively. CollegeVine recommends applying to:
- 2 reaches
- 4 targets
- 3 to 4 safeties
Explain Extenuating Circumstances
If something happened in your life that negatively affected your grades, let the schools you’re applying to know about it. Colleges are often sympathetic to students who’ve tackled and overcome adverse situations.
Your college essays and personal statements are one place to inform schools about any extenuating circumstances and how they impacted your school work. Many college applications also have an “additional information” box, which provides space to explain your unique situation.
Write Awesome Essays
A great essay in combination with strong standardized test scores is an excellent strategy for showing colleges you have what it takes to excel. A winning essay shows colleges what makes you stand out, is written in an active voice, and avoids cliches and overdone themes.
The personal statement on Common Application is a great place to show (remember, show don’t tell) colleges what makes you unique and why they want you on their campus. Brainstorm ideas and organize your thoughts before beginning to write. The aim of the essay is to be impressive, so proofread carefully. Furthermore, ensure that ideas are expressed clearly and that the essay has a natural flow.
Improve Your Extracurriculars
Grades are one of many factors colleges consider when making admissions decisions. You can shift focus away from your underwhelming grades by bolstering other aspects of your application, like extracurriculars. Even if you’re well into your high school career, you can give your extracurricular profile a boost.
Our free chancing engine is a valuable tool for everything from building your college list to better understanding your odds of college admission. It uses data points like GPA, test scores, and extracurriculars to estimate your odds at more than 1,600 colleges nationwide, helping you accurately build college lists and know where certain schools fit into your overall strategy.