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.

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.

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

Increasingly, more schools are becoming test-optional. Zach Wielgus, master admissions counselor at IvyWise, recommends providing information about those schools. Often, these schools are smaller and not household names, so it could take a bit of encouraging to get a student to consider adding them to their college list. He says the effort will be worth it because “there’s a great chance your student could fall in love with a school they hadn’t heard of and didn’t know to look into.” 

Tell Them to Get in Touch

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.  

Get to Know Them

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 them find great activities. “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. 

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Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018.