I sat nervously on the edge of my chair and waited as my guidance counselor opened the long white envelope that held my ACT score. My heart sank as she shook her head. "Wow," she said. "I was really expecting a higher score."
It was fall of my senior year—time to send in college applications—and I was a straight-A student with lousy ACT scores. I really wanted to go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but I was sure my score was too low. They would never accept me.
I took the ACT two more times, but I only got a 20 the second and third times—even lower than my first score! I couldn't believe it. I'd prayed, relaxed, focused, even studied my old class notes. But now, things were worse.
I even started having a goofy nightmare: I was taking the ACT, and the bubbles morphed into huge monsters with the letter A, B, C or D tattooed on their foreheads. They'd jump up and down, screaming "Pick me! Pick me!" I never knew which answer was right, and I'd wake up in a cold sweat.
Finally, in October, I realized time was running out. My counselor urged me to send my application to Calvin. "You're a good student with good grades," she assured me. "Maybe they will consider that in their decision."
I wasn't so sure. I was positive Calvin's admissions board would take one look at my ACT score and automatically reject my application.
Want to know the truth? Calvin didn't automatically reject me. In fact, they considered several other factors—and those factors helped them decide I was right for the school, even though my test scores weren't the greatest. I'll never forget how good it felt to open that acceptance letter!
When it comes to misunderstandings about the value of test scores, I know I wasn't alone. So many high school students struggle with low SAT or ACT scores. And if they don't struggle, they may suffer from another misconception: If I have a great test score, I will definitely get in to whatever college I apply to. But that's not necessarily true, either.
To help take some of the confusion out of this issue, I decided to talk to Dale Kuiper, director of admissions at Calvin—the guy who helped me during my application process.
Good Grades in Challenging Classes
When I talked with Dale recently, he explained that my solid grades in high school played an important part in Calvin's decision to accept me. It's something all students who struggle with standardized test scores need to remember.
"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," Dale says. "If the grades are pretty high, then we realize that maybe the student just doesn't do well on standardized tests."
Dale also explained that the difficulty of the classes I took over my four years of high school helped my application, too. Right before my freshman year, my guidance counselor helped me map out classes that would prepare me for college. Even though college seemed like a lifetime away—and I would rather have taken classes like bowling and swimming—I took her advice and signed up for college-prep classes.
My good grades wouldn't have carried as much weight if I had gotten them in classes like home-ec and basic math. I scored major points because the A's I'd earned were in classes like AP English, AP history and advanced biology. All of my tough classes proved I was capable of doing college-level work.
Dale explained that admissions counselors compare grades and test scores to help them decide if a student is likely to succeed academically at Calvin. If my GPA had been below a 2.5, the admissions committee would have thought my ACT score was a pretty good indicator of how I'd perform in college. A combination of mediocre grades and a low ACT score would have really made my application much weaker.