For a lot of smart students, the SAT is a struggle. If you have a high GPA, but a low SAT score, you're not alone!
If you feel like you're good in school but not great at test taking, here's our expert guide on how you can boost your chances of getting into a great college. You'll be able to show colleges your true academic potential.
The Good News
Your high GPA shows that you have been diligent in your schoolwork across all four years of high school. I am classifying a high GPA as 3.5 to 4.0 on a 4.0 scale for reasons outlined in the article linked, though more competitive colleges such as the Ivy League will consider a high GPA to be in the 3.85 to 4.0 range.
Stanford says on their admissions website, “We expect you to challenge yourself throughout high school and to do very well. The most important credential that enables us to evaluate your academic record is the high school transcript.”
Your GPA is the most important part of your application, but a school will only consider your high GPA impressive if you took the hardest classes (AP or IB) offered at your school. If you took easy classes and had a high GPA, it does not impress admissions officers. (I'll discuss this more in detail later.)
The Bad News
Universities care about SAT scores because they see them as an equalizer (for an in-depth explanation of the function of the SAT, check out our other article). Every student in the country received a different high school education. Even students at the same school took different classes or had different teachers.
However, every applicant to that university took the SAT or ACT. Every student took the same test (or at least an equivalent one, as the exact test changes from administration to administration).
So, unfortunately, a university admissions officer may think that your high school grades were inflated or that you took easy classes at your high school and may think that your low SAT score is a more accurate representation of your college achievement potential.
How Low Is Low for an SAT score?
Before you worry about how low your SAT score is, consider this: some schools “superscore” the SAT, meaning they only count your highest section scores across all the dates you took the SAT. If you've taken the test multiple times, your score might be higher than you thought.
For example, if you took the test 2 times, and your best Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score was on your 1st test date (710), and your best Math score was on your 2nd test date (680), you can combine those 2 best section scores into a brand new composite score (1390). For a more in-depth explanation and for the schools that superscore the SAT, see our other article: Which Colleges Superscore the SAT?
If you still feel like your SAT score is low, consider this: how "low" your SAT score actually is depends on which college you hope to attend. You should Google search for “[College Name] SAT” to find out the 25th/75th percentile for the school you are interested in.
The 25th percentile score means that 25% of the students attending that school have a score at or below that number (this is below average). The 75th percentile means that 75% of students have a score at or below that number. In essence, the 25th/75th percentile covers the middle 50% of all students admitted to the school.
If you score at the 75th percentile for any school and have a high GPA, you have a great chance at getting in. If you're at the 25th percentile, you'll need to have a strong application to boost your odds of getting in. For example, NYU has a 25th/75th of 1255 to 1475, and Harvard has a 25th/75th of 1405 to 1600.
You may ask, well, why don’t I have a great shot scoring a 1405 of getting into Harvard when 25% of admits scored below that? In reality, the 25% below are most likely admitted because they are a special applicant such as an athlete (or have a special talent beyond athletics such as being a New York Times published writer/famous actress), legacy, or child of a significant donor.
In this article, I'm assuming you're a “normal applicant” (not an athlete/special talent, legacy, or child of a significant donor). In order for you to have the best shot of getting in, you want to get your SAT score to match your high GPA and get a score that is at or above the 75th percentile for the school you are applying to.
What Do Colleges Think of Your High GPA/Low SAT Score?
What really matters in all of these questions is how the college admissions office views your application. A high GPA paired with a low SAT score means a few things - most of them bad.
One potential impression is that your school inflated your grades or you took easy high school classes, and that your SAT score may be a more accurate reflection of your academic potential than your GPA. In other words, if your academic skill is, in reality, low, you'll get a high GPA at an easier high school but perform poorly when compared to the rest of the nation on the SAT.
However, admissions officers will go beyond this initial impression. Most admissions officers know high schools in the US very well.
At most universities, each admissions officer is responsible for a specific state or a region. They read all the applications from that area and visit the high schools (if your high school has an admissions officer visit and talk about the university they work at - that person will typically read your application). Since the admissions officers visit these schools and read the applications from students at them, they are very familiar with the academics at these high schools.
You want them to be impressed by your GPA and SAT score!
They know if your school is historically academically challenging or historically easy and known to inflate grades. So, an admissions officer will know if you chose to take easier classes and avoided the AP or IB classes that your school offered (if your school offers AP or IB) and will most likely then consider your low SAT to be a better representation of your academic potential than your GPA.
