Myth: If My ACT/SAT Score is Below the Average at a College, I Shouldn’t Apply

Scantron answer sheet with shaded answers and a broken pencil.

Flickr user Josh Davis

With such great emphasis put on the ACT and SAT exams—the studying, the review sessions, taking the test, retaking the test, scholarships dependent on scores, etc.—many think the scores are the be all end all of college applications. If you have a high score, you can get into any college you want. If you have a low score, you’re doomed.

So what happens when your scores are below the average?

I’ve got some good news for you: ACT/SAT scores are just one part of the college application. Don’t get me wrong, they are still a very important factor, they’re just not the only one admissions officers take into consideration when reviewing an application. ACT / SAT scores are a way to quantify your academic capabilities, to estimate really, but there are many other deciding elements that weigh in on your acceptance odds as well. GPA, class rank, the application essay, extracurricular activities, and interviews all play vital roles in determining whether or not you get into a certain college.

So what if your exam scores are lower than the average at a certain school? Well, first off, let’s highlight a nifty and helpful tool right here on College Raptor’s site—each college page has their published ACT and SAT score averages (both the 25th and 75th percentile scores) for the composite and individual section scores of both tests. Awesome, right? Now you don’t have to search each individual school’s website. Also, if you create a free account and fill it with your information, you can compare your scores side by side with different colleges’ AND see how your scores affect your admission odds.

Don’t forget to apply to reach schools anyway.

Ok, with that plug out of the way, say your score is lower than average. For example, the average incoming freshmen at Dartmouth College score between a 30 and a 35 for the ACT, and between 1,334 and 1,540 for the SAT. Those are some impressive scores. But if you got a 28 on the ACT, which would put you at below average, you should still apply to Dartmouth. It may be a bit of an academic reach for you, but it’s important to have a couple reach schools on your college list. And besides, a 28 may not be the average, but it’s not that far off—the only way you’ll have a 0% chance of being accepted is if you don’t apply at all.

Consider retaking the test.

Of course, if you’re below the average and worried that your score will negatively affect your chances of getting in, you can always retake the test (provided you have time, of course). Retaking either the ACT or SAT is almost guaranteed to increase your score—and even if, for some reason, you get a lower score, colleges will focus on the highest scores you got on each individual test (sections too!). If you take a test again, you can apply what you’ve learned from the first go-around and use that to your advantage. How did you study for the first test? You might want to either study more or remix how you studied. Did you not sleep well before the first test? Put an effort into getting a good night’s rest. Your experience will give you insight into how the second one will go.

All in all, don’t let a lower score scare you out of applying to your dream school. The ACT and SAT are not the definitive factor of your acceptance or rejection from a college. Your application will never be judged solely on your test scores alone. So go out and apply!


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