Can You Still Get into College with a Low SAT Score?

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Ahh, the dreaded SAT. Many colleges require this standardized test as a component of the application process, and often, students fear a low SAT score might prevent them from getting accepted to their preferred university. This is a valid, yet somewhat unfounded concern. That’s because a low score on the SAT isn’t a complete barrier to admission to most schools. Furthermore, The College Board reports that more than half of students who took the standardized test for 2020 and 2021 received scores that indicated they aren’t fully prepared for college-level work, so you’re not alone. Receiving a standardized test score that’s lower than you had hoped is certainly unfortunate news, but all is not lost. Take heart: after receiving a less-than-desirable SAT score, most students have options for increasing their chance of acceptance to college.

What Does Your SAT Score Mean, Anyway?

Before we address a plan of action for dealing with a low SAT score, let’s take a step back and assess the situation fully. What exactly does your SAT score mean, anyway? To answer this question, we need to go back to the beginning and look at the origin of the test as well as its evolution.

For decades, the SAT (formerly the Scholarly Aptitude Test) has been the test of choice for colleges who wish to assess the readiness of their applicants for academic work at the postsecondary level. First administered in 1926, the SAT was initially an experimental test adapted from an old Army IQ test. Of course, this is not the same test college-bound students take today. The SAT has undergone many revisions and even complete overhauls. In 2016, for example, it was completely redesigned.

Today’s test is still intended to measure a student’s college readiness, but it is not as widely accepted as it once was. Since studies have indicated that it is a poor predictor of college success over the long term, some institutions of higher learning have started to question the test’s legitimacy. In fact, over the past decade, a number of colleges and universities have either dropped the SAT entirely or made it an optional step towards admissions.

How Is the SAT Scored?

If you receive an SAT score that’s not up to par, it’s not the end of the world. Instead of going into panic mode, we recommend you pause and put things in perspective. You can start by learning as much as you can about exactly what your score means. Here are some facts to get you started:

  • The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600.
  • The average SAT score is 1059.
  • There is no penalty for wrong answers.
  • You actually have multiple SAT scores to consider. Your raw score is converted to a scaled score, which is then used to calculate a percentile rank.
  • There’s no limit as to the number of times you can retake the test.

Feel better? If you’re still worried, you may find it reassuring to know that there are some steps you can take to move things in the right direction, even with a low SAT score.

Take an Alternative Standardized Test

If you’ve scored low on the SAT, it’s important to keep in mind that the SAT is not the only type of college admissions test available. While the SAT may be the most popular and well-known type of standardized test in modern education, it’s not the only one. Most colleges accept the SAT as part of a student’s application package, but the vast majority also accept the ACT in place of or as well as the SAT. Additionally, many colleges have no preference as to which test a student submits, so a student with a bad SAT score could take the ACT and submit that score instead. Students who excel in math, science, reading, and English may wish to take the ACT, particularly if they aren’t as comfortable with the logic and reasoning sections required when taking the SAT.

Find a College without SAT Requirements

It may not be the solution you hoped for, but if you find yourself dealing with a low SAT score, it might be time to re-examine your options. While it may still possible to get into your school of choice, a backup plan is also a reasonable safeguard and is something that all students need regardless of SAT scores. You may want to at least consider some schools with lower score requirements, or even schools that don’t require the SAT at all. How do you go about that?

Examining the average college’s list of application requirements will usually show a list of familiar items like the official application, teacher recommendations, a personal essay, and standardized tests. However, colleges do vary somewhat in their requirements, and some schools don’t require the submission of standardized test scores.

As we’ve mentioned, the higher education landscape is changing in more ways than one. Some of these changes have altered the ways in which colleges and universities view standardized tests (or whether they view them at all!). While the vast majority of schools required the SAT in the past, many schools are now re-evaluating their policies and establishing themselves as either test-blind or test-optional institutions. Here’s the difference:

Test-Blind Schools (2021)

Test-blind schools have taken the strongest stance against standardized testing as part of the college admissions process. These colleges and universities instruct applicants not to send in standardized test results such as those from the SAT or ACT. According to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the following schools are now officially part of the test-blind movement:

  • Boise State University
  • City University of New York
  • Eastern Washington University
  • Northern Kentucky University
  • Northern Michigan University
  • University of San Diego
  • Washington State University

For a complete list of test-blind colleges and universities in the United States, visit the National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s website.

