Do you have a high GPA, perform well in school, but can’t seem to do well on the SAT / ACT? This is a common pattern, and there are certain strategies that work especially well for you. First, we'll figure out why this is happening to you, and, depending on the reason, suggest ways to improve your SAT / ACT score. Second, we’ll go over what a high GPA but low SAT / ACT score signals to colleges and how to counter that signal.
Academic Performance: The Missing Puzzle Piece Between GPA and SAT / ACT Score
Many students and parents believe that only SAT / ACT scores and GPA make up a person's academics. After all, college admissions officers often use these two numbers to comprise the whole of high school academics. However, missing from this picture is a hidden variable: academic performance. Academic performance measures how skilled and strong a student is in a fair classroom setting compared to all students in the United States.
You can think of academic performance as the percentile that you would get if you were in one huge class with all students in the USA. Unlike GPA, academic performance is a percentile measure, so there's no grade inflation. Because you’re in the same class as the rest of the USA, there is no such thing as an “easy class” or an “easy school district.” Unlike SAT / ACT scores, academic performance is not just based on a test. Instead, it’s based on projects, discussions, effort, and everything else that goes into learning.
Colleges care about underlying academic performance more than GPA or SAT / ACT scores. Academic performance gets at the core of what colleges want to know: whether you will do well academically when you get to their school. Colleges think GPAs are imperfect because they depend too much on your school district and teachers. They also think SAT / ACT scores are imperfect because academics is not all about tests. However, they can’t measure academic performance directly, so they have to infer it from GPA and SAT/ACT scores.
If you are prepping for the SAT / ACT, it's important for you to know your true academic performance before you begin applying to colleges. Having an accurate idea of your academic performance will enable you to develop a much more effective test prep plan. For example, if your true academic performance is high, yet your SAT score is low, then you should focus on improving your test-taking strategies because it is likely that a few strategic points are holding you back. However, if your academic performance is low, then focusing on strategy likely won't improve your score. Instead, you want to focus more on content. The point is that your true academic performance is also important for you to know!
For most students, the three factors of 1) GPA, 2) academic performance, and 3) SAT / ACT scores move together most of the time. If you’re a student who is smart, studies hard, and knows all the content, this will mean you generally have:
- A high GPA, since you do well in class and get good grades.
- Good academic performance, since you’d do well even pooled with all US students.
- A high SAT / ACT score, since you know the content and have prepped enough.
In statistics, we say that these three factors are usually highly correlated, or move together most of the time:
Ideally, all three factors move together (with only minor discrepancies) because they are related. In reality, the three may be disconnected, but often not by very much.
Therefore, usually both you and colleges can tell true academic performance. If you have a high GPA and high SAT/ACT score, it more than likely means you’re a high performer, and vice versa.
There is a problem when your GPA is high, but your SAT / ACT score is low. You have mixed signals. How do colleges, or even you, know whether your true academic performance is high or low?
When GPA is higher than SAT / ACT score, it’s important to figure out where your true academic performance lies.
In this situation, there are some steps you need to follow to find a solution. First, you need to figure out your true academic performance. Knowing your true academic performance will help you prep in the most effective way. We have guidelines below to help you figure out how well you're performing academically.
After you learn your true academic performance and prep for the SAT / ACT, your scores may either go up to match your GPA, or they may still fall short of your GPA. In the latter case, it's important to show colleges that your true performance is high—and we'll tell you how to do that too!
How to Tell Where Your Academic Performance Really Is
Okay, so you have a high GPA and a low SAT / ACT score. How do you tell where your true academic performance is? A good way is to start with your GPA, which is high. We’ll then examine whether your GPA matches your academic performance or is overstating your academic performance.
The Most Common Reasons GPA Overstates Academic Performance
The most common reasons a high GPA can overstate academic performance are grade inflation and a weak school district. You should begin by examining these two factors.
As illustrated in the diagram below, grade inflation reflects the fact that the average grade has been going up over time. While a B average (3.0 unweighted GPA) may have been way above average several decades ago, today, in many schools, it’s far below average. Therefore, that B average, that 3.0 GPA, may not be as high as you think. I have seen a school where getting a 4.5 weighted GPA put you below the average. (It turns out that, at this school, everyone was taking APs, and the AP teachers gave out almost all A’s regardless of performance.)
The Department of Education reports more than a .30 increase in high school GPAs in less than 20 years.
