Will low SAT or ACT scores ruin my admission?

As simple as the question sounds, it’s hard to answer. As I wrote in the last couple of posts, by and large your test scores are FAR less important than your overall academic records. They do count, however, and usually a lot more than most of the noncognitive factors (essays, recommendations, leadership, etc). Even so, there are a lot of cases where a low score won’t be detriment at all.
To start, keep in mind that there are LOTS of colleges and universities. A low score in one college’s admission process may be pretty high at another, so don’t just assume that your scores are awful becuase your friend Johnny Testtaker is in the 99th percentile. On the other hand, maybe your scores really are in the sumpster, in which case you may want to consider a place that won’t consider your scores.
There are basically three types of institutions that won’t consider your scores:
Open enrollment schools that accept anyone with a high school diploma or the equivalent – this includes most community colleges and quite a few four year publics.
Competitive schools that just don’t use scores ever – these are pretty hard to find.
Competitive schools that offer a score optional process.

A colleague at one of the score optional institutions (I think it was Mike Sexton at Lewis and Clark) suggested that a student should consider score optional programs if you feel your score is not reflective of your past work, and/or predictive of your future work. It is rare that a student would be considered a reasonable candidate for score optional admission if their academic record isn’t very strong. In addition, at Mason (did I mention we are the largest competitive institution in the U.S. to offer a score optional admission process?), we add more weight to the noncognitive factors, especially looking for evidence of leadership and motivation. You can get the details on our program on our score optional admissions page.

You can find lots of other score optional institutions through the Fairtest website, but bear in mind that not all of the schools they list as score optional offer a fully score optional admission process. I know that’s confusing, but it’s a reminder to carefully check the policies at any school where you plan to apply.

So, one more reason not to stress about the tests – they just might not make that big a difference, and you could decide to just ignore them completely! Be seeing you.

P.S. – even as I wrote this post, the Richmond Times Dispatch was printing this story about an increase in ACT test takers in Virginia that mentions Mason’s score optional program. By way of full disclosure, I’m on the executive council for ACT in Virginia and for the DC/Maryland region.


13 Responses

  1. Enjoy reading your site – good info. for those of us applying to college. I was wondering if you could shed light on this question though – I’m retaking my ACT/SATs in Oct.; my initial scores weren’t great, and could use improving. Is it better to wait to see how I did with the Oct. batch before I send these scores to colleges I have applied to, or do I gamble that my scores should improve and sign up ahead of time to have them sent?

    I’d definitely value your opinion on this.

    Chip Collins

  2. I usually advise waiting. If you’re applying early decision you probably don’t have a choice, but colleges will do one of two things: 1) notice that you say you’re taking them again and nicely wait on a decision until they get your updated scores or 2) make a decision based on the information that they have.

    If the latter, and you get better scores, it’s probably worth appealing the decision, if the institution permits appeals (most due).

  3. This article eased my mind quite a bit. My son has a 3.8 GPA with 3 IB classes, but because he is LD for “written expression” , he did poorly on the langauge sections of the PSAT. His math score was outstanding. Because he’s thinking of majoring in Computer Software Engineering, I know he can’t do the score optional admissions. I’m hoping that his academic record will heavily outweigh his SAT scores, because George Mason is his first choice!

  4. After reading through this article, I just feel that I really need more info. Can you share some more resources ?

  5. Hello,

    After reading some of your articles, I got even more scared of the SATs and their importance. I am doing the IB in one of the United World Colleges and I am expecting to have a predicted of over 40 points. My monthly grades have been consistent, and I have hardly ever gotten any 5. My SAT scores are 1810 the first time and 1890 the second. I am also doing the TOEFL in December. I know that 2 of my Subject Tests are going to be quite high (hopefully over 750). Do you think it it neccessary for me to take the Reasoning Test again? Are my scores exceptionally bad, and do they count as much for international students (I’m from Albania, by the way)?

    I would really appreciate your opinion on this matter.
    Thank you very much,
    Chiara Prodani

    • SAT’s can complicate international admission, but I don’t think with most institutions you need to be concerned. Most U.S. universities, even though they require the SAT, know that the test has REALLY low relevance to the academic performance of international students. As a result, most institutions that handle a lot of international applicants (like Mason!) will use the TOEFL much more than the SAT reasoning or writing tests. Focus on doing well on your TOEFL and you should be fine.

      • Hello,
        Your post encourages me to say something. I’m an international student from Bangladesh. Today, I’ve got my SAT test result. I didn’t do well. I got 1100 (CR=420 & math=680). I’m very much pondering about my admission into USA university.
        Will you help me by informing me helpful information as soon as you can.
        I’m apologizing if I disturbed y

      • Of course, anything about scores has to be balanced against the reality that 1) scores aren’t as important as your academic record and 2) I can’t say who these scores apply in any particular year for any particular school. That being said, in general those aren’t bad scores, especially if you also submit TOEFL scores, as many U.S. institutions will ignore your CR score in favor of your TOEFL score.

      • Hello,
        Your post encourages me to say something. I’m an international student from Bangladesh. Today, I’ve got my SAT test result. I didn’t do well. I got 1100 (CR=420 & math=680). I’m very much pondering about my admission into USA university.

        Will you help me by informing me helpful information as soon as you can.

        I’m apologizing if I disturbed you.

  6. this statement is inaccurate

    • what a helpful and detailed response!

  7. I just recieved my first batch of SAT scores. I was very pleased with one section (Reading), as it was right in the range of the college I want to attend. However, the Math and Writing scores were much lower than I had hoped/needed. In another of your very informative articles, you said that colleges tend to use the highest scores recieved. Does that mean that they will mix and match between tests, meaning that I only need to get higher scores in Math and Writing now, or do they take the highest overall, meaning I would once again need a strong showing in Reading in addition to improvement in the other two?

    • Shamless plug for my self: I’m a full I.B. Diploma Candidate with a 4.0 G.P.A. I know you can’t speak for other colleges, but at least at Mason, how much would my SAT scores be weighted?

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