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Which Hurts Your Chances More: Low Grades or Low Test Scores?

College Admissions

Who is in the tougher situation when it comes to getting into college: the student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal or the student whose SAT and/or ACT scores are lower than ideal?

It’ s clear that having mediocre or low college admission test scores gives students a better shot both at more colleges and at higher-quality colleges than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ test scores are still important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some excellent colleges—that do not put so much weight, or indeed any weight at all, on college admission test scores.

If you read admission testing policies on a growing number of college websites, you will see that colleges have sometimes done their own research on their own students in order to determine whether SAT or ACT scores have any better predictive value than high school grades—or indeed any predictive value at all—for how students will do in college, including whether they will stay and graduate. Their research typically shows that admission test scores do not add enough predictive value to require that students take the tests and, thus, to risk shutting out students who do not have easy access to the tests—often lower-income students in urban settings.

Here are a few of the highly respected “test-optional” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission, although students may submit the scores (and many do) if they feel the scores will help their application: American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Bryn Mawr College, George Washington University, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University. Hampshire College—everyone’s idea of a great school—takes the most extreme position of any that we have encountered so far by saying that Hampshire does not consider admission test scores “in any way” either for admission or for financial aid awards.

There are also “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which admission and/or achievement test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more flexible than others, especially the new policy at the University of Rochester. Here are a few highly respected test-flexible colleges: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

Unfortunately, there are no “high-school-grades-optional” or “high-school-grades-flexible” colleges that we know of. Colleges always look at high school grades. If there is a reason that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as a difficult family situation or a personal health problem—that reason should be explained in a required application essay (when the topic is appropriate) or in an optional supplementary essay. Whatever the case, it is really very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. No such reason would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student. However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores.

So, start telling middle school students to get ready and remind ninth graders now that there is no easy route to a great college without great high school grades.


by Regina H. Paul: During more than 35 years at Policy Studies in Education, a nonprofit organization, Regina has worked to improve K–12 education and has conducted market studies for more than 150 colleges.  She has trained thousands of teachers, administrators, and school board members nationwide. She is the co-host of NYCollegeChat, a weekly podcast for parents and high school students about the world of college, and she blogs at ParentChat with Regina. Her latest book is How To Find the Right College.

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