If you have a student who shines bright in many ways—in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, in community engagement—but struggles when it comes to standardized tests like the SAT® and ACT® exams, you’re probably strategizing how to best leverage their materials into the most compelling applications possible. As a counselor, you know that college aptitude isn’t solely measured by test scores. But you also may have insight into how certain colleges tend to assess admission packets. And if a student doesn’t test well, it can be helpful to come up with strategies to make their application as competitive as possible.

To inform your game plan, college counselors and admissions experts offer their advice on helping get students into the amazing colleges they deserve, despite less-than-stellar test scores.

Anticipate Hurdles

“Not testing well” has become a catch-all explanation, but what does it mean? While some students have an underlying cause for not testing well, such as a learning difference, other students may be facing challenges specific to the testing environment. For example, as some middle schools and high schools have moved away from testing to more holistic-based evaluation, there may be students who “freeze” when confronted with the formality of a standardized test. Talking through the situation and assessing their overall performance can help home in on next-step strategies. If your school doesn’t offer standardized testing, encouraging students to take practice SAT and ACT tests, or even offering mock tests on campus, could be helpful.

Remind Them That Tests Aren’t Everything

It’s easy for students—especially those who don’t test well—to feel intense pressure about their scores. “Reassure them that these tests are one factor in the multidimensional admissions process,” says Carrie Proctor, incoming president of the Texas Counseling Association.

Caroline Millen, director of Strategic Initiatives and Student Services at SUNY Binghamton, echoes that, describing the school’s admission process. “We view the entire application package as a whole: the résumé, personal statement, letters of recommendation, writing samples, and/or personal interviews are equally—if not more—important,” she says.

Reassure them that these tests are one factor in the multidimensional admissions process.

Introduce Them to Test-Optional Schools

More schools are becoming test-optional. Zach Wielgus, master admissions counselor at IvyWise, recommends talking to your students about these schools and the pros and cons of sharing your scores with them. Over 1,700 schools (and counting) in the United States are now test optional, with around 80 of those being test-free. Test-free means that the school won’t view scores, while test optional means they will consider scores if they are sent. Remind your students that they control whether their scores are released. For some students, just knowing that they don’t have to share their scores unless they choose to can take away some of the pressure of standardized testing.

Tell Them to Reach Out to Admissions

Shawn Grime, a consultant at Ohio School Counselor Association, encourages his students to speak with admissions officers about their scores, especially if there’s a reason—like a learning disability—behind the scores. “Sometimes a simple email can go a long way,” he says from experience. Wielgus recommends that his students take advantage of admissions interviews. It demonstrates interest, shows initiative, and also “allows the student to shine in person instead of leaving only a GPA and test score to represent them,” he says.

Consider a Referral and Evaluation

When a student’s grades and test scores don’t match up, it may be a sign that the student has learning differences. While some students are set up for success with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as early as elementary school, it’s not uncommon for students to get an IEP or 504 plan in high school or even college. A 504 plan is different than an IEP primarily because it is designed for the regular classroom setting with accommodations. Another thing to note about 504 plans versus IEPs: There are no IEPs in college, but a student may be eligible for a 504 plan that would allow for modifications within the classroom. Starting the referral and evaluation process can be a good initial step.

Some students and parents may wonder if an IEP or 504 will affect their admissions chances. The answer: Colleges will not know if a student has an IEP or 504 when they apply to college unless they self-disclose. Disclosing is a personal decision for a student and their family.

Get to Know Their Interests

Amanda Nolasco, assistant chair at Arizona School Counselors Association, has learned the value of getting to know her students well and using that knowledge to help connect them to schools where they will likely thrive. “Opportunities from community partners and universities come across our desks all the time,” she says. “If I know my students and their interests, it is easier for me to connect them with the experiences that can lead to dual enrollment, summer programs, and leadership opportunities.”

And that knowledge can also help inform and inspire a strong letter of recommendation, which she says is also a valuable tool. “The letter is a way for us to tell a story about the student that highlights why they would be a great addition to the college” no matter their test scores.

Help them Plan for the Future

If a bright student does struggle with some aspects of academia, including testing, it can be helpful to let them know what to expect in college. Encourage them to attend study skills workshops where they can learn effective study methods, relaxation techniques, and test-taking time management skills.

Students with learning differences will need to self-advocate in college and could mean connecting with the disability services offices to make sure that their needs are accommodated, including through a 504 plan, if needed. Talking to families about this process and helping them with questions to ask and services to look for at the colleges they’re considering can help streamline the admissions and enrollment process.

Bottom line: Including families in standardized test conversations, offering test prep opportunities throughout high school, and raising any testing concerns early are all ways to help students succeed.

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