Test-Optional Schools (2021)

Unlike test-blind schools, test-optional schools will accept standardized test scores from applicants, but they do not specifically require them as part of the college admissions process. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are currently more than 1,760 colleges and universities across the country with test-optional admissions policies. Some of these schools include:

  • Alabama State University
  • Boston University
  • George Mason University
  • La Salle University
  • Montana State University
  • Northern Arizona University
  • Ohio State University
  • Saint Leo University
  • Stevens Institute of Technology

It’s important to note that some colleges and universities do not extend their test-optional admissions policies to all applicants. Instead, some schools require that students demonstrate a minimum GPA or class rank in order to take advantage of these flexible admissions standards.

Find out if a specific school fits the qualifications for test-optional status at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s website or by visiting the college or university’s official website.

As you’re expanding your search criteria for suitable colleges and universities, keep in mind that whether a school does or does not require standardized test scores usually isn’t an indication of the school’s prestige or quality.

Take the Test a Second (or Third) Time

Like many things in life, the SAT is not something that’s typically mastered on your first go-round. Before you start berating yourself for a low standardized test score, consider the circumstances, including factors that may have contributed to your poor performance. A variety of issues may impact a student’s ability to receive a high test score on the SAT. Taking the test while sick, panicking during the test, and taking it while ill-prepared for the content may result in a lower-than-expected test score.

There’s good news, though—many colleges allow students to submit multiple test scores during the application process and will take the highest overall test score submitted. Some colleges will also take the average of all submitted test scores. Schools with the most generous policies for test-takers will even “super score” the test, meaning they will combine your highest score on each section of the test across multiple test dates.

These are all good reasons that you should consider taking the test again if you don’t achieve your desired score the first time. Retaking the SAT is actually a very common practice. According to The College Board, most high school students take the test for the first time during their junior year and again as a senior. Moreover, the organization confirms that the majority of students perform better on the test the second time around. It is for this reason that The College Board actually recommends that students take the SAT twice—once during the spring of their 11th-grade year and once in the fall of their final year of high school.

A second go at the test doesn’t have to be your final attempt, either. That’s because there is no limit to how many times you can retake the SAT. However, there is a fee associated with the test, and each testing session is several hours long. Since there is a fairly hefty investment of time and money involved each time you take the test, it’s wise to prepare for the test ahead of time. Instead of simply crossing your fingers and hoping for a better score, take the time to study using some trusted test prep materials and take a few practice tests leading up to your next testing appointment.

Transfer to Your Preferred College or University

Although there are many possible remedies for a low SAT score, the last resort is to simply accept that you may not get into your target school, at least not right away. Even if you’ve exhausted all of your other options, including submitting an alternate standardized test score and retaking the SAT, you can still achieve your goal of getting into your school of choice, just a little later than you may have planned. How? By becoming a transfer student. One way to do this is to attend a community college, either locally or out of state, to get your general education credits.

Here’s how it works: It is a little-known fact that many colleges and universities in the United States don’t require standardized test scores during a transfer application. Also, schools that do require test scores may not place as much weight on scores for transfer students as they might for recently graduated high school seniors without any college experience. If you’re received a low SAT score and still want to get into your dream school, this is very good news for you. It means you may be able to get into a less reputable school for now and then transfer to your target school after a year or two of successful college experience. If you opt for this less traditional route, be prepared to work hard. You’ll want to achieve the highest GPA possible in order to qualify for a successful transfer.

The Takeaway: Don’t Give Up

Taking the SAT and receiving a lower score than you had anticipated is definitely a letdown. Try not to let it completely deflate you, though. Instead, find encouragement in the fact that even the best and smartest students sometimes perform poorly on standardized tests, especially high-stakes tests like the SAT. It doesn’t mean you’re not college material. After all, this test in particular isn’t perfect and has in fact faced backlash for being an inadequate predictor of college success. This is even more reason not to take the results personally. Plus, there are ways around a poor SAT score, even if you’re unable to significantly improve it by retaking the test. The important thing to remember is to not give up. With a lot of research and a little luck, you can still achieve your dreams of college admissions and success, even without the perfect score!


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