Making Colleges Want You: Navigating GPAs, SATs, and ACTs

WeAdmit Master Guides
August 23, 2019
The College Admissions Process Can Feel Like A Long Journey For High School Students…

With so many factors to consider like grades, standardized testing scores, and compiling a glowing application package, it is no wonder the whole process feels overwhelming at times. College admission requirements can be difficult to adhere to. In fact, this phase of the admission process is probably where you’ll be spending most of your time and energy.

Every requirement—like meeting the college’s GPA, SAT, and ACT standards—is vitally important to bringing you one step closer to that coveted acceptance letter, and this includes semester grades and your overall GPA too.

Of course, to perfect these elements of your application, you’ll first need to understand what these scores even mean. Navigating the world of GPAs, SATs and ACTs can make your head spin if you don’t do it the right way. So, save yourself from unneeded frustration down the road by mastering everything there is to know about GPAs, SATs, and ACTs!

What You’ll Find In This Article:

College Admission Requirements: Why Test Scores And GPAs Matter


Many people claim that admissions offices don’t even look at test scores, and that they mainly read students’ essays and letters of recommendation. However, while admissions counselors do consider personal essays and any recommendations that come along with it, all universities have a standard to uphold.

This is why SATs and ACTs are called standardized testing; they ensure you can study at that college’s level. These test scores also help admissions counselors award merit-based scholarships. Students with exceptional scores are often automatically given scholarships that the school sets aside for admission purposes.

Ultimately, college admissions counselors have a very difficult job. They receive applications from thousands of students every year. They must consider their test scores, personal essays, letters of recommendation, and transcripts—and all of these components influence the admissions counselor’s decision, regardless of what college application myths may say.


During high school, it is easy to fall into a habit of procrastination. Many students push off their focus on their GPA until their junior or senior year, and unfortunately, this is far too late if going to a great college is a priority.

Consistently poor grades are going to affect your overall GPA drastically.

Let’s say, for example, you start the school year strong with a few A’s and a couple B’s. That’s pretty great. Then, you start to get involved with a large amount of extracurricular activities. Maybe you play a sport or you’re in the marching band, and after school practices leave you exhausted; too exhausted to do any homework. To compensate, you do your work in the morning, causing you to rush and turn in less than ideal work.

These are the habits students must avoid getting into because this is where GPAs tend to drop. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much effort to make your GPA a priority. It all comes down to planning.

Ultimately, the reason colleges care so much about test scores and GPAs is because these numbers greatly help them with the admissions process. Having one set of scores to look at helps them know which students meet their requirements and which don’t. These scores also tell them a lot about the type of student you are. A good GPA and solid test scores are earned. Having good scores shows that you worked hard and earned the chance to get into a good college. That kind of hard work is irreplaceable, and college admission counselors take notice.

In fact, GPA in particular is extremely helpful for colleges in their admissions process because it takes something that is calculated differently all over the country and boils it down to one standard.

Overall, GPAs, and the SATs and ACTs provide a solid standard to help admissions offices go through the thousands of applications they receive every year. Since you now know that GPAs are integral to college application requirements, you may be wondering, “what GPA do I need?” Well, before you research what GPA you’ll need by graduation, it is important to know a little bit more about what each of these test scores mean.

Knowing The Basics: What Are GPAs/SATs/ACTs?


GPA stands for “grade point average”. How your grade point average is calculated differs from school to school, but most schools defer to the 4.0 scale system. However, just in case your school uses a rare method, it is good to know the other GPA calculation methods you might encounter.

There are three possible methods for calculating grade point averages:

  • The 4.0 scale
  • Percentiles
  • Letter grades.

All three of these options lead to an accurate GPA score, however, most high schools defer to the 4.0 scale system. Unfortunately, this system is tricky to explain verbally because it might as well be a mathematical equation. In its simplest form a student can take his classes’ credits and multiply it by his GPA value for that course. He can then divide it by all the possible points he can receive in a semester to find his GPA.

To see how the 4.0 scale system works in more detail, along with how you can calculate your own GPA, visit Common Goal Systems’ website. This resource has a great chart that spells out how schools calculate GPAs in much more detail than we can cover here.

Ultimately, any good GPA will require grades on the upper side of the A scale, like As and Bs. The more A’s you can get, the higher your overall GPA will be. Some letter grades depend on more than just test scores, too. Extra credit points can also contribute to your GPA. This is why consistently turning in good work is a great way to keep your GPA up.


The SAT stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test” and it has been around since the 1920s. However, if you’re a newcomer to the world of college admissions, it is perfectly normal to ask, “What are the SATs?”

In its most basic form, colleges use the SAT to select incoming freshmen for admission every year. By using something universal, they can hold up their standard and accept the students that they think are a good fit for their school.

The test is split into two sections: math, and comprehensive reading and writing, giving students a chance to show where their strengths are in those areas.

The scoring scale for the test in its entirety caps at 1600 points. Each of the two sections counts for anywhere between 200-800 points. Fortunately, any wrong answers do not count against you. Your score comes completely from your correct answers.