To learn if grade inflation is skewing your academic performance, you should examine whether your GPA is relatively high compared to your entire grade. You can introspect on this, or you can just ask your guidance counselor for your rank in your class. If your guidance counselor doesn’t have a rank for you, ask 10 of your friends what their GPA is and compare their answers against yours. Remember, since true academic performance is relative to the other students in the USA, you need make your GPA high relative to other current students' (and not on some internal intuitive scale where 3.0 counts as great)!
Using your exact rank above, or by asking your friends, you can get a rough idea of your GPA percentile. If you’re ranked 50 out of 200 people in your grade, then you’re 75th percentile. If you ask 10 friends and 5 are below your GPA, then you are 50th percentile. Is your GPA percentile much lower than you thought? If so, that’s a sign of low academic performance. Likewise, is your GPA percentile around the same range as your low SAT / ACT percentile? If so, again, chances are your academic performance is actually low.
The second reason that a high GPA can overstate academic performance, even if your class rank is good, is due to a weak school district. By a weak school district, I mean that the average student in your school district is not academically that strong. Sometimes you have a sense of this — you might realize your school district isn’t particularly renowned in your state.
However, one way to be sure is to check your school’s average SAT or ACT scores (you can often find this by Googling “[Your School Name] Average SAT ACT score” or asking your guidance counselor). If they’re lower than 500 per section for the SAT, or 20 for the ACT, then that’s a sign you’re in a weaker school district. If your school’s average SAT score is below 450, and their ACT score is below 18, then it’s likely that, even if your GPA percentile is good, your academic performance compared to the rest of the US is not strong.
High GPA? Use the table below to figure out your academic performance
Signs of Low Academic Performance
Signs of High Academic Performance
GPA Percentile: Compute using your school rank.
GPA percentile is lower than you expected. GPA percentile is similar to your low SAT/ACT percentile.
GPA Percentile matches what you expected. GPA percentile is much higher (20% or more) than your SAT/ACT percentile.
School District Strength: Compute using your district’s average SAT / ACT score.
Your district’s average SAT score is lower than 450 per section, or ACT score is lower than 18. The lower the average score, the weaker the district likely is.
Your district’s SAT score is higher than 500 per section, or their ACT score is higher than 20. The higher the better.
Introspecting Other Factors
There are more signs that you can use to learn whether your high GPA is reflecting a high academic performance or whether your high GPA is misrepresenting a low academic performance. The key here is to introspect on a number of other factors, some of which will be similar to those above, and others which will be quite different.
Introspecting just means looking at yourself honestly. In order to be honest, you have to be critical and accept the fact that you may have flaws. You must also have confidence that there are certain parts of you that are genuinely strong. Introspecting other factors can also tell you whether your true academic performance is high or not.
Since this sort of qualitative introspection is very fuzzy, there is no hard line for whether your academic performance is high or not. Use each of the factors below as a weight.
As you look through these lists, think about how you feel when you take the SAT / ACT, and, when you answer questions incorrectly, what the most common causes of those mistakes are. It may help to do some practice problems or review an old exam. It may also help to look at your high school transcript and think about the grades you got, how easy it was to get those grades, and how well you understood the material those classes covered.
If you have a high GPA and low SAT / ACT score, these factors suggest HIGH real academic performance:
- You find yourself especially anxious or nervous during the test.
- You find that, when you take the test unofficially in a realistic environment, your top score in a section (e.g. math) across many practice tests is much higher than your math score on a real administration of the SAT / ACT. I don’t mean 50 points better, but 120 points or more (on the SAT scale). This is a sign that your skill is actually high, but, during the actual exam, you run into some test-format trouble.
- You find that, when you give yourself just 20-30% extra time in an unofficial setting, your score shoots up by more than 100 points per section.
- You spend a lot of time during the SAT / ACT on questions that are much too hard for your skill level. Therefore, you end up putting a lot of time into questions you don’t get right anyway.
- The SAT / ACT is one of the few tests you do poorly in. On other exams, like in-class tests, AP tests, etc., you perform very well.
- You misread numbers and words a lot on the SAT / ACT, getting questions wrong even though you know the answer. Don’t count this factor if you genuinely are confused about the meaning of the words or numbers.
- You didn’t study at all for the SAT / ACT (less than 5 hours).
- You don’t study for the SAT / ACT because you find SAT / ACT study irresistibly boring.
If you have a high GPA and low SAT / ACT score, these factors suggest LOW real academic performance:
- Your classes give out a lot of A+, A, and A-s.
