Will Sub-Par SAT's Keep My Daughter out of Top-Choice Colleges?

Question: My daughter has a 3.81 GPA in all Honors courses, but after two attempts at the SAT, her best score is 1760. The schools she likes list avg. SAT scores of 1900 and up. Does she stand a chance with her scores?

Most college admission officials are quick to insist that, “Course selection and grades are far more important than test scores,” and in a perfect world this is true. In OUR world, however, applicants can look strikingly similar on paper (not that anyone uses paper anymore). Many students take roughly the same courses, earn roughly the same grades, and participate in an all-too-familiar roster of activities (Key Club, yearbook, Model UN, dance team, orchestra, dance team, etc.). Thus test scores can become a tie-breaker, even if the admission folks don’t say so.

But will your daughter’s test results keep her out of her top-choice colleges? Maybe not. For starters, if her application includes other components that her target colleges “need,” this will help to take the spotlight off of her scores. Some of these “distractions” from the test scores could include:

-GPA (Is a 3.81 higher than the median at your daughter’s colleges? If so, this will help.)

-Athletic prowess (Is your daughter being recruited by a coach or, if not, might she at least fill out a roster and warm a bench?)

-Unusual or exceptional extracurriculars. (Can your daughter play the piccolo in the marching band or will the college boast that she was a national chess champion or Teen Jeopardy finalist?)

-Geographic diversity. (Do you live in a state, country, or town that is underrepresented in the college’s student body?)

-Minority, Legacy, or VIP Status (A “VIP” can be someone with a strong connection to the college itself … like the provost’s nephew … or it can mean a link to a big-wig in the world at large.)

-Full-pay (Will your daughter attend without needing financial aid or do you require only a little?)

If your daughter can say “Yes” to one or more of the options on this list, it will improve her admission odds. Other factors like a memorable essay or slam-dunk recommendations can help as well. And if her test scores are skewed—higher in the area that she claims as her strong suit and lower elsewhere—then admission folks will take this into account, too.

A couple other thoughts: Has your daughter tried the ACT? Some students do better on the ACT than on the SAT for a variety of reasons. For instance, if vocab is your child’s Achilles Heel, she’ll be delighted to discover that there aren’t any vocab questions on the ACT. And how about Subject Tests? Even if a college doesn’t require them, most schools will consider them anyway, and this can be a good way to show off abilities in areas not tested by the SAT I. For example, if your daughter does her best work in biology, American history or Spanish, good scores in those areas won’t completely offset low SAT’s but can still be a plus.

In addition, you mention that the median scores at your daughter’s colleges are in the 1900 range. So that tells “The Dean” that she’s not aiming for the Ivies or the other most hyper-competitive colleges. And that’s good news. It’s typically at the most sought-after colleges that test results can play the biggest tie-breaker role because so many applicants have near-perfect grades in a slew of AP, honors, and IB classes. So once you look beyond that exalted level, test scores can still affect outcomes, but they may loom not quite as large.

Finally, if any of your daughter’s top-choice colleges offer Early Decision, this might be a smart move. Admission officials are more likely to accept borderline candidates in the Early round than in the Regular Decision round. If you need financial aid and your daughter applies to a “binding” Early Decision college, she can bail out of the ED commitment without penalty, if her aid award isn’t adequate. (YOU, not the college, get to determine how much aid is “adequate,” but you do have to decide promptly.)

Bottom line: Although SAT’s are often more important than students and parents are told, your daughter won’t be completely out of luck at her target colleges, especially if there are other mitigating factors that she can emphasize in her applications.