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Low ACT Scores. Low SAT Scores. What Now Do We Do?

When Diane would talk to other parents at her son’s high school, it sometimes made her wonder if only brilliant students attended the school.

“Everyone had taken the hardest classes available, everyone had the best SAT scores,” Diane says, with a roll of her eyes.

Diane knew her son was not the highest ranking achiever. “He didn’t have the best grades, and he wasn’t out there curing cancer every day,” Diane says. “He took some higher level classes, but he also had a mix of regular classes.” He was, in short, “an average student”—something both Diane and her son were comfortable with.

But all around them, parents were acting like agents. They were boasting about their teenager’s test scores and planning for the Ivy Leagues. What can parents do to avoid getting caught up in the conversation? Must they feel that their kids’ future is doomed if they have low ACT scores and don’t go to Harvard?

First, bow out of the bumper sticker wars and instead focus your college search on finding a school where your child will thrive, regardless of his academic chops.

Average Student? Don’t Despair

“What I really try to stress to parents is the importance of fit and match,” says Julia Surtshin, owner of Surtshin College Counseling in Portland, Oregon. “Education is not just about accumulating information and facts, it’s also about learning to mature socially and emotionally. It’s about learning to have confidence in your own intellectual strength and abilities and accepting your weaknesses.”

As a counselor for 18 years, Surtshin has heard dozens of stories of students who attended “big name” schools, but failed to succeed. When parents come to her with visions of Princeton—and a student with a 20 on their ACTs—she tells them to think about Johnny.

Johnny, she explains, is an average student, with a 3.5 or 3.6 GPA, who somehow got into Yale. “I ask them, ‘What would Johnny’s life be like there? Would he be struggling the entire time? Would he find a network of friends with the same interests as him?  Is Yale going to help Johnny grow his confidence or beat him up?’”

“In the end, Johnny, may graduate with a degree from Yale. But in my mind, his college experience was a total failure,” Surtshin says.

Now, take Jessica. In high school Jessica was also an average student, who didn’t test well and hadn’t yet found herself. Jessica chose to start out at a community college, where she learned better study habits, upped her GPA, and increased her self-esteem. She then transferred to a state school, where she joined a number of clubs. She had a great relationship with her teachers—who were not Nobel Laureates, but who had the time and desire to engage with the students. Jessica graduated with honors and is now flourishing in a career in the sciences.

“Everybody has their own path,” says Ana Mantica, a college counselor from Miami, Florida who counseled Jessica and her family. “Everyone has their own way of learning and blossoming. College is not a one-size-fits-all experience.”

Instead of relying solely on rankings, parents should look at a school’s other traits: size, teacher-student ratio, location, and college cost.

The Average Student Has Many Paths To Higher Education

“For most students, the most important future measure of success is not the ranking of the school they attended. It’s how well they took advantage of the opportunities and the resources available to them while they were there,” Surtshein says.

It is these networks and soft skills that open doors later on. “It’s so much easier to develop these relationships and grow as a person and student when you are in an environment you feel comfortable in,” Mantica adds.

That’s something Diane’s son has experienced firsthand. As a freshman at Ohio University, he’s thriving, says Diane. He’s joined a fraternity, found a major that interests him and is enjoying his classes. Instead of getting “caught up in labels,” Diane and her son concentrated on finding the school that would best fit his personality and academic credentials.

“When I talk to him on the phone, I picture Max [from Where the Wild Things Are] sitting on the back of the beast with a crown,” Diane laughs. “He is just so happy.”

And for a parent, there is no greater success than that.

Rebecca Meiser

Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and frequent contributor to Your Teen.