Test Prep

3 Test Prep FAQs -- With Expert Answers

Elizabeth French

How important are SAT or ACT scores to getting admitted into the school of your choice? The answer, of course, depends on your situation. But there are some general rules of thumb that may apply more broadly to students. Today, we're rounding up three test prep questions submitted by College Confidential readers, along with responses from Shelley Levine, a Certified Educational Planner with College Bound in Potomac, Md.

1) Can a student's high GPA, proven leadership skills and/or attending a competitive high school make up for low SAT or ACT scores when applying to high-ranked colleges?

To a small degree, it might, she says. For colleges that are test-optional (there are over 1,000 of those, and some are extraordinarily selective), then your SATs or ACTs don't matter at all. For those colleges that are not test-optional, test scores would typically be ranked third place in importance. First place would be your grades, and second place would be the academic rigor of your classes.

If you're talking about low scores relative to the academic profile, then those low scores would typically be a deal breaker, even with strong grades and strong classes – if a student is applying to very competitive colleges. Low test scores would certainly impact the admissions decision.

But, there are always outliers. With athletes, there's more wiggle room, especially at Division 1 schools. With disadvantaged students, there's more wiggle room as well, because colleges understand that these students didn't have access to expensive tutoring and that kind of test prep, so they are often more forgiving in terms of low scores. Admitted students who comprise the bottom 25 percent of test scores at a college typically bring something else to the table -- something significant: A minority or international student, geographic diversity, gender diversity, an under-represented major, or a special talent like music or theater, if the college is trying to fill that department.

If a student comes from means, and is from a school district where the average scores are high, and the student falls below average, that would definitely impact the college's decision. It's about the context and about the schools you're applying to. So if you're a student with low scores and applying to very selective schools, you have a low chance of being admitted – well under 50 percent. Low test scores certainly reduce your chances of acceptance.

2) Is it true that SATs/ACTs are more important for international applicants than US applicants?

Because an admissions officer may not have experience with students from a certain international high school, the only quantitative assessment is going to be the standardized test scores: SAT, ACT, AP, IB or SAT subject tests. International applicants need to have the minimum required test scores and usually strong test scores.

There are exceptions of course. If a college is admitting a lot of students from a particular high school in China, for example, it may be different, because the admissions committee is familiar with the curriculum of that high school.

Also, a strong TOEFL score could compensate for a lower SAT or ACT score. Colleges do recognize the nuances of the English language used in the questions on the SAT and ACT. But any college applicant who does not have native English, even if they live in the US, should take the TOEFL and submit that score as part of the application. Some schools will even use a TOEFL score instead of or in addition to your SAT or ACT score.

The SAT subscores do matter a lot. An international student may have a lower Reading score and a higher Math score, due to weaker language skills. But the importance of the subscore will depend a lot on the student's major: science or liberal arts.

3) If a student has an 800 math and a 730 English and is applying to top-ranked schools for engineering, how important is it to work on boosting the English score? Do colleges view a 730 that much differently from an 800?

I had a student who got an 800 on Math, but a 600 in Reading and still got into a selective school's engineering program. But again, admission will depend on the major. I don't think 730 in English is a low score. It would be great if it was higher, but it's not a big deal for a STEM student. It would be a problem at MIT or Stanford, where they are looking for a reason to deny admission, since all their applicants are more or less qualified. You could retake the test – it depends on the target school. But most schools would think this is a strong score.