- Your school district is a weaker school district and, therefore, gives higher grades relative to objective skill.
- Your high grades are due to an easy teacher.
- Your high grades are due to pressuring the school (such as nagging your teacher for re-grades, parent pressure through PTA or Board of Education).
- You take easy classes to get better grades.
- The average GPA of your school is high.
- You are using the “weighted GPA” that goes as high as 4.33 or 5.00 but comparing it against unweighted GPAs (perfect students get a 4.00).
- Your GPA looks high compared to your school rank.
- Your grades / GPA were a lot lower at another school that didn’t have the properties above.
- You don’t feel more nervous than the average student during the SAT / ACT.
- Your classroom (non-SAT/ACT) test scores generally reflect your overall grade in a class and how well you understand the material. In other words, you don’t do particularly poorly on tests in class.
- You get a lot of questions wrong due to not knowing the underlying concept (e.g. what is volume of a three-dimensional shape, what the grammar rules for parallel construction are etc.)
After reviewing these two lists, you should have a good idea of whether your academic performance is low or high. If you have qualities from both lists, figure out which list you have more factors in or which factors you feel have the biggest impact.
For either case, we have specific advice for you. If you've found that your academic performance is high, start reading the next section. However, if your academic performance is actually low, skip down two sections for advice specifically tailored to you.
How to Prep If Your Academic Performance Is Actually High
If your academic performance is high, the good news is that you may have an easier time prepping because you only need to focus on test-taking skills, which are relatively fast to learn. You don’t have to worry about learning academic content, which is usually a slow slog. Also, even if you don’t get your SAT / ACT fully up to your GPA, you have many options to truthfully signal that you are actually an academic high-performer, which can convince colleges to place less significance on your SAT / ACT scores.
Your SAT / ACT prep, however; will be quite different from that of an average student’s. Most average students are facing issues on all fronts with respect to the ACT / SAT. They need a little bit of work on content, a bit on timing, a bit on carelessness, and a bit on anxiety. However, for you, it is much more likely that there is one or, at most, two non-content issues holding you back. It is important to identify those issues specifically and focus on them.
I had one student who was brilliant at math and could explain the most difficult ACT problem to me in person with no problem. But his scores all came back quite low for his skill. He wasn’t nervous about the test. He never ran out of time. It turns out that he was making a ton of careless mistakes. He understood all the problems and could solve them quickly, but he was just sloppy. I tailored a tactic specific to his situation: I asked him to read each question twice, and underline keywords. After trying that, he immediately scored a 35 (out of 36) on the next ACT.
The above example likely illustrates the situation you are in. You have a singular non-content issue holding you back, and everything else is good. In these cases, I would absolutely not use a class or a book— these two options are much too one-size-fits-all. I would use a method that can properly identify and solve the issue, such as introspective self-study, a program that customizes to your needs (like PrepScholar Online Prep), or a skilled tutor who can find your one major weakness (like PrepScholar Tutoring).
I will help you identify a few common weak spots for high academic performers with low SAT / ACT scores. For each one I’ll tell you how to identify the weak spot and what to do about it.
Carelessness is knowing the contents of a question, but making an error purely based on a lapse of attention. Misreading “integer” as “real number” counts as a careless error, forgetting what “integer” means is not a careless error.
How to Identify: You know the answer to a question but just misread a number or a word. This is frequently overdiagnosed, so I recommend a more rigorous diagnosis method: Imagine answering the question with as much time as you needed and only starting your work after you've read the question three times over. Would you have avoided the mistake you made? If so, it’s a true careless error. Otherwise, this might be a content error that you’re brushing off as careless. Misreading `cat` as `rat’ is a careless error (clearly you know the difference between the two if you thought about it). Mistaking “ambivalent” for “ambiguous” is rarely a careless error (most students actually don’t have the definitions of both words memorized).
What causes carelessness? The main causes are reading too quickly and not focusing on the details. This often causes you to misread the question and thus answer it incorrectly.
How to Solve: Do a few practice tests where you give yourself double time. Spend this extra time reading each question twice and underlining keywords. Be paranoid that your eyes might be playing tricks on you. Write down more steps of your thought process than you normally would (in algebra avoid bunching multiple operations into a single line). If carelessness is the true issue behind your low scores, you should see your score increasing as you apply these steps.
