The Truth about Grades and Test Scores

You spend hours putting together all the pieces of a complete college application. But you might be wondering if, in the end, a college's decision to accept or reject you really just boils down to your GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Just how important are your grades and test scores in the college application process?

The reality is looking at your test scores and GPA is the quickest, easiest way for colleges to size you up academically. So it's not surprising colleges usually review these two parts of your application first. In fact, most colleges have a minimum requirement for grades and test scores that you have to meet in order to even be considered for admission.

If you don't fall within the college's acceptable range, you'll probably end up in the rejected pile pretty quickly. Although colleges do, from time to time, make adjustments to their guidelines, these cases are rare. Don't count on being a special case.

But if you do qualify, your grades and test scores will simply be weighed along with all the other information in your application. And depending on the college, you might even be accepted based on your test scores and GPA alone.

Of course, like nearly every other aspect of the college application process, the importance of your grades and test scores varies a lot from school to school.

  • Large colleges with many applicants are much more likely to rely on "statistical" information like test scores and GPA to manage their huge pool of candidates.
  • Small colleges often take a more personal approach to admissions and put nearly as much importance on personal essays, interviews and letters of recommendation as they do grades and test scores.
  • Highly competitive colleges simply demand excellence on every part of your application. With so many top students applying, outstanding grades and test scores are pretty much a prerequisite to be considered.

All that being said, there's a reason colleges ask you to write a personal essay, provide letters of recommendation, and give a rundown of your interests and extracurricular activities. Admissions officers really do use that information to understand who you are and decide if you'll be a good fit on their campus.

There are a few special exceptions. If you are a highly sought after athlete, musician, artist, or are entering a particularly wanted major or bring wanted ethnic or geographic diversity to a campus, a college may accept you with lower-than-average scores and grades. However, you may still need to meet certain minimum entrance requirements. Also, when applying to programs that require auditions or portfolios, more weight may be placed on these sections of your application.

So work hard for those grades and test scores, but be sure your application gives colleges the full picture of you as an individual. And, at the end of the day, remember that there are many colleges out there, and there is a right college for you, whatever your grades and test scores.

There are test optional colleges, schools that don't use standardized test scores as admissions criteria, and colleges with open admissions. These schools accept virtually all applicants. Community colleges are always an option for students wanting to improve their academic standing, and apply to a dream college as a transfer student.