The 21st century SAT can be a real conundrum: the grading scales have changed multiple times. The topics tested have evolved. The names of the test sections themselves are different. How–and even if–colleges use your scores has changed.
If you’re asking yourself, “What is a good SAT score, anyway?” you’re probably not alone.
To identify a good SAT score, you’ll need to understand:
- how the SAT is scored now,
- how your scores stack up against those of other students around the world,
- and whether your scores are strong enough to get you into the colleges you’ll be applying to.
- Finally, you’ll want to have peace of mind, the confidence that your SAT score is a good, strong reflection of you as a student no matter what anyone else’s score is.
First, the best SAT score you can earn has recently changed–again. For decades, a perfect SAT score was a 1600. Later, the College Board added an essay section. Next, between 2005 and 2016, the top score grew to a 2400 with the addition of a full-fledged Writing section.
Finally, in 2016, the SAT was revised yet again, this time scaled back to the original 1600 perfect score and an optional, improved essay section.
As of this writing, possible SAT scaled section scores are
- Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section: 200 to 800 points
- Math Section: 200 to 800 points
- Essay (optional): three subscores each ranging from 2 to 8
Check out my article all about the SAT essay to learn more about how to write it and understand its subscoring. In this article we’re going to focus on the scaled scores of the two required SAT sections, “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” and “Math.”
Now that you know the SAT scoring scale, let’s look at three completely different but equally valid ways to define what a good SAT score is.
What is a Good SAT Score Compared to Other Test Takers?
The SAT is scored by translating your raw score–the actual number of questions you answer correctly on the test–into a scaled score. It’s important to note that as of 2016 the SAT no longer penalizes you for incorrect answers, so be sure to answer every question on the test to earn the highest possible raw score you can.
The SAT is always scaled so that a score of, say, 620 on a section shows comparable performance across any given group of students who earned that 620 regardless of which SAT test those students took. While that 620 may not represent the exact same number of correct answers on a section–although sometimes it does–a 620 does create a cross-reference of sorts that rates your performance on the SAT compared to other college applicants.
The College Board makes it clear that its margin of error on any particular section is +/- 30 points; you really are supposed to think of your scaled score as indicative of achieving a range of possible performance.
Baseline Good SAT Score: Meeting the Benchmark
While many people are quick to argue that the SAT really only shows how good students are at taking the SAT, as it doesn’t have a strong track record of predicting college success, the College Board has established what it calls benchmarks to rectify that.
These benchmarks will be noted on your SAT score report as a check mark which indicates college or career “readiness,” or likely preparedness to take on college work. These benchmarks are the most basic indicators of a good SAT score for the average student. The benchmarks show you that, compared with the rest of the students at your grade level, you’re at least on track to start and be successful in a college program somewhere.
Right now the SAT benchmarks are a 480 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and 530 on math.
But what do those benchmarks mean?
Defining a Good SAT Score by Your Scaled Score’s Percentile Rank
The College Board releases two lists of percentile rankings for each scaled score. On one list you can compare your score to the percentile of all high school students, whether or not they took the SAT, and the other shows your score compared only with other test takers, “SAT Users.” Naturally, the percentile ranking for test takers is more competitive, as many students who intend to further their education beyond high school take the SAT, while those who plan to work right after high school don’t usually take tests for college admission.
Those benchmarks we mentioned earlier are fairly low in the percentile rankings, even on the SAT User list: an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score of 430 ranks in the 31st percentile of SAT Users and a Math score of 530 is in the 53rd percentile.
To be clear: if you’re applying to a competitive college, the benchmarks are irrelevant to you.
You can see a full list of the most recent percentile rankings of SAT scores here, but here’s a sampling of some scores to help you understand if your SAT score is a good score for your needs:
|SCHOOL||AVG MATH SCORE||AVG ERW (READING) SCORE|
|University of Michigan||670-770||640-730|
Now that you have an idea of where your SAT score stacks up against other students, you have to understand what your SAT score means for your chances of admission.
What Is a Good SAT score at the Colleges You’re Applying To?