Once these methods become a common habit, you should be able to apply them more quickly and easily. Begin reducing your time by 25% for each practice exam until you can take an entire practice exam in the standard amount of time while still minimizing the number of careless errors you make. For additional help, look at my strategies for carelessness in my article on SAT / ACT prep for high scorers.
Running Out of Time
How to Identify: During the middle of taking a section, you feel fine. (If you feel panicked during the middle of a section, refer to the section on anxiety below.) However, as time runs out on the section, you feel more rushed, and, when time is finally called, you’re leaving a lot of low-hanging fruit on the table. For example, during a real test you often find you have correct answers that you just didn’t have 20 seconds to bubble in, or there were still really easy questions that you didn’t get to.
How to Solve: There are two strategies to try. First, do a practice test with 50% more time than you’re usually allocated, and see how much your score increases over normal. This provides an upper bound for how much your score can possibly increase. Make sure this increase is worthwhile and what you expect. If it is, then you know that learning better time management skills will raise your exam score. There are many ways to improve your timing skills, but the two major tips you should be using are becoming familiar with the exam and learning when to skip questions.
The best way to get familiar with the SAT / ACT is to practice. By regularly completing practice tests or quizzes, you’ll become more familiar with the exam format, how questions are worded, and tricks you can use to find the correct answer more quickly. However, this information will only help if you don’t allow yourself to waste time struggling to answer questions you don’t understand. Therefore, you also need to learn to move on if you don’t know how to solve a problem. If you’ve stared at a problem for 30 seconds and have no idea how to solve it, move on and come back to it at the end if you have more time. Struggling with a single challenging question can eat up a lot of time and cause you to not get to other questions you might have been able to answer much more easily.
After you have begun using the above tips, try the following strategy. Suppose you’re given 30 minutes to finish a section. Split the 30 minutes into the first 25 minutes and the last 5 minutes. Aim to finish the section in the first 25 minutes. After the first 25 minutes are done, stop your normal progress on the test. Instead, step back and reassess what the lowest-hanging fruit at this point is— bubbling in answers, reviewing that really easy question you made a careless mistake on, or doing one more question later on that you saw was easy. Do NOT try to make standard progress on the test anymore. See how much your score improves using this method. You should understand that the SAT / ACT is a timed test, and you will always feel time pressure (I’ve gotten perfect scores, and I still feel immense time pressure). The only thing you can do is make sure the time pressure is not preventing you from getting the lowest-hanging fruit.
Anxiety is primarily an emotional response, not a logical response. If you find that you’re not panicked or stressed during large parts of the test, anxiety is probably not the cause. The worst sufferers of anxiety are overcome with emotion just thinking about the exam. A clear sign you have anxiety is if you don’t spend most of the test time thinking about the questions themselves. Instead, you spend all your time thinking about the fact that you’re taking a test.
How to Identify: Anxiety is relatively easy to diagnose. Usually, students with test anxiety will score substantially (>200 points on SAT, >10 points on the ACT) better if they are asked the questions verbally with no time pressure. To test this, instead of doing a timed test, have someone read the questions to you (while you have a paper copy for reference), so you can think through the problem out loud.
How to Solve: Fixing anxiety is relatively hard compared to diagnosing it. In fact, there are entire fields of psychology focused on the issue of anxiety in different contexts. However, there are definite steps that you can take. The first step is physiological: taking control of your body. Try taking deep breaths between each page flip to calm yourself down. Try meditation before the test and a mini-meditation during breaks. Also, if appropriate, check with your primary care doctor to see if you actually have a clinical medical issue with anxiety. I always hate to go from academic performance into medical territory, but I’ve seen students with extreme anxiety issues who perform better after their doctor found it was actually a medical issue and prescribed beta-blockers to eliminate the anxiety.
Second, you have to attack the cognitive part of anxiety. A core reason that anxiety exists cognitively is because you are focusing too much on yourself. You are spending too much time thinking about you taking the test or doing badly on the test. You are obsessed with concepts of yourself. Instead, do everything you can to direct attention away from yourself. Pay attention to what the room looks like. Then, pay attention to the question, how it’s typeset on the page. Finally, pay attention to what the question is asking. You need to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the question at hand.
As part of reducing cognitive anxiety, it may help to try to predict what horrible things will happen if you don’t do well on the test. Write these predictions down on paper. You might say “parents will be very upset; never want to talk to me again,” or “my academics are ruined.” Then, if you don’t do well, compare that with what actually happens. Turns out, surprise surprise, parents get over it, and you always have the chance to take the test again. You’ll find that your worst fears are not true at all if you write them down beforehand and compare them to what happens.
