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Improve Your Admission Chances After a Low Test Score

What if you didn't receive the standardized test scores you wanted? Here's how to make the rest of your application shine and improve your chances of admission.

So you didn’t get the standardized test scores you wanted…now what?

You spent hours every day and night, flipping through test prep books and doing practice problems on the internet. You put forth all this effort with one goal in mind: to get the best ACT or SAT score possible. But you didn’t end up with the score you wanted. Maybe you weren’t as prepared as you thought you were, or perhaps you simply aren’t the best tester. Almost all of us have been there, and for some of us, the outcome is quite disappointing.

It seems crazy that one number can define your entire college application process—but the truth is, it doesn’t have to. Although some colleges do take note of standardized test scores, many elite universities and colleges have test-optional policies or holistic admission processes, which can be major advantages for applicants. Holistic reviews give students the opportunity to prove they're more than just a test score by highlighting other application elements such as extracurriculars, community service, awards, recommendation letters, and more. If you didn’t achieve your ideal standardized test score, here's how you can take advantage of this process.

Beef up your activities list

I personally didn’t get the SAT score I hoped for, scoring a 1310 out of 1600 (which isn’t bad, but we all set different goals for certain schools). I knew the average SAT score at my first-choice college was considerably higher than 1310, which motivated me to improve other aspects of my application. As soon as received my scores, I began volunteering more often and partook in various activities that I felt I could excel in. (I would recommend, however, to become involved in your school and community as early as possible to show admission officers that you're committed and will be an active member of their college too.)

Related: How to Get Involved in Extracurriculars in High School

Show your commitment

One thing I learned from my admission process is that quality is worth more than quantity. A student who devotes a lot of time and dedication to fewer clubs will most likely garner more praise than a student involved in every club but shows little dedication to them. It's best to succeed in fewer extracurriculars than to have no excellence in many. Seek leadership positions in clubs, and look for ways to expand a group’s involvement in the community. Revolve your activities around your interests and fully indulge yourself in them; show the admission committee how you will contribute to their university.

Visit the college

If possible, visit the university and apply for fly-in programs (if applicable). Visiting a campus really allows you to see if the school interests you. It’s also a great opportunity to attend a class, meet with admission officers for interviews, and wander the surrounding area to see if you can picture yourself at that school. Meeting with admission officers in person could also leave a better impression than if you were to have a phone interview. Plus, registering for official campus tours and meeting face-to-face allows for a deeper connection and also shows demonstrated interest in a school. 

Get great letters of recommendation

Another aspect of your applications you can focus on are strong recommendation letters. Although I was not the best test taker, I always performed well in my classes, which improved my recommendation letters significantly. When admission officers review your application, there are really only two parts that allow for differentiation between students: personal essays and recommendation letters. Admission committees use recommendation letters to validate your character and see if you'd be a good fit on their campus and in the classroom.

Related: Who and How to Ask for College Recommendation Letters

Take challenging classes in high school

If you have the opportunity, I would recommend registering for AP, IB, or honors courses to make your transcript shine. College admissions will look at your transcript, and it's to your benefit to show that you challenged yourself throughout your high school years. For me, I knew I wanted to work in the business or medicine industry, which helped me base my course load around math and science.

Retake the test if necessary

The wonderful thing about standardized tests is that you can take them as many times you want. If you don’t receive the score you were aiming for, retaking the exam might benefit you, as many elite colleges and universities use superscoring: the process of taking the highest score from each section from different sittings, allowing for a higher score. If you want to improve your standardized test score, it never hurts to try again.

Related: 10 SAT Score Improvement Tips

The entire college admission process is complicated, but it doesn’t rely solely on standardized testing. If you didn’t do your best, retake the exam. If you feel like you won’t improve your score, focus on improving other aspects of your application such as your extracurriculars, community service, demonstrated interest, and recommendation letters. The best advice I (or anyone) can give you is to be genuine and just be yourself.

Check out Colleges That Do Not Consider Standardized Test Scores and more unique Lists & Rankings on CollegeXpress.

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college admission college applications holistic reviews standardized tests test scores

About Erick Martinez Mendoza

Erick Martinez Mendoza was born in Juarez, Mexico, and raised in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. He is set to attend Haverford College in the fall of 2018 as a first-year student. Tumbling, reading, and listening to music are among his favorite activities, but his passion is science. He hopes to major in Biochemistry to work as a pharmaceutical scientist. 


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