For the reading and writing section, you need to score anywhere between a 670-800 to finish in the top 10% of students taking the test. For math, you’ll need to score anywhere between 690-800. While there’s a lot to consider when figuring out your desired SAT scores, there are also many great resources that can show you the average SAT scores for major universities. This can take away some of the stress of these tests, so make sure to check those out while planning for the SATs!


The ACT stands for “American College Test” and it is used for the same purpose as the SAT. Colleges use ACT scores to be able to quickly compare scores of applicants. Unlike the SAT, however, the ACT covers four distinct subjects: English, Math, Reading, and Science, with an optional writing section.

Despite these similarities, the SATs and ACTs do have some major differences.

For starters, the SAT doesn’t have a science section at all whereas the ACT has an entire portion of the test dedicated to it. If science is a strength for you and you’re planning on studying science in college, it might be a good idea to take the ACT.

The other major difference between the two tests is in their scoring systems. The SAT is scored on a 400-1600 scale while the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36.

Ultimately, you’re going to hear this over and over again because it is true: colleges do not prefer one test over the other. A large majority of colleges accept both scores for the SAT and the ACT. When it comes to deciding whether or not to take both tests, it truly doesn’t hurt. Yes, taking only one will be easier on your wallet, but taking both usually has the greatest pay-off. Also, if you’re applying for schools that, in a very rare case, only accept one test or the other, you might save yourself some time down the road by having both test scores handy.


While it’s good to take both tests if possible, taking both the SAT and ACT is not free.

There is a substantial fee when it comes to obtaining the test, study guides, and the practice tests. With an SAT prep course, your teacher takes care of obtaining all the materials, but you are still required to pay for them. There are also additional fees if you opt for special services, like a rush delivery of scores or an answer key for your particular test.

The total cost for taking the SAT is $49.50, and $64.50 with the optional essay. For the ACT, the cost is $52.00, and $68.00 with the optional essay. Ultimately, the most common reason students pay additional fees is to send their scores to more than four colleges.

With the basic testing package, you’ll be asked in the early portion of your test to write down the school code for each college you want your scores sent to. If you’d like any more colleges on that list, the cost is usually around $15 per school. This is a tool that many students utilize and have to pay for, especially if they don’t have a condensed list of schools compiled yet.

Fortunately, fee waivers are available for students with special financial circumstances. Even students who are homeschooled can obtain a fee waiver.

Admissions Tips: What Scores Do Colleges Require?

Most high school students go through a college prep course, or are required to have a certain number of meetings with a guidance counselor to figure out where they would like to go to school. Compiling a list like this is a great place to start before researching what scores certain colleges require.

However, you should also take test scores into account when choosing what colleges to apply to.

Every school has an average range of test scores that pass their admissions requirements each year. Schools usually only accept a percentage of the amount of applications they receive, and that pool of applicants tend to have similar test scores.

For high-level schools like Duke, Cornell, and Vanderbilt, the majority of the students accepted had SAT scores in the 1400-1580 range, with 1600 being a perfect score. Mid-tier schools, however, have a much broader range of SAT scores for incoming freshman. These scores range from the 900s all the way to the 1400s.

For the ACTs, the common range of scores that were accepted were in the 25-30 range. These scores belong to mid-tier schools like Virginia Tech, University of South Carolina, and Syracuse. High-tier schools admitted students with ACT scores between 33-35, which is a much tighter window considering that 36 is a perfect score.

The U.S. college that has the highest requirements by far is the California Institute of Technology. Their average accepted SAT scores are between 1530-1590, and their ACT scores are between 34-35.

However, scores may not always matter—in rare cases, some colleges are labeled “test-optional.” To explain, “Schools that are test-optional do not require standardized test scores as part of a complete application.” While this may be good news for students who are busy with work and extracurricular activities, taking the SAT or ACT could still end in a merit-based scholarship.

When it comes to something like college admissions, which takes so much effort to prepare for yet has such a quick turnaround, it is always better to go the extra mile. Doing your research about what scores colleges require will help you know where you need to focus.

How To Raise (Or Maintain) Your GPA

So, let’s say you begin your research on what schools you’d like to go to and why. Something that stops most high school juniors and seniors in their tracks is when they see their dream school’s acceptance rate and required GPA.

For example, the average GPA of accepted students at the most selective schools in the country ranged from 3.6 to 3.8 on a 4.0 scale. Some of these schools include University of Southern California, New York University, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie Mellon.

This means that, if you’re one of the many ambitious students hoping to get into a prestigious school, you have to make your test scores a priority.

Many students feel as if they’ve run out of time or waited too long to care about their GPA. But there are several options available to students who need to pull their GPA up in a short amount of time.


For starters, there’s no better method than diving in head-first.

Begin turning in your homework on time, and not just your homework. Good homework. Thoughtful essays, double-checked answers, completed readings; the whole nine yards. Study for quizzes and tests. If you’re not the best test taker, ask for help from your teachersthat’s what they are there for!