Finally, a tip for actually taking the test. Definitely do the easiest questions first, and give yourself some time to do them. The easiest questions will build your confidence and let you realize that the test can be done. You may not get all the problems, or even get to all the problems, but that’s totally fine as long as long as you’re making progress during the exam.
If you feel the anxiety is caused by being unfamiliar with the test, you should also try taking a few practice tests under as realistic conditions as possible. For some students, this familiarity and exposure reduce anxiety by a lot.
If you suffer from anxiety, there are multiple ways for you to improve your test scores.
Lack of Preparation for Standardized Tests
How to Identify: This issue is the easiest to identify. If you’ve spent less than five hours studying for the test, then you’ve essentially had no preparation for the SAT / ACT. In fact, taking the actual SAT / ACT probably takes more than five hours if you add in transportation time and waiting for the exam to begin, so if you haven't even spent that much time studying for the test, you really haven't begun studying yet.
How to Solve: Fortunately, this is also the easiest issue to fix as well as the item most worth fixing. After all, the first few hours you put into ACT / SAT prep will be the most efficient hours you’ll ever spend getting into college. In no other item on the college app can you just put in 20 to 80 hours and tremendously boost your admission chances.
If you want to just tick off the box, gather a couple of practice tests and do them. That will get you past the five-hour minimum mark and get your score up effectively. However, if you want to boost your score by more than just a few points, you’ll want to invest in a real program. There are many valid programs out there, and our own program, PrepScholar, lets you prepare easily online.
Lack of Motivation to Prepare for Standardized Tests
How to Identify: You have at least tried to prepare, but you’ve found it incredibly daunting. Whenever you begin SAT / ACT prep, you find yourself bored. You make excuses to do anything else instead of SAT / ACT studying.
How to Solve: This is a very important issue to overcome. If the student is not internally motivated to do well on the test, he or she will not improve much! (I also am presuming here that you, dear reader, are not personally the student because even reading this far into this article shows some baseline motivation.) In this case, examine what has motivated the student in the past. Beating his classmates? Making her parents proud? Getting a monetary reward? The best motivation is if the student wants to go to a good college or get scholarships.
However, at this point, anything is fair game. Think about the ways the student has been motivated before and if these same motivators can be used to convince him to prepare more for the SAT / ACT. Talk to him about the ways a high test score can personally benefit him (can get into a better college which can lead to better job prospects, potentially avoid tens of thousands of dollars of student debt etc.) If this doesn’t work, you may want to consider hiring a tutor so the student is interacting regularly with someone who has experience with this issue and can hold him accountable.
How to Solve All of These Issues
In order to solve any of these above issues, you need to correctly identify it. It’s important that you go through a diagnostic phase first and figure out exactly what your weakness is. Getting treatment for the wrong problem won’t help you at all. Worse, it can hurt you when you don’t see your score improve and get discouraged. The tips above will help you identify the issues and find the right solution.
However, if you'd like the solution found automatically, you can look into our Online Prep program where we leverage the data we collected through helping tens of thousands of students succeed on standardized tests. We automatically find your area of weakness and drill it away, which is especially useful if there are only one or two strategic areas you are weak in, like test anxiety or carelessness.
How to Prep if Your Academic Performance Is Low
If your academic performance is low, the bad news is that improving on the SAT / ACT will be more difficult. However, the good news is that the advice and steps you need to follow for the SAT / ACT are more standard for you. In this case, you don’t have any special weakness with the SAT / ACT. You don’t likely have many anxiety or test format issues that you’ll need special prep to overcome.
For one reason or another, your GPA appears higher than it would for other students in the same ACT / SAT position as you. Your high GPA doesn’t make your study plan any different from that of an average student with a low SAT / ACT score. Thus, you should follow the standard guide for students with low SAT / ACT scores. We have many great guides for those with lower SAT / ACT scores who want to go higher, and I’d strongly recommend going through all of them:
One thing you should make sure you do is complete some rigorous SAT / ACT prep. If your GPA is high and your SAT / ACT score is low, then it’s best to prevent the latter from marring colleges’ interpretations of your application. Time and time again, we’ve seen that SAT / ACT scores improve the fastest in the first 40 or so hours. Therefore, I would recommend at least studying that much for the SAT / ACT. Even if your academic performance is moderate, you can still improve your SAT / ACT scores through study, which will make your application look much stronger.
