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Planning and preparing for the SAT and ACT is tough proposition. Let our experts make it easier for you and your student by reviewing some of the many options available to improve scores, grow scholarship offers, and get into the best college!

How To Get Into An Ivy League With A Low SAT Score

Are you trying to make it into an Ivy League school with a low SAT score? We’re here to help!

This is actually a question we get quite a bit here at Prep Expert. Many of our students take our SAT prep courses with the intention of improving their scores to get into an Ivy League school; however, as I’m sure we all know, getting into an Ivy is a lot easier said than done! This is the most prestigious group of universities in the world, and thousands of students are rejected from these institutions every year even with an exceptionally high SAT scores.

Nonetheless, there are still a few things you can do to give yourself the best shot at getting into the Ivy League with a low SAT score. So sit back, grab a pen and paper, and let’s get started!

Improve Your Current SAT Score!

OK, this one’s a bit of a gimme. In fact, I always recommend taking one of our six-week courses before taking your next exam, or at the very least going through something like an SAT tutoring session or weekend review camp.

Spending these hours with a seasoned SAT instructor is perhaps the best investment in yourself you could possibly make as a high school student. When you consider the price of an Ivy League education, the additional funds put into improving your test score is simply a tiny fraction of the equation.

However, that may not always be an option. Whether it’s money, time, or you’re past the deadline to actually take another exam, sometimes formal test prep just isn’t in the cards. And that’s totally fine. But at the very least, I recommend doing the following:

  • Study with official test questions. Study with official test questions from the College Board, who writes the SAT and is the only trusted name in SAT test content.
  • Treat the SAT like a class. We’ve written about this as well. If you can’t attend a test prep class, then try to at least find a way to treat the SAT like a class! That means studying for the math and reading sections along with your general coursework and taking your improvement on the test as seriously as you would an improvement to your overall GPA.
  • Take the exam…for real. I also recommend taking the exam as if it were real as often as possible. Yes, that means sitting down for four hours and taking the test! We want to try and get physically and psychologically used to the agony of this test, and that does mean practicing in a way that actually helps us improve.

Remember: the SAT is similar to many sports you probably already play in high school. The more you practice, the better you’ll become…so long as the way in which you are practicing is actually helpful. For example, playing HORSE is not a very productive way to practice for your basketball tryouts. Likewise, neither is answering random questions with no structure on the SAT! Keep it simple and keep it structured and you’ll see better results almost immediately.

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Focus On The Rest Of The Pie: GPA And Extracurriculars

Many college admissions experts suggest that they can gauge a student’s success based on three things: test scores, GPA, and extracurricular activities.

While that may seem a little short-sighted, it’s important to remember that most admissions consultants and directors see thousands and thousands of applications every year. While this may seem insensitive, just think: how would you sift through so many applications so quickly? The answer is that coming up with some baseline to group students in certain categories is necessary to help make the process manageable.

If your SAT score isn’t as high as you’d like after spending time trying to improve it, you’ll need to make sure that your GPA is nothing short of exceptional and you beef up your extracurricular activities.

I’ve seen students with comparatively low SAT scores get into the Ivy League school of their dreams simply because they stock up on this portion of the admissions pie. So long as you have a truly terrific GPA — 3.99-4.0 unweighted — coupled with a number of interesting, diverse and creative extracurricular activities, you’ve got a shot to get into any Ivy so long as your SAT score is within a reasonable shot of the respective Ivy League university’s 25th percentile.

And remember: always engage yourself in extracurriculars you actually enjoy, not just ones that you think will look good on a resume! We want to do things that we like and love, and let the results follow. So long as you are passionate about the things you are doing outside of the classroom, the results will take care of themselves.

On that note, if you enjoy it, being involved with your high school’s debate team is a near sure-fire way to improve your overall recommendation. It shows admissions experts that you are willing and able to dedicate your free time to something intellectually stimulating and challenging. In many ways, the debate is essentially a competitive academic sport. Succeeding in public forum or other formats tells an admissions consultant a lot about your propensity for future growth and achievement, regardless of whether or not you have a low SAT score.

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Snag An Exceptional Letter(s) Of Recommendation

Making up a not-so-great SAT test score isn’t easy, but snagging a really wonderful letter or letters of recommendation helps. A lot.

I’ve spoken and written before about getting great letters of recommendation from your teachers and counselors. It’s a topic I’m familiar with, having helped students through this process extensively in years past.

What a really great letter of recommendation tells an admissions consultant or executive is that you are unique and have the capacity to achieve something great. It’s a blanket statement to instruct the person reading your application to take the rest of it seriously, regardless of how high your SAT score is.

Colleges and universities respect and take seriously the opinion of teachers and instructors. So while the “pie” really does consist of only three pieces, this fourth piece, a wonderful letter of recommendation, is an x-factor that can help make up for something like a low SAT score.

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Meet With An Admissions Representative From The Ivy You Want To Attend

This is another low-key tip that I’ve come to find out can produce radically successful results. Again, similar to obtaining a great letter of recommendation, meeting with an admissions representative from an Ivy League university is yet another step you can take to bolster your resume and application that will help you stand apart from your peers.

There are many times throughout the year when you can meet with one of these admissions associates. When I was in high school, I met with a woman who helped oversee Brown University’s admissions. I spoke with her in length about my goals, aspirations, and successes in high school. And what do you think happened? I got into Brown! I attribute my conversation at my college fair to doing so. It was one of the wisest things I did when going through the college process.

Not only does this give you an opportunity to explain something like a low standardized test score, but it also enables you to highlight other components of your resume to someone who is in a position to listen and take your feedback seriously. Letting an admissions representative know that you have a low-end SAT score because you struggle with test anxiety or math or whatever the reason is perhaps the most productive way to highlight your value as a potential applicant despite your standardized test scores.

You have the opportunity to physically meet and converse with the very people who will read and analyze your application at college fairs throughout the year. Why not make the connection and get your name out there!? Just think: what’s the worst that could happen?

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Take A Risk: Stand Out!

If your SAT score isn’t up to typical Ivy League par (and it is relative based on the Ivy you are interested in attending), take a chance and get a little wild with your application cover letter.

This is a strategy I also like to use for students applying to any reach school, such as Harvard, Stanford, etc. that is already extremely difficult to get into, even with a perfect score! Unless you are confident that you have a solid chance at getting into the school of your dreams with a fairly straightforward resume and application, it’s in your best interest to get a little wild with your cover letter and application.

Answer a question that lets you express your creativity and what makes you different. Take a chance. Even if you think it may make you look like a wildcard to an administrator. In the film 21, Ben Campbell, a brilliant MIT student, discusses his up and down career as a professional card counter to make some extra cash for medical school when interviewing for a prestigious scholarship at Harvard Medical School. At first, it almost seems like this would be a foolish thing to tell a superior…especially the person who’s actually responsible to judge you based on your ethical and academic success as a student! But for Ben and thousands of other creative and passionate students, it worked.

While this example is a little over-the-top, it shows something that I think is really important when trying to get into college and even beyond that, in life in general: it’s always in your best interest to stand out when you are faced with a tall mountain to climb. If you’re looking for more information regarding Ivy League Schools, check out Ivy Select college consulting specialists

After all, what’s the worst that could happen?


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Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation, a #1 bestselling SAT & ACT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect using 100 strategies that we teach in our Prep Expert SAT and ACT courses.