My SAT Score is Bad. What Now?

Your score on the SAT is bad. Now, the deadline for applications is quickly approaching, and you have no chance of retaking the test in time to meet the deadlines. Maybe you wanted to take the ACT, but realized that you don’t have time for that either.

Bubble Test and Broken Pencil

What to do? What are your options? Are your dreams of college dashed against the rocky spires of low SAT scores? Not necessarily.

How bad is it?

Before you descend into total freak-out mode, let’s make sure that you actually have a bad SAT score. A good place to start is to compare your score to the national average. Students who took the SAT after the spring of 2016 averaged 1010 overall (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 496, Mathematics: 514). Also, you will want to do a little research to find out what the averages are at the universities that you plan to apply to. This will give you an idea of how bad it really is.

If you are above the average, or even around the average, and you feel like your application is strong, apply. If you scored well below the national average, and your GPA and application are weak, fret not. You still have options.

Some Schools Don’t Require SAT Scores

We know, you spent all that time frustrated and worried, wondering how hard is the SAT going to be, and now you find out you could’ve skipped it all together. That’s okay. The experience was beneficial and will ultimately help you. Now you can explore your options.

More schools than you might think don’t require the SAT as part of their application. For some students, this can really take the pressure off. Without having to worry about the SAT, you can focus on your essays and the other parts of your applications. Here’s a comprehensive list of colleges that don’t require SAT scores.

Another option is to spend your next year taking general education requirements at a community college, preferably near the university you want to attend. Many community colleges cultivate relationships with neighboring universities, so that students can transfer to the university after completing a certain number of credits. As long as you can stay focused, this is a great option. You’ll be able to save money on tuition and complete general education requirements before transitioning to a university to take classes within your major.

Make the Rest of your Application Stronger

We always need to put things in perspective. Remember that the SAT is just one part of your application. You have an essay (or essays) that you need to write, short responses, GPAs, extracurricular activities, and all manner of other activities. So other parts of your application might be able to offset a “bad” SAT score. Here are some suggestions for beefing up that application:

Edit your application many, many times.

The easiest way to make your application stronger is to eliminate as many errors as possible. Make your writing clear, powerful, and direct. Revise and rewrite paragraphs and sentences. Re-read all the prompts and questions that you are responding to and make sure you explicitly answer them.

Start volunteering or find an internship to be a part of.

Schools like to see that students are involved in their community and are working to improve. If you start now, you can put it on your application and finish the year helping out in your school or city.

Focus on improving your grades.

Colleges want to see good grades, but they also want to see that you have made improvements from one semester to the next. Focus on these last moments to improve your grades as much as possible.

Colleges also love to see leadership qualities.

It might be too late to actually become the leader of something, but I am sure that there was a moment where you stepped forward and led the way. Search your memory, ask friends and family, and try to incorporate a specific moment when you stepped up as a leader.

Stand out and be unique.

If you are not going to win them over with your SAT score, win them over in another way. As much as people don’t want to talk about it, the application process is a bit like a popularity contest. Colleges want to find the best students for their school. They want students who are unique, trend-setters, with big plans for the future. Make your application stand out in other ways. Win that admission committee’s popularity contest.

Take a Gap Year!

Former President Eisenhower learned this when he served in the army:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

All the best laid plans are incomplete and flawed. But the act of planning is essential to success because it primes our minds for what will happen. We have to work through as many scenarios as possible even if we completely toss them aside when nothing pans out as we expected. The key is to plan and to be ready to abandon, change, and create new plans. At this point, you may want to consider taking a year off before applying to colleges.

Plenty of schools, like Princeton and Harvard, encourage and welcome students that take a year off after high school before applying to college. It’s done extensively in Europe and is only now catching on in the States. A year out of school before college allows students to gain experience in the world at an internship or job. Students can explore their interests and passions for a year, so that when they arrive in college, they know better what they want to study. A year of maturation will also help students handle the responsibility of college.

But don’t you dare let this year go to waste. It is not a year off. It is a year on! You should use this time to grow and enrich yourself. Apply for internships. Find a job. Prepare for the SAT with the Official SAT Study Guide this time. Volunteer with different organizations. Do as much as you can. The more you do, the more you can write about in your application. You’ll stand out for all the unique things that you did in your year on and have an advantage over all those high school seniors.

If you are unsure how to find an internship or volunteer program, here are some places to start looking—Idealist, Dynamy, Americorps, or City Year. Some of them are even paid!


Even if you did not score as high as you would’ve liked on the SAT, all is not lost. You now have some options:

  • apply to schools that don’t require an SAT score,
  • spend some time taking classes at a community college and then transfer,
  • or take a year off and enrich yourself with real-world experience.

A bad score on the SAT is not a death knell. It’s your alarm telling you to wake up and get out there!