Of course, if you’ve put 40, 100 hours, or more into SAT / ACT prep and your SAT / ACT score is still low, then the fact that you’ve diagnosed yourself as a low academic performer tells you exactly what to do: improve on your baseline content and academics. You can do this in many ways:
- Use an SAT / ACT program with a lot of content focus. Our PrepScholar Online SAT / ACT program devotes more than 50% of lesson time to baseline content and academics.
- Get a good tutor to teach you the underlying topics.
- Set aside a certain number of hours a week to improve your baseline content. Having a set schedule will make it easier and more likely for you to complete your studying.
- Review your math textbook, and ask for extra help if needed.
- Ensure that you’ve covered all the math topics on the SAT / ACT. Usually, these tests don’t cover very difficult topics like calculus or matrices, so choose classes that overlap with what the SAT / ACT covers.
- Focus part of your studying specifically on graphs, what information they provide, and how to interpret them. You can use examples specifically for test prep or study graphs you’ve used or seen in class.
- If you’re taking the ACT, brush up on geometry as well as algebra, since the ACT tests geometry much more than the SAT does. If you’re taking the SAT, it will still benefit you to know some geometry, but the majority of math problems will be on algebra, so focus most of your studying there.
- Develop your reading skills by reading often and using concepts like theme, tone, etc. to analyze the text.
- If you’re more comfortable with fiction or narrative writing, broaden your skills by reading more scientific passages, and vice versa.
- Learn the major grammar rules the SAT / ACT tests so you can nail those questions on the exam.
- Review some vocabulary lists so you’re more likely to be familiar with words you come across on the exam.
- Ask your English teacher for feedback on essays you’ve written and ways you can improve.
To summarize, if you find that your true academic performance is low, then your SAT / ACT prep process is very standard. Use our numerous guides to help yourself improve. You should also look into our PrepScholar Online Prep program
How to Apply to College With a High GPA but Low Test Score
The above advice examined why you had low SAT / ACT scores but a high GPA. By using the missing puzzle piece of academic performance, we gave you different advice depending on your situation. Now, hopefully, after following the advice above, your ACT / SAT score will have risen to par with your GPA. After all, the best way to solve this situation is not to find excuses, but to actually improve your SAT / ACT score, so that will always be the best option. However, in case your SAT / ACT score still hasn’t increased as much as you want, this section gives you advice on how to apply to college. This section is also useful to read even before you begin SAT / ACT prep to see how an improved test score can bypass this problem entirely.
Having a high GPA but low SAT / ACT score at least is better than a low GPA and low SAT / ACT score. Of course, it’s not as good as having both a high GPA and high SAT / ACT score. For colleges, a high GPA but low SAT / ACT score sends mixed signals — one indicates that your academic performance is high while the other indicates your academic performance is low.
Just like above, where we explained how to figure out your true academic performance, colleges will also be seeking your true academic performance.The major difference in this situation is, regardless of your internal assessment, it is always more favorable for you to signal higher academic performance. Conversely, you want to avoid mistakenly signaling low academic performance.
On one hand, colleges hope that you’re truthfully a high academic performer, just not good on the ACT / SAT. Maybe you just dislike tests or don’t do well on “aptitude tests” like the SAT (versus content tests like the APs). Maybe the SAT / ACT stresses you out. The more you can emphasize this picture, the better you will do.
On the other hand, colleges are afraid that you might, at the core, be a mediocre academic performer — that your SAT / ACT score is telling the truth, and your GPA is the one that’s fibbing. After all, GPAs are very difficult to compare across different classes, different teachers, and different schools. The entire reason colleges rely on ACT / SAT scores in the first place is to have a uniform way to measure students across all their environmental variation. Colleges are thus afraid that the high GPA is due to it being goosed up through one or more of so many possibilities: taking easy classes, getting in the teacher's’ good graces, being from an easy school district, or dozens of other ways that GPAs can be artificially raised. The more you can deemphasize this picture, the better you’ll do.
To emphasize that your SAT / ACT scores don’t represent your true ability, and your GPA isn’t artificially high, here are some tips:
- Take classes with standardized tests and curriculum. The IB (International Baccalaureate) or similar program is the best. The grading is not all test based, yet it is standardized, so doing well on this really tells colleges that your high GPA is legitimate.
