What's in a Test? How to Use Your Application Essay When Your Test Scores Are Lower Than You'd Like

Managing Editor, Peterson's & EssayEdge

What’s the most important thing you can do for your college application essay if your standardized test scores are low? Button up about them. What I mean by that is: Don’t mention them in your essay. At all. Ever. 

Could I be clearer? Do not talk about your low test scores under (almost) any circumstances in your application essay.

Now, it may be that your test scores were low for very legitimate reasons. You may have been diagnosed with test anxiety (a legitimate condition to which sufferers will attest), or you may have a learning disability that makes test taking particularly arduous. It’s also possible that external factors conspired to take your attention off the exam—poor health, family crisis, friends in need. Again, all of these are likely very good reasons that your test scores came out lower than you would have liked. But it doesn’t matter. You still shouldn’t bring this fact up, even to talk about how, though things were rough around exam time, you have since rededicated yourself and you are much better now, as evidenced by your grades.

Now that we’re clear on that, we can talk about why—and what to do instead.

Accentuate the positive

The essay is simply not the place to discuss your test scores. You only have so many words to convince an admission professional that it is imperative that you be included in the next incoming class. That’s why all those words should support how great you are, rather than talk about something that might cast you in a negative light (again, even if your reason is 100% legit). You can be sure that there will be hundreds of other applicants who spend their essay spouting off the very best facts about themselves. Remember, that’s your competition. You need to appear better than they are—especially if they have higher test scores.

Here's how

Be truly great at something

One way to bypass or overrule a poor test score is to demonstrate your vast skills in something else. I remember when I applied for college, my high school counselor showed me all of the scores from the previous year of students that were admitted to the school I was applying to, just so I would get an idea of the score I would need to make it. One score was insanely low, and though the names were not on the list, I actually knew who it was—it was an applicant with an incredible operatic voice who was very active running choirs in school. His talent was more important than his low score on the SAT. If you have a skill like that, be it in music, sports, mathematics, or art, then focus your application essay on that ability and never turn back.  

Cheer your leadership

Schools are looking for students that display leadership potential. If your test scores are a bit low, see if you can accentuate your level of responsibility to compensate. Volunteer positions are a great way to build leadership skills, and many will allow you to gain further responsibility as you accrue more hours (and perform more good works). If volunteerism is important to you, demonstrate it by taking a bit of control and showing off your maturity as a true leader. School government, being a varsity captain, running a large-scale event on campus: these are all good ways to show you are better than an average test score.

Be honest and unique

Your individuality might be your best asset, so don’t hide your light under a bushel. And don’t just talk about it; show your uniqueness in your approach to your essay. Demonstrate through language, structure, or creative wordplay just how intriguing you are. Remember, these people are reading thousands of essays and appreciate a few that break form. But don’t be clever just for the sake of being clever—make sure if you take a imaginative tack that it still connects to you and defines why you are a great candidate for the next incoming class.

Get excited!

You might be able to offset lower scores by showing genuine excitement in the school or a particular program. Talk about the campus, professors, and classes that interest you. Visit and talk to alums and mention this in your essay. Demonstrate that you have done your homework on this school and that if you are accepted you will definitely be attending.

On top of being a nice way to show your devotion, the reason to do this is because of “yield ratio,” which is the percentage of students who actually enroll in a particular college or university after having been offered admission there. Schools are obsessed with this number and use it to compare themselves to each other. By showing school spirit, you may bypass another applicant who seems less sure of what program he or she plans to attend.

Who are you, anyway? You are not a number! So make sure you tell the story of the real you and don’t feel tempted (or pressured) to explain away or make excuses for anything that seems less than stellar on your record. Instead, give the committee every reason to see you in the most positive light and write an essay that focuses entirely on the very best version of you. And don't be afraid to brag a little—you're worth it!

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