Search >

    Good Student. Bad ACT.

    Would my low test score keep me out of my top school?

    Amy Adair

    Leer en Español

    I sat on the edge of my chair and nervously opened the long white envelope containing my ACT test results. My heart sank. Wow, I was really expecting a higher score.

    It was the fall of my senior year—college application time—and I was a straight-A student with a lousy ACT score. I had my heart set on attending Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But now I was sure that my score was too low and they'd never accept me. So I took the ACT two more times … and got even lower scores! What was I doing wrong? I'd prayed, tried to relax, focused—I'd even studied my old class notes. Nothing helped.

    In October I realized my time was running out. My guidance counselor urged me to just send my application. "You're a good student with good grades," she assured me. "Maybe they'll consider that in their decision."

    I wasn't so sure.

    Like me, many high school students struggle with low ACT or SAT scores. And like it or not, test scores are one of the top criteria schools use to make their admissions decisions. But there's good news too—colleges don't choose a student based on his or her test results alone. Admissions committees review a number of other factors too.

    Good Grades in Challenging Classes

    High school grades play an important part. "When the test score is out of whack with the GPA, we try to look more closely at the grades and the classes the student has taken," says one college admissions counselor. "If the grades are pretty high, then we realize that maybe the student just doesn't do well on standardized tests."

    Class difficulty can improve your application too. Good grades don't carry as much weight if they're earned in classes like bowling, home economics, or basic math. Grades in college prep or advanced placement classes, such as AP English, AP history, and advanced biology are what matter. Getting good grades in tough classes proves you're capable of doing college-level work.

    So admissions counselors compare grades and test scores to help them decide if a student is likely to succeed. If my GPA had been below a 2.5, the admissions committee would have assumed my low ACT score was a telling indicator of how I'd perform in college. A combination of mediocre grades and a low ACT score can really weaken an application.

    Letters of Recommendation

    Admissions counselors find great value in recommendation letters. And it does matter who writes them for you, so choose wisely. Pick someone who knows you well instead of somebody who you think will impress the admissions staff. For example, ask your youth leader who's known you for three or four years, rather than your senior pastor who barely remembers your name.

    In my case, I asked my favorite teacher. I'd gotten As in a ton of her classes, so she knew the quality of my work and could explain that I didn't test well. Her letter helped the Calvin admissions committee understand that the ACT didn't represent what I was capable of doing.

    Admissions counselors want to read recommendations that are specific. Generic letters without any details aren't helpful because they don't provide distinct information about a candidate. Encourage your letter writers to be specific about how they've interacted with you.

    Extracurricular Activities

    Extracurricular activities can help move your application from the "maybe" pile to the "yes" pile. They offer a glimpse of you as a real person—beyond test scores or GPA —and show that you have interests outside of the classroom. They also demonstrate your leadership potential, your teamwork abilities, and your time management skills.

    Read These Next

    Would my low scores keep me out of my top school?
    How to get past your disappointment and find the right place for you.