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The Story of Your College Application: Test Scores

Just as your transcript is a part of the story your college application tells (see “The Story of Your College Application: Transcripts“), so are your ACT/SAT test scores.  But just how important are those scores?  While every college’s admissions procedures are a little different, as a general rule, applicants’ transcripts are more important than their standardized test scores.  Why, you ask?  Depending on when you apply, your transcript represents 3-3 ½ years of your life.  On the other hand, depending on how many times you take the ACT and/or SAT, your scores represent as little as a few hours on one day of your life.  Just like high school, succeeding in college requires four years (ideally) of going to class; taking notes; doing the assigned reading, homework, and projects; and studying for tests.  If you’ve developed and practiced those skills in high school, your transcript is likely to reflect that.  If you haven’t, that is going to come through, too.  Colleges tend to prefer the former over the latter.

I know what you’re thinking: “Colleges want smart kids, and high test scores show colleges how smart I am.”  In actuality, standardized test scores don’t indicate how smart you are, but rather, how well you can take the test.  If the ACT and SAT were intelligence tests, people wouldn’t spend millions of dollars every year on test prep, because no sort of coaching can raise one’s IQ.  Yet, putting that aside, colleges don’t just want smart kids; they want kids who have the motivation and perseverance to succeed in a rigorous academic environment.  What best illustrates that?  Your transcript.

Colleges almost always are more willing to forgive average test scores if they’re combined with a stellar transcript, while outstanding test scores don’t often compensate for a poor transcript.  That being said, there are situations in which excellent test scores can give students with a so-so transcript the extra boost they need to be admitted.  If something happened in your life that caused your grades to drop, and you can explain those circumstances convincingly, submitting high test scores can serve as additional evidence that you are, in fact, capable of handling the demands of college.  However, low grades throughout high school are unlikely to be forgiven even if you get a perfect score on the ACT or SAT.

There also are those of you who say, “I’m smart, I’ve done really well in high school, but I’m just not a good test-taker.”  I’ll bet you wish you didn’t even have to take those silly standardized tests, right?  Well, you’re in luck, because more and more colleges are becoming “test-optional”.  This means exactly what it sounds like: including ACT and/or SAT scores in your application is optional.  You can submit your scores if you’d like, but if you choose not to, that won’t be held against you in the admissions process.   You can find a list of test-optional colleges (of which there are over 800) at www.fairtest.org.  While the growing number of test-optional colleges is great news for countless students, there is, unfortunately, one catch: at many of these colleges, you do have to provide test scores if you want to be considered for merit scholarships.

Bottom line: take high school seriously.  Take challenging courses, study hard, and get the best grades you can.  Don’t slack off and then put all of your eggs in the ACT/SAT basket, because when it comes time to apply to college, your test scores, no matter how impressive they are, are not going to make up for a lackluster transcript. 

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