Test Prep

Do ACT/SAT Scores Predict College Success?

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You sign up, you study, you stress out and finally you take the test. Repeat if desired.

Because taking the SAT or ACT is an unavoidable requirement for most students applying to college (unless you choose only test-optional schools), it can start to feel like you're just going through the motions. But have you ever stopped to really think about what your SAT or ACT score says about your ability to perform well in college classes? Because that may be what college admissions committees are doing when they look at the test scores you've submitted to them.


Study: GPA Stronger College Success Predictor Than Test Scores

The way David Reynaldo sees it, an SAT or ACT score below the 25th percentile for your target school is "cause for concern," when it comes to your chances of admission. Reynaldo, a college counselor at College Zoom, explains that the 25th percentile is the generally accepted threshold for having a competitive score. "If the SAT or ACT score is low, but still above that mark, the student is fine. While a student can still be admitted with a score below that, there would have to be extenuating circumstances."

So while you may be admitted into schools with a low SAT or ACT score, does that mean you will not perform as well as other admitted students who achieved higher test scores?

That depends – very possibly on your GPA.

Reynaldo says he's worked with plenty of students with 4.0 GPAs who take advanced coursework in high school, but for a variety of reasons, they cannot perform as well while taking the SAT or ACT and end up with a low score. "However, these students go on to do well in college coursework," he says.

Many studies have actually shown this to be true. One recent report, updated in March 2019, found that high school GPA is a stronger predictor than the SAT of first year college GPA. This notion still seems to hold true even when the GPA is low but the test scores are high. Reynaldo tells the story of a student with a lower GPA and excellent test scores (3.2 GPA, 35 on the ACT, 1560 on the SAT) who struggled with time management, focus and self-discipline:

"The stress and sense of immediate pressure for preparing for the SAT and ACT momentarily excited him into action, and he did really well. Despite his high test scores, none of the very highly selective colleges accepted him as his GPA didn't match his test scores. (A word of caution: high test scores won't absolve low GPAs for holistic review colleges with low acceptance rates.) He ultimately got into colleges that matched his GPA and would've been equally happy with a 27 ACT or 1290 SAT score – as that would have matched his GPA just as well. Once he got to college and the immediate sense of urgency passed, he relapsed back into behaving loosely with his discipline and time management. This resulted in him struggling academically, being placed on academic probation, and we had to have a meeting to teach him how to study better in order to avoid him dropping out of college after his first year."

What to Do With A Low Score

If you think your SAT or ACT score is low, you have a few options. One is retaking the test, and another is applying to test-optional schools. Reynaldo adds that if you feel that you cannot achieve a higher score, you can consider applying to colleges with higher acceptance rates or those with largely algorithmic and computerized review processes (as opposed to a holistic review process), where a high GPA can make up for a low SAT/ACT score.

"A student with a high enough GPA and abysmal SAT/ACT score can still be cumulatively rated high enough to be accepted," says Reynaldo. On the other hand, in a holistic review, a student with a 4.0 GPA and 26 ACT score will likely get denied by the most highly selective colleges, where a low SAT/ACT score is commonly cited as a reason for denying an otherwise solid candidate. However, that same student can get into a moderately selective college and typically perform just as well as anyone else."

But a low test score doesn't mean you should give up on getting into your dream college – eventually. You can still apply for a transfer a year or two down the road, since a majority of colleges don't require SAT/ACT scores for transfer applicants (exceptions include some highly-selective universities). Instead, your transfer GPA will be used to assess your academic competitiveness.

Just remember that a high SAT/ACT score is not the cure-all solution. Colleges look at a variety of factors when assessing your application, and you may be extremely successful in college despite a low test score.