2 years ago
Admissions Advice

bad test scores but good gpa (4.1 higher)

I was just curious, would a college deny a student if they have really bad test scores on ACT and SAT, despite having really good grades, ap test scores, and a good gpa??

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3 answers

2 years ago[edited]

Test scores are often a misunderstood topic on CollegeVine and other blogs. There is a lot of disinformation out there.

The biggest untruth is that "not submitting a test score will have no impact on your college admissions since 99% of colleges use a holistic process."

Not submitting a test score is like entering a pie contest and not using dairy or all purpose flour to make the crust. The pandemic resulted in many colleges deciding that to make the playing field more equitable, inclusive and accessible to a wider diverse audience, it would make submitting the SAT or ACT optional. The key problem is that most people in the position of judging the best pie have only judged pies made with dairy and all purpose flour. So when they judge a vegan/gluten free pie, they might find it tasty but it's never going to a perfect replacement for a normal pie. It might be healthier but it's never going to appeal to the wide audience of pie judges that control the winners and the losers.

Test optional policies created bigger problems and did very little for DEIA concerns.

1. Wealthier domestic and international students found ways to both prep for the test and take the test, even if it mean driving or flying to another country to do. (Eileen Gu took her SAT in Geneva, Switzerland).

2. Many student in private or boarding schools were in a COVID-19 free hermetically sealed bubble during the pandemic. They still had regular test prep and ACT / SAT tests dates at their schools.

3. Most HS seniors applying the last cycle and this cycle are unaware that there is implicit SAT/ACT bias. Admissions officers still give out more acceptances to those that submit test scores. (Unless they have a track record of evaluating test - optional application because they are AOs at pre-COVID test optional colleges like Bates, Bowdoin, UChicago, Pitzer).

For all the 95% rest of the college that only went test-optional post COVID-19, there are 2 important numbers to remember. 1.) The % of students submitting test scores. 2.) The % of admits who submitted test scores. Based on that last year's data. UPenn admits had a 52% advantage and Georgetown admits a whopping 80% for submitting test scores.


Therefore, the answer is YES because most applicants with bad tests scores wouldn't submit them because of Test-Optional policies and by not submitting them, you put yourself in a disadvantaged position. Most application pools are self-selecting at Ivy's, Elites and Top LACs, so that means that most applicants are only applying to those schools because they believe that the sum of their parts is competitive enough to get into these schools. With the same token, students with bad test scores in general will not apply to these schools in spite of the rest of their attributes and stats because they know that the odds are stacked against them. However, applicants who couldn't take the SAT/ACT for COVID-19 closures and lack of test centers, would still apply however they would most likely use the add'l info section to explain why their test scores is absent and missing. Not submitting a test score is not the same things as having bad test scores. Those applicants with bad test scores applying to top school would in fact be most likely in the DENY PILE to answer your question.

To me the math proves my point regardless of the labels you want to argue against it. If a college receives 50,000 applications and 25,000 submitted test scores, then you would expect an equitable distribution of admits if the college truly didn't penalize applicants for not submitting. So if the college admits 2500, then the expected outcome would be that 1250 of the admits had test scores and 1250 didn't have test scores. But there is not ONE college in the US where that was the case last year. More often, the results would look like 1500-2000 had submitted tests scores and 500-1000 didn't. This implies that regardless of what the "public PR marketing jargon" the college uses comfort applicants that not submitting is not going to negatively hurt their chances, there are some inherent biases either at the sorting stage, 1st or 2nd reader stage, or committee stage that ignores the establish test-optional policies and gives the nod to applicants submitting test scores more often than those not submitting. Why I think bias might occur as early as the sorting stage is that some AOs automatically assume that unless the applicant had an airtight reasonable explanation for not submitting, they are simply a weaker applicant from the get go.

The big takeaway lesson to all 9th, 10th, 11th graders is that test scores do matter, especially if you are applying to Top25 schools that are used to admitting students with test scores. They don't matter so much to top schools that had in place a test-optional policy prior to the pandemic because they had trained their AOs and Committee members not to place that much weight on test scores. So if you are applying to PRE-COVID 19 Test Optional Colleges like UChicago, Bowdoin, Smith, Pitzer, Wake Forest, Bryn Mawr, Bates, Colorado College, Brandeis, GWU, Rochester, WPI, Trinity College, Connecticut College, Whitman, HolyCross, Wesleyan, Reed, Holy Cross, and Furman, then you have nothing to worry about.

If American colleges really wanted to make the college admissions playing field level and equitable it would have done what CalTech did which was make all standardized tests BLIND. At CalTech which had a 3.2% acceptance rate, they still were able to figure out who were all the geeks and rocket scientists without anyone submitting a 1600 or 36. That means their admissions officers were doing their job.

Hope this is helpful to all future applicants.

2 years ago

Hi there! I just wanted to give an alternative answer to your question. Although I think @CameronBameron makes some good points, I think some of their conclusions aren't accurate.

It is true that students are proportionally accepted at a slightly higher rate with SAT and ACT scores, but this doesn't necessarily suggest a significant implicit bias for students with scores. This is an example of a false cause fallacy. Essentially, correlation does not equal causation. Students with lower test scores also generally have lower GPAs and less impressive academics and extracurriculars. You can see the data yourself on page 72 of the following study:


Naturally, students with lower test scores are going to take advantage of test optional policies. This means that students who don't submit SAT/ACT scores tend to perform worse in school then students who do submit scores. So the discrepancy in admit rate between test optional and test submitting applicants isn't explained by an implicit bias but rather a difference in general performance.

Don't get me wrong, high SAT or ACT scores can definitely help an application, but colleges aren't lying when they say that choosing not to submit test scores won't hurt your chances at admission, and that they'll work with whatever information you give them. For now, keep your GPA up and indulge in some extracurriculars that you enjoy, because these are factors you won't be able to opt out on in your common app.

Best of luck!

2 years ago

College Admissions is not just based on one factor ("Holistic" Review). Therefore, a bad test score wouldn't result in automatic rejection. If the college is test-optional, I wouldn't recommend submitting the score. If it's not, don't worry! Other positives in your application can still make you a competitive applicant. Good Luck!

What are your chances of acceptance?
Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
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Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

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