The Relationship Between Grades and Standardized Test Scores
While a high GPA and good test scores often go hand in hand, sometimes one is high while the other is relatively low. There are many reasons why this might be the case, and you may be wondering how this will affect your chances at your top-choice colleges. Read on as we look at some of these reasons and offer ways to mitigate the effect of inconsistent grades and test scores for your college applications.
If you have high test scores and low grades…
There are many legitimate reasons for having a low GPA, but the key word is legitimate. In Can a Good SAT/ACT Score Offset a Bad GPA?, we discuss how simply having great test scores won’t get you into a top college on its own; most of the candidates at these schools have high test scores and high GPAs, so you may appear lazy or unmotivated in comparison, since your test scores will show that you have the skills and aptitude — but it looks like you’re just not using them.
However, there are some reasons why you might have poor grades that are due to circumstances beyond your control. For instance, if you have or have had a mental or physical illness, family concerns or obligations, or some sort of emergency situation in high school that adversely affected your grades, colleges are likely to understand — if you explain it. Check out How to Explain Exceptional Personal Circumstances on Applications for tips on how best to do this. If your recommenders are aware of your situation and can speak to it, ask them to reference it in their letters of recommendation to lend credibility to you and your application.
If you have high grades and low test scores…
High-achieving students can often be disappointed by their standardized test scores. There are numerous reasons why your scores might be low even if you have a high GPA.
All schools are different, and what grades represent can vary considerably. An A at your high school might be a B at another school, or vice versa. In Do School Take Grade Inflation/Deflation into Account?, we discuss how colleges receive a class profile along with your transcript to understand where you fall compared with the rest of your class — that helps them see what your grades really mean. While having a 4.0 GPA and receiving poor test scores doesn’t necessarily mean you just go to an easy school, the rigor of your classes — and what the grades truly represent — could be one factor.
Another reason why you might not perform as well as you would expect on standardized tests is test anxiety. As we discuss in Dealing with Test Anxiety, this is a common problem. However, there are some ways you can cope with it, such as seeking help from your guidance counselor, talking to a therapist outside of school, and receiving tutoring specifically for standardized tests. The same idea applies if you have a learning style or disorder that makes it hard for you to take tests.
Because many high-achieving students struggle with standardized tests, some colleges are starting to place less emphasis on test scores. Some don’t even require them at all! But it isn’t necessarily a good idea to only apply to schools that don’t require the SAT or ACT, since just because the college doesn’t require your scores doesn’t mean it doesn’t consider them. Many applicants will submit their scores regardless of the schools’ requirements (or lack thereof), and your applications may appear weaker if you don’t.
Keep in mind that the ACT content is more closely linked to high school curricula than that of the SAT, so if you struggle with test-taking but perform well in school, try taking both standardized tests. You may find that you perform better on one than other.
Upward Grade Trend
If your grades started off low at the beginning of high school but improved over time, this can reflect well on you. Many students struggle initially, but find their footing later in high school. Having an upward grade trend along with stellar standardized test scores demonstrates that you have the aptitude and have the potential to succeed.
Still, it’s a good idea to justify why this happened, but even if you just naturally improved with experience, it’s better than having uniformly poor grades or starting out high and dropping over time (something you should try to avoid, as we discuss in Does a Declining GPA Look Bad on My College Applications?). To learn more, check out What Is an Upward Grade Trend?
The Importance of GPAs and Standardized Test Scores
Ultimately, both your GPA and test scores matter. You should aim to maximize both. However, if you do have a legitimate reason for high test scores and a low GPA, colleges may understand — you just need to explain it to them. If your grades are high, but your test scores are low, you have many options to improve. Be sure to check out CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program, which pairs students with top scorers who can provide insider strategies for success on the exam.
Check out some of our other posts about your GPA and test scores: