20 Great Colleges for Students With Low SAT Scores

Low SAT Scores Don't Need to Ruin the Hopes of Otherwise Strong Students

Let's face it -- some strong students just don't do well on standardized tests. More and more schools are recognizing this fact, and the list of test-optional colleges continues to grow. Other excellent colleges require standardized test scores, but their average scores are well below what we see for ​Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges.

Of the 20 colleges and universities in the list below, many are highly selective schools with test-optional admissions policies. Others are colleges that offer top-notch academics​ but are likely to admit students with mid-range SAT scores. Please note that this list is not for weak students. Rather, it is for academically strong students who simply don't shine when it comes to standardized tests.

The Steinheim at Alfred University
The Steinheim at Alfred University. Allen Grove

With its castle on a hill, one of the nation's top art schools, a highly regarded engineering program, and a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa for strengths in the liberal arts and sciences, Alfred University is a true gem hidden away in Western New York. Feel free to bring your horse--Alfred also made my list of top equestrian colleges.

  • Location: Alfred, New York
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): 450 / 570
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): 470 / 580
  • Test-Optional? No
  • Admission: Alfred Profile | GPA-SAT-ACT Graph
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Arcadia University
Arcadia University. Montgomery County Planning Commission / Flickr

Located just 25 minutes from Center City, Philadelphia, Arcadia University features small classes and one of the best study abroad programs in the country. Visitors can't miss the stunning historic landmark, Gray Towers Castle. You probably won't get in with below average SAT scores, but average scores can suffice if you show other strengths.

  • Location: Glenside, Pennsylvania
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): 498 / 600
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): 498 / 600
  • Test-Optional? No
  • Admission: Arcadia Profile | GPA-SAT-ACT Graph
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Bowdoin College
Bowdoin College. Paul VanDerWerf / Flickr

Bowdoin is the most selective college on this list, so applicants will need an impressive academic and extra-curricular record. The college also ranks among the best liberal arts colleges in the country. The school was awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa for its excellence in the liberal arts and sciences, and the school changed its financial aid practices so that all new students will graduate debt free.

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Bar Harbor, Maine
Bar Harbor, Maine. Garden State Hiker / Flickr

COA features a beautiful location on the Maine coast, a carbon-neutral campus with impressive environmental initiatives, a 10 to 1 student / faculty ratio, and an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum with a Human Ecology focus. The school's transformative and unique approach to education earned it a spot among my list of top Maine colleges.

  • Location: Bar Harbor, Maine
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): - / -
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): - / -
  • Test-Optional? Yes
  • Admission: COA Profile | GPA-SAT-ACT Graph
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College of the Holy Cross
College of the Holy Cross. Joe Campbell / Flickr

Holy Cross has an impressive retention and graduation rate, with well over 90% of entering students earning a degree within six years. The college was awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa for its strengths in the liberal arts and sciences, and the school's 10 to 1 student/faculty ratio means that students will have a lot of personal interaction with their professors.

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Hampshire College
Hampshire College. redjar / Flickr

Hampshire College has never been fond of conformity, so it's no surprise the school has test-optional admissions. If you like to think outside the box, if you enjoy debate, if you'd like to design your own major, if you'd like to be evaluated qualitatively, not quantitatively -- then Hampshire might be a good choice.

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Mount Holyoke College
Mount Holyoke College. John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke College is the oldest of the "seven sister" colleges, and it consistently ranks as one of the top women's colleges in the country. Mount Holyoke features a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and a beautiful campus where students can enjoy the college's botanical gardens, two lakes, waterfalls, and horseback-riding trails.

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East and West Residence Halls at Pitzer College
East and West Residence Halls at Pitzer College. Lauriealosh / Wikimedia Commons

Don't be fooled by Pitzer's small size -- students can easily take courses at any of the Claremont Colleges. The college places a strong emphasis on study abroad and community service, and students can expect lots of student/faculty interaction. Pitzer is particularly strong in the social sciences.

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Ripon College
Ripon College. TravisNygard / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ripon has much to be proud of: Phi Beta Kappa membership; high retention and graduation rates; generous financial aid; excellent value; and a Collaborative Learning Center that provides valuable support for students who need a little extra help

  • Location: Ripon, Wisconsin
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): 450 / 640
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): 500 / 620
  • Test-Optional? No
  • Admission: Ripon Profile
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The Siegel Center at Sarah Lawrence College
The Siegel Center at Sarah Lawrence College. SaidieLou / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Sarah Lawrence has an impressive 10 to 1 student/faculty ratio and students will find that teaching truly is valued more than faculty research. The application process does not consider standardized test scores at all; in fact, Sarah Lawrence was a leader in the test-optional movement. The college's quaint campus has the feel of a European village.

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McClurg Hall at Sewanee: The University of the South
McClurg Hall at Sewanee: The University of the South. Rex Hammock / Flickr

Sewanee can boast of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, small classes, and a 10 to 1 student/faculty ratio. The university has a particularly strong English program that is home to The Sewanee Review and Sewanee Writers Conference.

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Seelye Hall at Smith College
Seelye Hall at Smith College. Allen Grove

Smith is one of the top women's colleges in the country, and it also features test-optional admissions. Smith is a member of the five college consortium along with Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and UMass Amherst. Students at any of these five colleges can easily take classes at the other member institutions. Smith has a beautiful and historic campus that includes the 12,000 square foot Lyman Conservatory and the Botanic Garden.

  • Location: Northampton, Massachusetts
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): - / -
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): - / -
  • Test-Optional? Yes
  • Admission: Smith Profile | GPA-SAT-ACT Graph
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Kyle Field at Texas A&M
Kyle Field at Texas A&M. Stuart Seeger / Flickr

If you are a Texas resident in the top 10% of your high school class, you will be assured admission without SAT or ACT scores. The university has many strengths in engineering and agriculture, but the liberal arts and sciences are also extremely popular among undergraduates. In athletics, the Texas A&M Aggies compete in the Division I SEC Conference.

  • Location: College Station, Texas
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): 520 / 640
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): 550 / 670
  • Test-Optional? See Above
  • Admission: Texas A&M Profile | GPA-SAT-ACT Graph
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Liliuokalani Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa
Liliuokalani Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Travis Thurston / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Manoa's strengths are many, including highly ranked programs in astronomy, oceanography, cancer research, and Pacific Island and Asian studies. The university has a diverse student body representing all 50 states and 103 countries. UH at Manoa is the only college in Hawaii to have a chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society.

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Palmer Hall at the University of Montevallo
Palmer Hall at the University of Montevallo. Photo Courtesy of Matt Orton

Most students submit ACT scores, not SAT, but applicants with average scores won't find the admissions standards beyond their reach. As a public liberal arts college, Montevallo is a true value. The campus is charming, and students can expect strong student-faculty interaction.

  • Location: Montevallo, Alabama
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): 455 / 595
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): 475 / 580
  • Test Optional? No
  • Admission: Montevallo Profile 
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University of Texas at Austin
University of Texas at Austin. Amy Jacobson

UT Austin requires SAT or ACT scores all applicants, but students who are Texas residents in the top 7% of their high school class will be guaranteed admission (note that scores are used to place students in majors). The university is one of the top public universities in the country. It has numerous selling points including a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a top business school, and membership in the Division I Big 12 Athletic Conference.

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Pfahler Hall at Ursinus College
Pfahler Hall at Ursinus College. Montgomery County Planning Commission / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ursinus is a highly selective college, but they do not require SAT scores if an applicant has a strong enough GPA and high class rank. Ursinus is a top-rate liberal arts college with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a 12 to 1 student / faculty ratio, generous financial aid, an excellent observatory and art museum, and a new performing arts building. In 2009, the college was ranked #2 for "up-and-coming" colleges by US News & World Report.

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Reynolda Hall at Wake Forest
Reynolda Hall at Wake Forest. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Wake Forest is one of the most selective colleges to move to test-optional admissions. The university combines the small classes and low student/faculty ratio of a private liberal arts college with the excitement of Division I athletics as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Wake Forest made my list of top North Carolina colleges and top Southeastern colleges.

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Casey Academic Center at Washington College
Casey Academic Center at Washington College. Photo Courtesy of Washington College

Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College has a long and rich history. The college was recently awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa for its many strengths in the liberal arts and sciences. The college's scenic location provides students with opportunities to explore the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Chester River.

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Boynton Hall at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)
Boynton Hall at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Allen Grove

Most WPI students will need to be strong in math to succeed, but you don't need to have a strong SAT math score: WPI has test-optional admissions. The institute earns high marks for student career prospects and student engagement. Academics are supported by a healthy 13 to 1 student / faculty ratio.

  • Location: Worcester, Massachusetts
  • SAT Reading (Middle 50%): - / -
  • SAT Math (Middle 50%): - / -
  • Test-Optional? Yes
  • Admission: WPI Profile | GPA-SAT-ACT Graph
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