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Articles / Applying to College / Do Great Test Scores Make Up for Fair Grades?

Oct. 4, 2004

Do Great Test Scores Make Up for Fair Grades?

Question: Can a stellar SAT score overcome a not-so-stellar GPA? How does one best present this scenario to a college admissions board? My son just started his junior year and is geared up to do well. His lapses occurred in 9th grade and early 10th. The high school is highly rated and course load is challenging.

You don't say where your son is aiming, and he's just a junior, so the jury is still out. If his grades this year and in his senior year (especially during the first semester) are strong, then his "rising record" will catch the attention of admission committees. Most admission folks are fairly forgiving when it comes to freshman and even sophomore foibles, especially when standardized tests are "stellar" and the applicant has excelled in tough courses in grades 11 and 12.


Of course, if your son is gunning for the Ivies and their hyper-competitive counterparts, he will be up against many others who share his strengths but who also fared well in grades 9 and 10. That doesn't mean he's automatically out of the running, but it will be a steeper slope for him to gain admission. Elite college admission officials are always looking for those special talents or unique accomplishments that make a top student an admitted one, and--in your son's case--he will need some especially distinguishing notches on his belt, should he wish to be Ivy-bound. This is especially so if his high school is one that ranks it students, and your son's rank has been greatly diminished by his previous grades.

For the lion's share of U.S. colleges and universities, however, strong test scores and excellent junior/senior grades should make him a desirable candidate.

You ask how to present his situation to admission committees. Well, his rising record should speak for itself when his application is evaluated. If, however, there are extenuating circumstances behind his lower frosh and soph grades, he can explain them in a supplemental essay or letter to accompany his applications (or his guidance counselor can do so in a recommendation). Be careful, though, to use this approach only if there are significant reasons for his earlier academic struggles. No admission staffer wants to hear about the trials of sharing a bedroom with a noisy older brother or an over-commitment to the skateboard club. Family problems, long-term illness, a major move or change of school, and other similar serious concerns may be worth explaining.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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