Preparing for College

Will One Low SAT Score (of Three) Affect Admission Chances?

Question: How do moderately selective colleges evaluate SAT scores when one section is below the school's 25% level but the other two are above 75%? The low section in this case is math, but the student (my daughter, grade 11) has taken the highest levels possible at her public high school and done well. We cannot tell if the schools look at the SAT sections separately, or add two or maybe three together...or what?

The key word here is "moderately." At the hyper-selective colleges (those places where most every applicant must be firing on every cylinder to get through the front gates), then a strong Critical Reading score and/or Writing score may do little to mitigate a poor math score.


But at most other colleges, if the applicant has an above-par score in two areas and a sub-par score in the other but also has the sort of GPA that the college is seeking, the lower SAT result is unlikely to be a deal-breaker.

Admission officials will look at the scores separately and also in the context of a student’s future plans. For instance, if your daughter is an aspiring doctor or engineer but has submitted weak SAT scores in math, this might work against her more than if her prospective major is English or Political Science. Colleges don’t want to set up their students for failure and will worry about a student with weak quantitative skills entering a numbers-oriented field. (The fact that your daughter has good grades in math despite poor test results should work in her favor but may still make admission folks wary if she’s aiming for a math-related major.)

However, it is usually just students and parents who look at SAT scores as one big total. Whenever I hear something like “Harry scored 1910 on the SAT’s. Does that affect his odds at Fantasy State …. ?” my first question is always, “How does that 1910 break down?” And college admission committees tend to think this way, too.

So, while one low score is apt to hurt an applicant at the most sought-after institutions, once you get into the “moderately selective” range, it’s a different story. However, even though the lower math score is unlikely to keep an otherwise-qualified candidate out of such schools, it could have an impact on merit scholarships.

Since your daughter is just a junior and is likely to re-take the SAT, she might want to try a practice tests with answers explained to identify where she went off track in math. And if she’s interested in paying to improve just her math scores, without taking a full test-prep class, I can recommend a tutor who can work with her via Skype for as many … or few … hours as you want. The tutor would begin with a diagnostic test to see where your daughter needs the most assistance. But, again, depending on what her final college list looks like, the lower math score may not stand in her way at all.

(posted 3/1/2012)