- Take other standardized tests, like the AP tests, or competitions like AMC. If you do well on these they definitely are effective at taking the sting off low standardized test scores. However, be aware that, on these tests you may likely suffer from the same issues that caused your low ACT / SAT scores.
- Have teachers vouch for your top performance, emphasizing that your performance is excellent relative to classmates, that your school is a high performing school, and most importantly, your performance is high relative to students at strong schools the teacher has taught at.
- Take classes at your local college.The better you can do in a college class relative to the college’s difficulty, the better you’ll be able to prove your skills are high.
- Perform in nationwide competitions to show that, face-to-face, you rank high.
- (If the following is somewhat true for you): Emphasize in your essay that your school is a difficult one, it’s ranked highly in the state, and that you have a high rank in the school.
- Take classes at highly-ranked neighboring high schools and show high grades in these classes.
- Consider preparing especially for the interview and essay portion of the college application. These items have a large impact on college admissions, and many students who are not especially strong on tests tend to do stellar on these.
How will your signaling change if you’re actually a high academic performer versus a low academic performer? Well for one, high academic performers will have a much easier time doing the tasks above because they’ll be able to use their underlying skill to achieve it.
However, since the above signaling is beneficial, everyone should attempt it whether they classify themselves as a high or low performer. In fact, you can even say that your ability to accomplish the above (e.g. IB classes) in some ways partially makes you a high performer.
Your Real Performance and Overplacing Into Colleges
What sort of college should you apply to if you have a high GPA but low SAT / ACT scores? The answer is that your competitiveness level will be about halfway between your GPA level and SAT / ACT level. After all, many colleges weigh GPA and SAT/ACT by similar amounts in admissions. For example, if your GPA puts you at the median of a US News rank 10 school, but your ACT puts you in the middle of a US News rank 70 school, you would be competitive at a rank 40 school or so. Note, however, that you’ll have a wider spread, a wider variability to which schools accept you. Some higher ranked schools (especially progressive private schools) might forgive the low ACT score, while other lower ranked schools (especially public state schools) may be quite strict.
Finally, you might be wondering about overplacement. Suppose you’re a low academic performer, but using our stellar techniques above, you are able to achieve a school leaps beyond what you would otherwise be able to. Would it be a mistake to go to a school beyond where you otherwise could have gone?
On an ethical front, you need to make sure what you say above is true. Not lying in your application, not saying your school is difficult when it is easy, is not only the ethical thing to do, it’s also the operationally smart thing to do because college admissions officers have a ton of data at their disposal.
For the best experience for yourself, it is important not to overplace into one particular type of college: the difficult, grind-you-down sort of college. In these colleges, if you get there, and you don’t belong, you run a huge risk of flunking your classes, feeling bad, and not learning. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell which colleges are bad to overplace into: look at the graduation rate of the colleges. Any overall graduation rate under 90% is a huge red flag — these are schools that will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t meet their academic rigor. Do not overplace into these. Conversely, schools with graduation rates above 95% will likely baby you through — these colleges tend to tolerate overplacement a lot better.
Time for a personal story: many of my friends went to the University of Chicago, a notoriously difficult university. I saw them pull all-nighters, recount stories of classmates being expelled for failing, and have people generally being pushed to their academic limit. Even the average student was having a hard time meeting academic goals; I can only imagine an under-qualified student completely floundering in a school as punishing as UChicago. Now, I went to Harvard College, and the mythical motto there (with a huge dollop of truth) is that it’s hard to get in, but once you do, anyone can graduate. With an overall graduation rate of above 97% recently, this is completely true. Classmate didn’t fulfill a few requirements? I saw my college drop these requirements like flies. Flunking Algebraic Topology? Take “Magic with Numbers” instead. If you overplaced into Harvard, chances are you’d have a decent time all around, and you’d benefit from the education and degree. The point is, you should focus on the overall graduation rate if you fear the consequences of overplacing.
Just to reemphasize one final time, the strategies in the previous sections for applying with a low SAT / ACT score are only a band-aid for the underlying problem. If you have a fire in your house, the above tells you how to minimize damage. It’s much better to not have a fire in your house in the first place. Likewise, If you’re high in GPA but low in SAT / ACT, the absolute best solution is to bring up your SAT / ACT score. If you haven’t prepared at all — putting in 40 hours either by yourself or with a highly rated program is the first thing you should do right now!
Wondering how to start studying? Read about the pros and cons of each type of test prep and learn which method is the best for you.
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Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.