Overcoming the Stigma of Low SAT Scores

Over 1.5 million people take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) every year, and many higher educational institutions use the scores to admit students (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988). The United States, which has one of the most coveted college education systems in the world, has used SAT for over a century. It has become synonymous with mental faculties, is assumed to indicate superior future career graphs, and receives general social acclaim as well.

Informal empirical evidence seems to support such generalizations. Most, though not all people who scale heights in various professions and in public life, have qualifications from prestigious Universities. There is a general assumption that only exceptional sports people or those granted special concessions on some other account, can hope to enter quality institutions of higher learning, with SAT scores which are relatively low or even average.

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This document tries to serve the interests of the unfortunate who land disappointing SAT scores. Is it possible to secure quality higher education after a relatively low SAT score? Can these people aim for excellence in chosen fields in life after SAT? How representative is SAT of mental abilities? What are the key evolutionary directions of higher education in the 21st century?

SAT keeps changing form. Everyone has an opinion about the system, and the harried designers and administrators seem to be keen to accommodate everyone! Therefore, while SAT must be one of the best known, if feared acronyms of the student world, it will help to review a succinct description of the test, before trying to figure out how to proceed if one does not fare as well as the top percentile of a batch.

SAT Features

SAT is a test administered to all students who seek higher education in the United States. It has been designed by the Educational Testing Service and is administered by the College Board. The latest version has come in to existence since March 2005.

The full form of SAT explains its purpose. The test is run over about 3 1/2 hours, and a few minutes are spent at the end to help develop questions for future tests (About us, not dated). Math, critical reading, and writing, form three nearly equal sections of the test, with the last (writing) being a new addition. Students have now to write an essay in which they try to support a position on an issue. The new writing section also has multiple-choice questions which aim to test grammar skills and composition ability (About us, not dated).

The math section also has multiple choice questions. Students are tested for abilities to measure, to carry out operations with numbers, and for concepts of algebra, geometry, statistics, and data analysis. Some subjects from preparatory math in the third year of college have been added to the 2005 version of SAT (About us, not dated).

The old verbal section of SAT has been relabeled as critical reading. Students have to complete sentences and are tested for understanding of reading passages (About us, not dated). This section tests reasoning abilities and vocabulary, apart from comprehension.

It will be immediately apparent from the SAT structure that music, artistic abilities, social skills, and character, are but a few of the many human qualities, which should count for a great deal in college education, and in professional or vocational life, which are not addressed at all.

It bears repetition that SAT was first developed at the dawn of the 20th century. A comparison of the times then with the social realities of today will help to see this antiquated test system in context.


SAT Limitations


Admiring roses and deciding which are the largest, most fragrant, and which ones have the best colors, do not tell us anything about to grow them (Astin, 1991). SAT can tell colleges and the community at large that some students have strengths in math, or that they are able to respond to multiple choices quickly and with high probabilities of correct selections. However, high scores offer only limited information to colleges on how to develop the strengths of students in optimal ways. There could be as many students who travel through higher education without realizing their full potentials, as others who may have scaled new heights of academic endeavor and public service, who are deprived of higher education altogether.

Any standardized testing is subject to flaws and incorrect conclusions (Hoffmann, 2003). There is little merit in asking people to pick answers from a range of choices without having to provide reasons. The writing test section of the new SAT addresses this partly, but the critical reason section continues to be deficient in this respect. Human abilities and potentials are too complex and too inter-related to be measured accurately in a static way with available technologies.

The learning environment in a teaching institution and the kinds of inputs it offers, determines the final output of students (Astin, 1991). Though incoming students may have certain mental skills at the time of their entries in to specific courses such as engineering or journalism, it is possible to bring to expose them to tailored courses to work on any deficiencies they may have relative to students from the other field. Colleges which depend on SAT alone or in major part would lose out severely in terms of wide talent bases in their student communities.

