Taking the SAT or ACT can be incredibly stressful. Many high school students assume that their entire college career hinges on these two tests, and with all that pressure, it can be heartbreaking to receive a low score.

But receiving a low SAT or ACT score does not mean that you have to settle. Your first option is to raise your score. Your second option is to work with what you’ve got.

Your SAT/ACT score doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t have to define your college career, either.

What’s Considered a Low SAT/ACT Score?

Before you panic, stop and consider whether or not your test scores are actually that low. If you’re not sure what’s considered a low SAT score_, take a look at the average SAT scores for recent years. In 2018, for example, the average national SAT score was 1068 out of 1600. Anything below 1068, then, is lower than average.

However, keep in mind that different SAT and ACT scores are average for different schools. The average SAT score at Princeton, for example, is 1520. The average at Michigan State is 1190. These are not _minimum
scores – they're just the average scores of every student who was accepted.

You can find all of these numbers online.

Retake the Same Test

If you have, indeed, received what your ideal schools would consider a low SAT or ACT score, you can retake the test for a higher score if there’s enough time left before the deadline.

First, though, you should figure out exactly where you fell short. Now is the time to invest in additional tutoring sessions or prep classes. Alternatively, you can take extra time to study on your own, focusing on your areas of difficulty. The Princeton Review publishes Cracking the ACT and Cracking the SAT, which include full-length practice tests.

Even if you only improve on one section of the test, retaking it can be worthwhile. Some colleges (though not all) will “superscore,” or take your highest score for each individual section of the SAT or ACT into account.

Take the Other Test

There’s a reason that there are two tests available! The SAT and ACT are significantly different tests that play to different strengths. For example, if you excel at reading comprehension and mental math, you may perform better on the SAT. If you're a top-notch critical thinker with a knack for science, the ACT may be more your speed.

These days, every four-year college will accept both tests, though there are regional differences in which test is preferred over the other. Generally speaking, the ACT is preferred by public schools and those in the midwest, while the SAT is preferred by private schools and those on the east or west coast.

It’s worth studying for and taking both tests, especially if you’re not happy with your score on one of them. You might be surprised at the results. If you got a low or average SAT score, you might do much better on the ACT, and the opposite can also be true.

Focus on Your Strengths

Keep in mind that colleges consider many other factors in the admissions process aside from SAT and ACT scores. While every school has their own criteria, you can certainly strengthen your application by highlighting your other strengths, like excellent grades, an ambitious internship or an awesome personal essay. If you have low SAT scores but a high GPA, for example, that GPA still definitely counts for something.

Apply to Schools Wisely

Even if you have an extremely low standardized test score, you can be accepted into college and get a high-quality education! Yes, some highly selective schools, like Harvard or Stanford, are unlikely to admit you if your test scores are extremely low – but there are so many other wonderful colleges out there, many of which are happy to accept those with low standardized test scores. Check out your options among colleges with lower ACT/SAT ranges.

Believe it or not, some colleges don’t factor SAT or ACT scores into their admissions process at all. You can find a complete list of those schools on the Fair Test website.

Take a Deep Breath

You’re a whole person, not just a number. If you’re panicking because of a low SAT or ACT score, take a deep breath and remind yourself that, while important, these tests are just tests (and flawed ones, at that). Your scores don’t reflect on your intelligence, your worth, or your chance at having a happy and successful future.

You can still go to college, get a great job, and be successful with a low SAT or ACT score.

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About the Author

Kim Wong-Shing is a writer in New Orleans. She has a Bachelor's degree in Education from Brown University and a Master's degree in Education from Bank Street College. She worked as a teacher for four years before transitioning into full-time writing. Kim has also written for Lifehacker, LittleThings, HelloGiggles, and a variety of other outlets.