If you did take a very challenging course load throughout high school (packed AP or IB classes, if available at your school) and you still have a very high GPA, the admissions officer will know and may be willing to look past your SAT score. However, you will have a better chance of being accepted if you can get your SAT score up to match your high GPA.
Why Is Your SAT Score Low?
Not sure why your SAT score was lower than you expected? In this section, we discuss several common reasons good students often get low SAT scores, and we also explain what you can do to overcome these issues.
Issue 1: Did You Study?
If you didn't study, that is most likely the reason behind your low SAT score. You need to know the test format cold. Learn how the SAT is scored, how long the SAT is and the SAT structure, and know the SAT instructions. You need to take several timed practice SATs (I recommend four or more before taking your next test). Check out our other article for Printable SAT Practice Tests PDFs: 8 FREE Official Tests. By taking all of these timed practice tests, you will get very familiar with the test format and comfortable with the timing.
However, you should not be taking the tests just to take the tests; you also need to be reviewing your answers. For help reviewing your mistakes, check out our other article: The Best Way to Review Your Mistakes for the SAT/ACT.
Issue 2: Did You Study Effectively?
If you have practiced a decent amount for the SAT and it didn't result in a high score, then you may need to change how you study. If you studied on your own, what material are you using? You should only be using real SATs. Since the SAT is such a unique test, you need to being using the real thing to get the best practice. Check out our other article for Printable SAT Practice Tests PDFs: 8 FREE Official Tests. If you want more practice, check out our other article for advice on the best books to buy for SAT prep.
When you study, are you reviewing your incorrect answers? This is the most important step in the learning process: figuring out what you did wrong. Without this step, you will not learn from your mistakes, and you will keep repeating them. For help reviewing your mistakes, check out our other article: The Best Way to Review Your Mistakes for the SAT/ACT.
If you're studying with official practice SATs and reviewing your answers and still not seeing improvements in your SAT score, there may be a couple of problems:
- Problem #1: You have not mastered the strategies of the test. To help fix this problem, you should check out the other free guides offered here at PrepScholar, and you should also be looking at the other free resources available on the web.
- Problem #2: If you are still struggling after working on the strategies, you may be having an issue with focus while studying. To fix this problem, you may want more personalized preparation and may want to consider hiring a tutor, taking an SAT prep class or attending an SAT prep camp, or using an online resource such as PrepScholar.
Issue 3: Is Your Tutor or Prep Program Not Getting You the Results You Want?
If you have been studying with a tutor/class/online program and seeing no improvement, there may be a couple of problems:
- Problem #1: The tutor/class/online program is not personalized. It/he/she is not figuring out what your strengths and weaknesses are and is not focusing on fixing your weaknesses. Try to find a more personalized tutor/class/program. Consider trying our PrepScholar SAT prep program. We do the heavy lifting for you, by splitting up our prep material into specific skills. We'll detect your weaknesses automatically and give you focused lessons and quizzes to improve those skills.
- Problem #2: The tutor/class/ online program is not pushing you hard enough (i.e. letting you not do practice tests or is not forcing you to complete the test in the allotted time frame). You need a tutor/class/online program that will make sure you are taking accurately timed practice tests, and that will keep you on a study schedule. Consider trying our PrepScholar SAT prep program, which tracks your hours spent studying each week, times you during all practice tests, and commits you to a study regimen.
- Problem #3: You may just be suffering from test anxiety. I have seen this in some students. You score very high in your practice, but on the real SAT, you cannot get the same score because you are nervous, or you forget your pacing and end up not finishing in time. There is no easy fix for this problem. Getting comfortable with the test format should help minimize stress, but may not eliminate test anxiety completely. Try to remember that this is just a test and the test will not determine your success in life. Consider trying meditation to calm your mind before the test.
If You Don't Have Time to Retake the SAT, What Are Your Options?
Your SAT score is only one part of your application, so try to focus on making the rest of your application as strong as possible. You already have a great transcript going for you, so try to make the rest of your application match your high GPA. This includes getting great letters of recommendation, having strong extracurriculars, and knocking your personal statement out of the park. For in-depth advice on how to build the most versatile college application, check out our other article.
Retaking the SAT? Check out our ultimate SAT study guide to help you with your prep. Taking the SAT very soon? Check out our guide to cramming for the test.
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As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.