All students do not approach higher education with standard aims about joining a well-known institution or getting an eventual job: they may also want to improve social and interaction skills or to work on some area of the Arts. Therefore, the student perspective should be integrated with assessment (Astin, 1991). SAT gives no opportunities to most valuable individuals and those with high potentials as well, to show case their unique strengths. Standardization cannot do justice to the range of evolved human faculties. Higher education should be in the business of developing multiple talents, for which no single assessment can work universally (Astin, 1991). Standard assessments go against the grain of multiple dimensions of students. SAT may result in large numbers of highly qualified people becoming irrelevant and unproductive in the global world and new societal structures of tomorrow.

Assessment data is commonly used without proper analysis and without correct utilization (Astin, 1991). Achievement data can be more valuable in selecting students than Aptitude tests (Zwink, R, 2004). This is why SAT 1 has been replaced with SAT II in places such as California. Utilization of assessment data is based on a theory which is largely subjective (Astin, 1991). All measures and subject to factorial complexities (Carroll, 1993). Cognitive abilities are malleable and can change over time. SAT does not help Universities facilitate learning among all willing and potentially capable adults.

Surveys show that SAT does not help colleges with the selection process (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988). It does not help students either, as they often find institutions which do not meet their goals. The College Entrance Examination Board and the Educational Testing Service are not well-equipped to monitor their own performances and contributions to the higher education system (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988).

SAT is especially inimical to the interests of black children, those from ethnic minorities, and for those from economically under-privileged backgrounds as well (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988). It seems to perpetuate the privileges of the majority and of the wealthy.

SAT has been modified many times, since its introduction in 1901, reflecting widespread concern over the validities of its measurements; more changes are on the anvil (Zwink, R, 2004). It may be some time before a reliable standard test system can emerge for the fair and relevant comparison of more than a million individuals at a time.

SAT cannot be wished away, all its limitations notwithstanding. Students who have landed relatively low SAT scores still need answers regarding how to find colleges which meet their aspirations, and the inspiration to build careers and lives to rival those of their mates with top scores.


The good news is that there is indeed fruitful and rewarding life, with sound higher education to boot, even after a relatively low SAT score. The literature has many leads in this direction, which are presented in this section. One should not make a case that a relatively low SAT score is desirable in any way, but it is not the end of the road either.

Taking a relatively poor SAT score in the right spirit is crucial for quick and effective rehabilitation from the set-back. Opprobrium and scorn is often directed by family and friends, but no one should allow such negative feelings to overpower them. Everyone needs to bear in mind that intelligence has many dimensions and concrete intelligence can be improved through proper environmental settings (Eysenck, 1998). Math, critical thinking, and writing, are not the only things at which individuals should excel, but even these skills can be honed and brought up to scratch with practice by the most average of people. It is possible to learn from the experience of a low SAT score. Such assessments can be used to improve learning abilities and study habits (Astin 1991). It is not as though a dream SAT score is an automatic passport to valuable qualifications. Simultaneously, people who have not done well in the test can recover their scholastic abilities and do better in future.

There are over 1000 colleges in the United States which do not go solely by SAT scores (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988). Higher education in the country is diverse and caters to varying needs. All institutions do not enroll the same kinds of students, and all of them do not approach higher education for their students in the same way. There is a strong body of opinion that SAT scores do not reflect the abilities and potentials of students (Stenberg and Colman, 1994). It is necessary to distinguish between major Universities and community colleges because though education is a common aim, Universities also give priorities for research whereas community colleges emphasize community service (Astin, 1991). Community colleges encourage enrollment growth and students who are able to match their strengths and proclivities with different packages of educational inputs can find the right colleges for their needs, even without top SAT scores.