Many teachers allow students to take tests in their office or a testing center, so they feel less distracted. You’ve got to fight for yourself, which means pulling out all the stops to get done what needs to get done. This is the best way to ensure that you’ll see that GPA rise, especially if you’ve had a rough start.

If you haven’t started high school yet or you’re still in your freshman year, you’re in a great place to plan your four years of studies. Plan to challenge yourself and take AP classes, do all the extra credit you can find, and join the honors program if your school has one. Your grades really do matter, even as early as your freshman year. Make sure to give it your all and keep your goals in sight throughout your highschool career.

Colleges see GPA fluctuations as a story. They look at extracurricular activities, jobs, clubs, as well as AP classes. They look at mostly your sophomore and junior year, so if you have a rough first year of grades it's good if they see a continual rise of grades throughout the rest of your high school career.

This slow start followed by a gradual rise shows that you took personal responsibility and challenged yourself with schoolwork, and is the best way to turn around your GPA in the eyes of college admissions officers.

How To Master The SAT And ACT Tests

You can take a walk through any bookstore and instantly see how important SATs and ACTs are. Hundreds of books have been written to help students study for standardized testing. There’s even an SAT book “for dummies”.

While these books are great tools, and they should be utilized, there are other things a student can do on their own to make sure they touch all the bases. Some things to consider include investing in an SAT prep packet or registering for an SAT prep class.

Regardless of your tactics, when it comes to studying for your SATs and ACTs, it is important that you pick a method that is right for you.

Studying for standardized tests is not one size fits all, but a common mistake students make is approaching their SATs just like they would any of their classes. Don’t just memorize information, know it. The trick to pulling all-nighters and still getting good grades is in the art of memorization. People can memorize information 30 minutes before a test and regurgitate that information onto paper, walking away with a pretty good grade, but the information never lasts.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to master the SATs or ACTs by simply memorizing your study guide.

This all too familiar “memorization” study technique is especially easy in high school when teachers give out detailed outlines on what the test will be about and what students need to be prepared to argue and defend. On the SATs, the preparatory information is a bit broader than that, and the same goes for the ACTs. The subject matter is wide, leaving room for a lot of errors if you just stick to memorizing your flashcards. here.

A good test to give yourself to see if you are simply memorizing or actually learning is trying to explain a concept out loud. You’d be surprised at how little you know about a subject until you try to talk about it. Until you can talk about it effortlessly without the help of notes, you don’t know your stuff and you’re not ready to take the test.

Fortunately, the things you will learn in an SAT-specific course are boundless. In addition to reviewing every subject on the test, you get to take 2 or 3 practice tests before the real thing. The same goes for an ACT prep course. With these SAT and ACT prep classes, you also have the added benefit of having your teacher there with you to keep you challenged and focuses. Plus, the teacher who runs the course more than likely will be administering your test to you on test day.

What If Your Test Scores Are Too Low?

After all is said and done and you get your test scores back, it is important to know that no matter what that number is, you have not ruined your future. For some people, it takes more than one try to get the score they want. That is perfectly normal. College application requirements include more than just test scores.

However, if your test scores come back lower than you thought, take the SAT again.

This is why many admissions counselors recommend taking the SAT for the first time in the second semester of your junior year. That way, if you need more time to raise your score, you can study over the summer and take it again during the fall of your senior year.

Another thing you can do is to consider the timeline you’re under. If you’re running out of time, think about your options. Would you rather wait a semester or a year to go to the school you want? Or do you just want to start college now, even if the school you start at is not your first choice?

Take a look at your list of colleges and consider including some test-optional schools—you’ll have a better chance of starting school when you’d like to by applying to a test-optional school. Better yet, consider shifting your focus to schools where your scores fit more comfortably with their other incoming freshmen. This is why it’s so important to make a comprehensive list of your reach, target, and safety schools, because it’ll help you find the right school for you, even if your scores are low.

You’d be surprised to find out how many schools accept students who have less-than-perfect SAT scores. This is because college admissions counselors look at an application in its entirety, including your academic transcript, your letters of recommendation, your list of extracurricular activities and clubs, and of course, your glowing personal essay.

Some colleges also require an interview, which would be a great time to show them your passion and personality. If your scores are less than ideal, don’t lose hope. There is still a big chance that you can get into the college you want to go to.

Making The Most Of Your Test Scores

Studying well for the SATs or ACTs is equally as important as maintaining a good GPA throughout high school. It is also necessary that you do your research and know everything there is to know about the admission requirements for the schools you are applying to.

When studying for standardized tests, know all of the options available to and pick the one that best suits you. Test scores take up such a small space on paper, yet they reflect so much: hard work, dedication, consistency, and priorities. Admission counselors can tell a lot by that number. They know that getting a good score on standardized tests and working hard consistently throughout high school is not easy.

Fortunately, this is why WeAdmit’s counseling services exist: to provide you with guidance so you can make the best decisions and excel during the college application process. The goal is not to impress the person who reads your application—the goal is to do the absolute best you can do on your standardized tests and show them who you are in every other component of the application.

You Know You Belong At Their College; Now Show Them Why!



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