College Search: When Do GPA & Test Scores Matter Most?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

In the college search process, when do GPA and test scores matter most? I believe there are two places where GPA and ACT or SAT scores matter most – determining the student’s college list and qualifying for merit scholarships. Overall in college admissions, the better your student’s GPA and test scores, the more options will be available to him or her. Does that mean students with a mediocre GPA and/or test scores should worry about getting into college? No, it just means they need to target the right schools.

1. Determining the Student’s College List

In general, the better the match between the school’s GPA and test score range and your student’s GPA and test score, the better his or her chances of getting accepted. You’ve probably heard of reach, target and safety schools. Generalizing even further, the following is a good guideline:

  • Safety School – Student’s GPA and test scores are above the school’s mid-50% range
  • Target School – Student’s GPA and test scores are within the school’s mid-50% range
  • Reach School – Student’s GPA and test scores are below the school’s mid-50% range

What is the easiest way to find the school’s mid-50% ranges?

Look up the school on On the school’s Overview tab, you will find Admission information. Below is an example from Rice University. You will see that the school does not report average GPA for enrolled freshmen, but does report the mid-50% ranges for both SAT and ACT tests. Since the reporting data is always a year or two behind, the SAT scores reported haven’t caught up to the new two-score test, but you can still pretty much go off the ranges given and apply them to the new scores or use an online score converter to understand where the ranges fall within the new score categories.

You can do a quick Google search to try to come up with the same information. In this case, I searched for “Rice University average GPA” to see if I could find anything. I did find a couple sites reporting a 2017 average of 4.11 for admitted students. This seems to be a weighted GPA and it’s hard to tell how reliable this information is.

Rice University is hardly ever going to be a safety school. Even a kid with a perfect 36 ACT or a perfect SAT score and a 4.5 weighted GPA would not be guaranteed to get in. He or she would be much more likely to get admitted than a kid with a 28 ACT and a 3.5 GPA.

However, admissions is a tricky business and as the school looks to fill a well-rounded class, they may already have too many kids with stats similar to your son or daughter and may still be searching for something totally different. Therefore, I would always stress to use GPA and test score based determinations of likelihood of admission as a guideline and not a sure thing.

2. Qualifying for Merit Scholarships

GPA and test scores are used by most schools in determining the merit scholarships they award. Given that colleges themselves are the largest source of merit-based aid, there can be some great deals available to students with the right GPA & test score combinations.

What makes a good GPA and ACT or SAT score for merit scholarships? There is no easy answer, other than to say the higher the combination, the larger the scholarships offered. But don’t let that scare you. There are plenty of merit scholarships offered to students with less than perfect GPAs and test scores. In my database of all “listed” merit scholarships in amounts of $2,000 or more offered by colleges around the U.S., out of 11,800 scholarships listed, there are:

  • Almost 200 automatic scholarships in database for minimum ACT 16-20
  • Over 200 automatic scholarships in database for minimum GPA 2.0 – 2.9
  • About 50 automatic scholarships in database for minimum SAT 900 or less

In addition, many competitively awarded scholarships don’t require a minimum ACT/SAT or GPA. They are looking at a student’s overall package of qualifications and are not limiting these scholarships to only be awarded to students within a specific GPA and/or ACT/SAT score range.

How do you find out what merit scholarships your student’s GPA and test scores will make him or her eligible for?

If there are specific colleges your student is interested in, you can check for merit scholarships on those schools’ websites to see what merit scholarships are offered based on GPA and test score values.

That being said, I would recommend not letting your student limit his or her chances for merit aid by only focusing on specific schools. Instead, you should explore what aid is out there that your student may be eligible for. You need to be able to find the schools that will offer the best merit aid for your student’s GPA and test scores. The easiest way to do that is to search for scholarships through is a subscription-based database of all merit scholarships of $2,000 and more offered by colleges around the U.S. If you choose to subscribe, you may want to search for Automatic Scholarships and then filter down by minimum required GPA or ACT/SAT.

To sum it up, I believe the pieces of the college search process where GPA and test scores matter most for your student will be in choosing which colleges to apply to and in looking for merit scholarships offered directly by colleges. For these reasons, your student should strive for the best GPA, especially Junior year, that he or she can attain and also should apply ACT or SAT practice methods and/or programs to strive for his or her highest possible scores.