Why a Weak SAT Score Didn’t Kill My College Dreams

“The test commences at 8:45am. I work through the essay assignment, frantically, reading quietly as I print out my ideas on paper because I want to avoid silly mistakes.

‘Stop writing, pencils down!’ instructs the invigilator.

We start work on the next section.

The vocabulary in this section is mostly new. I struggle with the first few questions but employ the strategies my SAT tutor gave me and, surprisingly, I finish answering all the questions before the stern-faced lady calls the time. This boosts my confidence and I work on the other sections easily.

After close to four hours in the test room, the exam is finally over. I was out of the room tired but somewhat happy. I answered most of the questions and hopefully I gave the correct answers.”

I wrote those words in 2011 for an article in The SundayMail (the best-selling weekly in Zimbabwe). My early decision application to Amherst College had been deferred and, hoping to improve my chances for admission, I was retaking the SAT for the second time. Two weeks later I found out the result of my effort.

My SAT score had increased by a mere 70 points, from 1680 to 1750. I had given it my best shot, but that score wouldn’t increase my hope of getting into Amherst, my dream school, where the average SAT score is more like 2100.

Reassessing my strategy

The rest of my application was strong. My high school transcript was stellar, my essays were well-written (so said my EducationUSA advisor), and I had dedicated a lot of effort and energy to making my community a better place.

I don’t know for sure that my SAT score is what hurt my Amherst application, but I felt that surely all those achievements were worth something. Did they not reflect my potential to succeed at an American college better than the SAT exam?

As I reassessed my strategy for the regular decision admissions round, my EducationUSA advisor advised me to have a look at some test-optional colleges.  These are colleges that do not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores with their application (there’s a list of all these schools at fairtest.org).

My main criteria for deciding where to apply was financial aid – I wanted to avoid the dilemma of getting admitted and not have the money to pay the tuition. I eventually sent regular decisions applications to eight elite liberal arts colleges that I had chosen for their generous financial aid policies.

But on that list was to one test-optional school – Bates College – the college I got into and now attend.

The logic of test-optional

When I arrived on campus I talked to an associate dean of admission at Bates, Karen McDermont Kothe, who told me that Bates decided to make standardized tests optional for applicants 25 years ago. The school felt that a test-optional policy allows applicants to decide the best representation of their academic performance.

I definitely agree. To this day, the thought of taking the SAT still sends shivers down my spine. Without the option of leaving that score off my application and focusing instead on my achievements in the classroom and the community, I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to study here.

When I was applying to colleges, I thought it was unfair for my college preparedness to be judged on the four hours of mental torture that is the SAT, and on a test result that belied my actual abilities. I’m glad I found a school that felt the same.


  1. Ugh, I know what you mean! I’m writing them for the first time in about 15 days and I’m absolutely losing my mind!

    Do your extra-curriculars help you though?

    And Congratulations! 🙂

    1. Dear Sumedha,

      Thanks for the message. The extra-curriculum activities matter, but admission counselors consider a variety of factors as they make the decisions.

      I wish you well.


  2. Hey phillips, hope I can add emeagwali our nigerian computer icon!!!

    Am truly uplifted with ur article, much congratulations, it was insightful, persuasive, relevant and specific… Am pleased dude!

      1. Hi Phillips,
        How have you been? twelve months could be a pretty long while. Hope Maine is cool…urh i meant cold… i didnt get a follow up to ur reply quick enough but random search on the net does have its benefit. Nice to hear from u on the other side of the globe.

  3. Hey Philip,

    Congrats! I’m kinda going through the same thing but with GRE and i’m sure there are no GRE optional colleges that accept a PhD student without gre scores and I totally agree with you. But anyways that was a good effort on your part and good luck to you for your future.

  4. Hi Philip,

    I completely agree with you. I think that 4 hours inside a pressure cooker is an unfair way to access the abilities of students. I gave my SAT about a month ago and the SAT subjects about a week ago, and I doubt that those two tests would measure my academic skills. I know there is more to evaluating academic skills than a couple of hours inside a room, hungry, worried about the score.

    And congratulations on your first post.

    Shree Raj Shrestha

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