Test Prep

Is Your College Essay The Right Place to Mention Low Test Scores?


It always seems like there's never enough time. On top of all your homework, extracurriculars and social time, the deadlines for college applications are quickly approaching. But although you've taken the SAT or ACT a couple times already, you're still not happy with your score. So you've come up with an idea: What about trying to explain your low score in your college application essay?

We asked Anna Ren, a college admissions consultant and the founder of Elite Advantage Prep, what she thought about this plan. But according to Ren, it's not really the best move.

“I would recommend using the main college application essay for your personal story, as that is what it's for," Ren says. “But you can try to explain or justify a low score in the Additional Information section of the application. Depending on the reason for the low score, you can also have a conversation with your guidance counselor, who may be able to mention it in his/her letter of recommendation to your schools," says Ren.

What's Your Reason?

Of course, if you are going to attempt to justify your low SAT or ACT score, you will need a strong, valid reason that will get the admission officers on your side. Ren says that one possible reason is that you have limited resources for accessing test prep, “especially if a student has family obligations that prohibit him or her from spending more time on studying for the test." A learning difference would also constitute a valid reason.

But Ren makes it clear that if the reason for your low score is not related to “circumstances out of your control, then you don't need to draw attention to it." In other words, if you only spent a few days studying for the SAT or ACT because you thought it would be easy, definitely avoid talking about your low score anywhere in your application. Don't write about in the essay or in the Additional Information section, and don't have your counselor mention it in the recommendation letter. Instead, focus on your strongest skills and accomplishments to make the other parts of your application truly shine.

Retake the Test

If you still have time (and the budget) to take the test once more before the application deadline, go for it. Just be sure to use your previous score reports wisely to focus on your weak points when studying this time around.

You may also want to find out if you are eligible for testing with accommodations if you believe that your low scores are related to serious test anxiety or learning difficulties. “If students have documented learning differences or challenges, they can work with their counselors to try to procure accommodations for the exams," Ren says.

Strategize If You Can't Retake

When time is not on your side, you may not necessarily have to resort to explaining your low scores in the application or with a counselor's letter. With the ACT, you can actually delete previous test scores from your record forever. And while you can't cancel any of your SAT scores, you do have the opportunity to obtain a higher superscore, in case any of your target schools superscore.

Ultimately, it's important to remember that low scores can be relative. “If you find yourself on the lower end of the 50 percent average, excellent letters of recommendation or an essay that really helps the college understand why you would be an asset to the community can help improve your chances. I often tell my students to write about something that is not otherwise seen in their admissions profile, or to pick a topic that's relatable. It's also important to spend time on the supplemental essays, as those are the prompts created by the school you're applying to and are often read first. And these essays are equally important, if not sometimes more important, than the main essay," Ren explains.

If these options don't appeal to you, and you continue to struggle with your SAT or ACT scores, then consider applying only to test-optional or test-flexible schools.