There are many changes in the American college scene which people at large do not know or appreciate. Many institutions value diversity and look to expanding the range of skills exhibited by their student communities (Messick, 1999). Higher education assessments have also begun to change. Baccalaureate institutions, trade schools, and proprietary schools assess and provide inputs based on specific employer requirements (Astin, 1991). Overall, people with relatively low SAT scores will be pleased when they uncover all the institutions of higher education, which are interested in them, and which appear to be interesting choices as well. The disappointment of a low SAT score can be soon overcome with this type of approach.

A completely different approach, but a valid one nevertheless, is to try and make up in part for a low SAT score with plenty of relevant work experience. Continuing education is an option which all students should weigh carefully after they finish High School. This is not for students with relatively poor SAT scores alone, for even the most accomplished from an academic perspective may find experiences in entry level jobs of value in later life. Learning from experience is valuable and valid, and higher education should be encouraged in working adults (Messick, 1999). Graduation does not signal the end of learning in any event. The paradigm of colleges being places for only the young to hang out deserves critical review, because the relationships between older adults with work experience and academies can be most mutually rewarding.

Distance education needs special consideration as a means of continuing learning. Computers and electronic presentation aids have given rise to new modes of study and acquiring knowledge (Messick, 1999). Technology can be applied in education to achieve equity. Quality higher education can be achieved outside the academy setting (Messick, 1999).

The best quality distance education is available from top U.S. Universities and colleges (Overview, 2007). Courses are open to all people with an interest in learning. While there are obvious limits to the kinds of disciplines which can be learnt outside the formal academic environment, a vast range of courses are available in the distance education format. An added attraction is that tuition fees are relatively low. This mode can be used to complete college education, advance careers, or even to change tracks. Some courses have lectures on campuses while others are entirely on-line with taped lectures and a host of multi-media materials. Working individuals can complete courses at their own paces, building learning and valuable qualifications in to the demanding schedules of careers. Overall, distance education is a modern, liberal, and most enabling form of higher education, available widely and virtually regardless of traditional SAT scores.

It is now possible to conclude that there is indeed vibrant scholastic life even after a relatively low SAT score soon after finishing high school. This does mean that students should not prepare thoroughly for SAT. The highest possible score which a young adult can achieve is worth trying for. There are many structured ways of preparing well for a SAT test, including ones offered by the test administrators. Regular and intense practice will help students improve their chances of high scores.

A high SAT score is only the starting point towards higher education and career development. Those processes apply independent of any SAT score, and the tests are not fully representative of individual abilities and potentials. The previous section has tried to describe some of the less known approaches to accessing quality higher education, and it is evident that the facility is more widely available than people are led to believe.

It remains to address the short comings of the SAT system, which have also been touched upon this document. We know that SAT has come some distance over the last century with a series of modifications and additions. However, it remains distant from creating a level field for students of all types. How can Universities and colleges serve their own interests and that of the student community better in the matter of admissions? High school grades, course work done during this period, and mastery over the subjects taught during this period, would be better measures of what individuals are good at and their true potentials (Crouse and Trusheim, 1988). However, it is a challenge to assess more than a million young adults over such a complex and broad spectrum every year. Therefore, we may have to live with versions of SAT in the foreseeable future. Rapid expansion of the numbers of people who can be accommodated as students, using electronic dissemination technologies, holds most promise in this regard.


Higher education has been traditionally reliant on assessments of students (Astin, 1991). The process starts at admission and continues throughout the learning process: it encompasses faculties as well. Many assessment procedures have become irrelevant and continue by the force of convention alone.

There is no case to be despondent over a relatively low SAT score. The system is full of drawbacks and is used more as a compromise to roughly measure large numbers of students, than to offer any meaningful appraisal of personal merit. Details of high school records may be more meaningful in this respect.

The nature and modes of higher education are in flux. Such advanced learning, which was never meant to have any cut-off points, has become increasingly accessible for older adults and for people in the midst of careers. It is almost never too late to turn a new page and to aim for unprecedented academic excellence!

Works Cited

About us, not dated, College Board web site, accessed June 2007 from http://www.collegeboard.com/about/index.html