Understand What's a Good SAT Score for College Admissions

Josh Moody
·7 min read

When it comes to determining a good SAT score for college applications, the answer depends on a student's ambitions.

The SAT, an admissions exam many colleges and universities require of applicants, is administered by the College Board and scores students on a scale of 200 to 800 for various sections. Students are tested on evidence-based reading and writing, and math, with both sections worth a maximum score of 800 each. The essay portion is optional.

With such a wide potential score range -- the lowest combined score someone can receive is 400 and the highest is 1600 -- admissions experts encourage prospective students to understand what colleges consider a good SAT score.

"It kind of depends on your background," says Michele Hernandez, co-founder and co-president of Top Tier Admissions, which helps prospective college students around the globe with test preparation. Admissions teams, she says, "factor a socioeconomic kind of calculation in their head."

The SAT score expectations might be higher, for example, for a privileged white high schooler than a teen from inner-city Harlem, says Hernandez, who previously worked in admissions at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

In a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic -- which prompted multiple cancellations of SAT test dates -- a good score may be harder to determine. Thousands of students were unable to test, and results from the College Board showed that nationally the average test score for the class of 2020 was 1051, down eight points compared with the class of 2019.

A Good SAT Score for College Admissions

The definition of a good score is ultimately tied to a prospective college student's goals.

"It depends on where the student wants to attend," says Ann Dolin, founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring, which primarily serves students in the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia.

At some schools, such as the highly selective University of Chicago, incoming freshmen who choose to submit scores may average an SAT score that's higher than 1500, while other institutions, such as the University of Oregon, may have an average SAT score closer to 1200 for incoming freshmen.

For Shahar Link, however, one score range is golden. "A 1500 or above pretty much opens the door to any school in the country," says the founder of North Carolina-based Mindspire Tutoring and Test Prep.

Ivy League schools and other top universities, such as Stanford University in California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also prefer high scores, U.S. News data shows.

Here's a look at the combined 25th and 75th SAT percentiles in math and reading for newly enrolled students in fall 2019 at the top National Universities, as ranked by U.S. News.

School Name (State)

25th Percentile SAT Score

75th Percentile SAT Score

Fall 2019 Acceptance Rate

U.S. News Rank

Princeton University (NJ)

1460

1570

6%

1

Harvard University (MA)

1460

1570

5%

2

Columbia University (NY)

1450

1570

5%

3

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1510

1570

7%

4 (tie)

Yale University (CT)

1460

1570

6%

4 (tie)

Stanford University CA)

1440

1570

4%

6 (tie)

University of Chicago

1500

1570

6%

6 (tie)

University of Pennsylvania

1450

1560

8%

8

California Institute of Technology

1530

1560

6%

9 (tie)

Johns Hopkins University (MD)

1470

1570

10%

9 (tie)

Northwestern University (IL)

1440

1550

9%

9 (tie)

A high test score alone won't necessarily guarantee college admissions, though. Most schools also weigh applicants' letters of recommendations, transcripts and admissions essays, among other factors. That's especially true this year with many colleges shifting to test-optional admissions policies.

If a student fares poorly on the SAT, he or she may not want to submit scores. But it depends on the college.

"What we've been sharing with our students is to dive into each school's website and determine the mid-50th percentile of last year's incoming freshman class, and what that range is," Dolin says.

That may mean submitting scores to one college but not another, depending on a school's reporting requirements.

"If you do get above that 50th percentile, you have a leg up, because you're now competing against more students who are not going to be submitting a score at all," Link adds.

But students shouldn't expect selective schools to lower their standards in the absence of SAT or other standardized test scores. Colleges will look to other parts of the application, emphasizing transcripts and rigor of curriculum, experts say.

"Harvard's not going to magically admit underqualified kids who don't seem to have the chops," Hernandez says.

SAT Percentiles

A score in the 50th percentile means a student scored equal to or higher than 50% of his or her peers. In short, the higher the percentile rank the better.

The table below shows a breakdown of SAT composite scores by percentile based on exam results, per the most recent College Board data. It shows nationally representative sample percentiles, which are derived from a study of juniors and seniors and are weighted to represent all U.S. students in those grades regardless of whether they took the test.

SAT score

Percentile

1600-1520

99+

1510-1290

99-90

1280-1190

89-80

1180-1120

78-70

1110-1060

69-60

1050-1010

58-50

1000-960

48-40

950-910

38-31

900-840

29-20

830-780

18-11

770-630

10-1

620-400

1-

Recommendations to Improve Your SAT Score

Studying for a concerted amount of time can often help improve a score, experts say. "We see that kids set aside at least three months," Dolin says. Though she notes that in the absence of testing due to cancellations, students may be better served by focusing their time on writing top-notch admissions essays.

Applicants can study independently using test preparation books or take a class, but individualized study plans can also help boost a score.

Chris Lele, senior GRE/SAT curriculum manager for California-based test prep company Magoosh, says students should try to diagnose why they are answering questions incorrectly and adds that it is "normal and expected" to take the test more than once.

[Read: 3 Questions to Help Decide Whether to Retake the ACT, SAT.]

"You essentially have to go back and look at the questions you're missing and try to understand why you're missing them. And that's actually a very difficult skill to have, especially if you're a below average test-taker already struggling," Lele says. "That insight might not come as readily. That's why oftentimes it is great to sit down one-on-one with a tutor, or even if you're taking an SAT class, meet with a teacher for five minutes after class to get a sense of what you're doing."

He also encourages students to pay attention to their stress levels: "A lot of it comes down to managing your test anxiety."

Link encourages applicants to have reasonable expectations while striving for a good score. It's nearly impossible to go from a combined SAT score of 1000 to 1500, but a 150 or 200 point jump can happen with lots of hard work.

"To a kid who starts at, let's say, 1000, and works their butt off for three months and gets up to a 1200, a 1200 is a great score," Link says.

[Read: 3 Things to Know About SAT Score Reports.]

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 1,665 accredited four-year colleges and universities now have test-optional policies. Many colleges went test-optional in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some will remain temporarily test-optional, launching pilot programs to determine whether to make the move permanent.

So how much does an SAT score really matter in the sudden proliferation of test-optional policies?

"I think it depends on the school," Lele says. "Some schools have a strong tradition of valuing the SAT and that won't be tempered much by the pandemic, whereas others will place significantly less emphasis on that part of the application."

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.