by Padya Paramita, InGenius Prep*
If you’re a top student and have an impressive GPA in high school, you deserve to be very proud. When it comes to preparing for college, you spend your time working hard and preparing for the SAT, and may take it with great expectations. But on the fateful day when it’s time to see your score, your stomach drops. Unfortunately, your score is not as good as you’d hoped. Now you’re wondering how colleges look at students with a high GPA but low SAT score.
Don’t think about giving up on your dream school or start planning a gap year just yet. A low SAT score isn’t the end of the world. Besides, you may not even know whether your score is considered “low” by many schools. There are ways you can recover from this setback, and to help guide you, I’ve outlined exactly what is considered high and low in terms of GPA and SAT scores, what kind of SAT scores top schools look for, how having a high GPA but low SAT scores is evaluated in college admissions, and how you can still pick yourself up and not lose all hope when it comes to getting accepted into a great school.
What counts as “good” and “bad” numbers?
Before you break down about messing up a couple of Critical Reading questions, it’s important to know what numbers are considered within the category of a high GPA but low SAT score. Poor grades in high school are a concern if you have multiple C’s or even a D on your transcript. If your GPA signifies that you have mostly A’s and A-’s, you’re in a good place. Your GPA is far from poor.
When it comes to SAT scores, the best way to figure out what constitutes a “good” score is by looking at the median scores of the schools on your list. A general rule of thumb is that if your SAT composite falls around a given school’s 25th percentile, your score will be considered low in that applicant pool. If you have your sights set on top colleges but your SAT score ranks below the 25th percentile, you know you might have to look at other options.
To give you some context, let’s take a look at the 25th percentile SAT scores for the top 20 national universities and liberal arts colleges.
Liberal Arts Colleges:
A high 1300 is a decent score in any other situation, but if your goal is to get into a school like Princeton or Harvard, you have your work cut out for you. At most top schools, even the 25th percentile numbers are high - in the mid-high 1400s for national universities, and mostly high 1300s and low 1400s for liberal arts colleges. If you’re hoping to get into a STEM-intensive college such as MIT or Caltech, you need top scores to prove your prowess in math. Less than 25% of students scored below 1530 at Caltech! That’s definitely something to think about.
If your score is lower than the ones on the tables, you might still have a chance at top colleges, but should of course create a balanced list with target and safety schools to keep your options open.
How a high GPA but low SAT score is looked at in college admissions
College admissions is a holistic review process. Going in with a high GPA but low SAT score is not going to make or break your entire application. Besides, you’ve got a very good asset with your GPA in your arsenal. Admissions officers at top schools value a high GPA because that number reflects sustained effort and accomplishment. Colleges will especially note if your GPA was earned through a challenging course load. If you’ve succeeded in honors and AP classes, and taken more advanced courses such as calculus instead of just taking algebra, it reflects very well on your abilities. You’ve worked hard over your four years of high school to maintain top grades, whereas the SAT reflects a single day’s performance. Your SAT score definitely matters, but know that your GPA does carry more weight in the process because of this. You could have just had a bad day on your SAT test date.
Your scores are evaluated in the context of the rest of your application. Admissions officers will also have greater insight into your neighborhood and school environment thanks to the introduction of the SAT adversity score. Information on your community, such as crime rate, average family income, high school graduation rate, and average SAT score helps colleges determine some of the external factors that might also play into your performance.
So, what should you do next?
While it can feel disheartening to receive a low SAT score after weeks of intense preparation, it’s time to move forward. Instead, concentrate on taking advantage of your strong GPA and other application components that you do have control over. Here are some steps you can take to still submit a competitive application to a top school if you have a high GPA but low SAT score.
Retake the SAT - If you got a lower than expected SAT score on your first try, then why not retake the test? This time around, go over the specific problem areas - if you have trouble with fractions, dedicate a good chunk of your SAT prep time towards this mathematical concept. If you struggle to remember vocabulary words, enlist a friend to quiz you on your flash cards. Hopefully, you’ll improve on your second attempt. But remember, don’t take the SAT an endless amount of times. Admissions officers consider how many times you’ve sat for the test, and a consistently low score won’t benefit benefit you. Before you even sign up for the next SAT, take a look at how you are faring on your practice tests. Is a higher score even in the cards? Consider if a retake would be strategic and worth your time and energy.
Explain the score if applicable - If your SAT test date came right around the time you suffered from a serious illness or you lost a family member, the standardized test was obviously not the first thing on your mind. If you faced such excruciating circumstances that you believe majorly impacted your SAT score and does not accurately capture your abilities, you should definitely explain the situation on your application. An appropriate place to do so would be the “Additional Information” section on the Common Application. Don’t write a long essay, but briefly mentioned what had happened and how you believe the number is not an accurate measure of your academic capabilities.
Focus on other components - At the end of the day, the SAT score is just one component of your application. Since you have a high GPA but low SAT score, there are definitely ways to bounce back. Unless your SAT score is the lowest of lows, admissions officers will take your other components into account and might even overlook the SAT if they are strong enough. Your GPA is already high. That’s great! If you throw in a well-written and compelling personal statement, and demonstrate commitment towards your extracurricular activities, admissions officers will know that you’re someone they should consider, regardless of the low SAT score.
Apply to SAT optional schools - You’re probably aware that not all schools require the SAT. Many top schools, such as UChicago, Bowdoin, Smith, Colby, Wesleyan to name a few, are test-optional. If you’re not happy with your score, you don’t have to submit it at these colleges! And since you have a high GPA, it will look very impressive as a standalone number on your application. These colleges serve as a great reminder that your test-taking ability should not stand in the way of your admission into a top college.
Navigating the college application process can seem tricky when you have a high GPA but low SAT score. But, you’re far from doomed. Focus on the assets that you do have - such as your good grades - and continue channeling that energy into writing the best essays you possibly can, and pursuing your passions through leadership opportunities, internships, and volunteering initiatives. You may not be able to change your score now, but what you can do is try your best to make sure it’s not the defining characteristic of your application. You got this!
Founded at Yale in 2013 and operating around the world, InGenius Prep is an admissions counseling company which helps students perfect their applications for college and graduate school. Our students work directly with Former Admissions Officers from top colleges like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, NYU, Northwestern, and more. Our team of experts has helped countless students unlock their potential and get into their reach schools!