You’ll notice that the benchmarks for readiness we just discussed are fairly low in the percentile rankings.
But even higher scores in the percentile rankings require closer examination when you’re in the process of applying to college.
I recently had a student receive a 1330 after her first time taking the SAT. This was a good SAT score from an objective standpoint, as the 89th percentile showed she had nearly made it into the top ten percent of test takers, but it was not a good SAT score from a competitive standpoint and in light of her personal goals.
Here’s why this student’s score is not a good SAT for her: Her top-performing classmates often scored well into the high 1400s, and she was interested in getting into a college that will put her on a path to a competitive medical school. Some of those schools require SAT scores in the 97th percentile or higher.
Admissions committees are likely to be familiar with the high school this student attends, and they’ll receive information from her guidance counselor about how she compares with her peers. Not only that, her GPA is high and she’s in advanced classes, so the expectation is that her SAT score should be commensurate with her outstanding performance in school.
Another student in this student’s situation may realize he needs a higher score in order to qualify for the sorts of merit scholarships offered by many college and universities.
In other words, a good SAT score on one scale can be a weak SAT score depending on where you’re applying to college and what that school’s average SAT scores are.
Finding and Understanding College SAT Score Range
Most of the time the first thing a student does when he is considering applying to a particular college is to hop on the internet and search for the average GPA and test scores for that school. Those score ranges can feel awfully inclusive: many schools show a range of 90 to 100 points for each section.
You can usually find a school’s typical test score range through any search engine. Alternatively, you can get good data from a Naviance account, which many high schools offer through their guidance counseling offices.
There are some key things many people don’t realize about those score ranges that will directly influence what a good SAT score is for applying to any particular school:
- The people who fall into the lowest quartile of accepted SAT scores are usually extremely special cases. They include the children of major donors, students with exceptional family legacy, and other students, like recruited athletes, who bring obvious special value to the college. Don’t just look at that bottom number and think, “No problem! I’m in!”
- An accepted student’s GPA is not released along with her SAT score, so you can’t presume that your particular combination of grades and scores make you a shoe-in, even if you’re within the range.
- Even a perfect SAT score is not a guarantee that you’ll get into any university you choose. In today’s competitive atmosphere it seems that some people believe that growing from the 99.2 to the 99.4 percentile gives them a genuine admissions advantage, and that’s just not true. That sort of parsing is much more about interpersonal competition and ego.
Especially now, it’s most important to remember that colleges accept people, not scores, and it’s your presentation of yourself as a highly unique person that will most affect the likelihood of your acceptance at a competitive institution–provided you have scores within range.
This is why the next way to define what a good SAT score is may be the most important of all.
What is a Good SAT Score In the Context of Your Ability and Resources?
I always say that the most peace of mind you can have about whether your SAT score is a “good” SAT score is whether or not you feel that your score reflects your best work given the resources that you have available to you.
It should give you both great peace of mind and motivate you to know that colleges usually look at your SAT score through the lens of your own ability and resources in addition to making sure you are within the typical score range of their student body.
In short, colleges want to see that you did your best work. Here are some questions to ask yourself to sort out whether your SAT score is a good SAT score for you.
- Did you make time to prep for the SAT and study for it seriously? Did your studying show improvement?
- If your school offered a prep class, did you take it?
- If you are usually very good at math but initially struggled with the test, did you take the time to learn (or re-learn) skills you may have been rusty on?
- Was your test day experience calm? Were you well-rested, fed, and focused?
- In some ways, a good score is still a reflection of access, and your score will be seen as a product of the school you attended and the performance of other students in your class.
- Did you take advantage of financial resources if you have them? It’s a big if, but colleges expect you to invest your resources in preparation. If you can’t afford it, no one expects you to have spent a dime, but you should make sure you maximize your efforts nonetheless.
All in all, once you’re accepted at college, your SAT scores won’t matter–except to you. Prepare for the SAT knowing that the most important thing, in the long run, is being sure you know that you made your best effort and did your best work.