Understand What's a Good SAT Score for College Admissions

Delece Smith-Barrow, Josh Moody

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. The new SAT was released in March 2016 and tests students 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 on the admissions team at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

[Read: Colleges Drop SAT, ACT Essay: What Students Should Know.]

A Good SAT Score for College Admissions

The definition of a good score is also 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 Brown University in Rhode Island, incoming freshmen may average an SAT score that's higher than 1400, while other institutions, such as Texas Christian University, may have an average SAT score that's closer to 1200 for incoming freshmen.

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

Ivy League schools and other top universities, such as Stanford University in California, the University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also prefer high scores, Hernandez says; she adds that students accepted into those schools score upward of 700 on each section of the SAT on average. According to College Board data, only 7 percent of test-takers scored 1400 or higher in the 2017-2018 school year.

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.

SAT Percentiles

According to the College Board, the average SAT score was 1068 for test-takers in the 2017-2018 school year. One way that students can determine where their SAT score falls is to look at their percentile rank. For those using this measure, the College Board describes percentile as "the percentage of students whose score is equal to or lower than their score."

For students who score in the 75th percentile, that means they scored equal to or higher than 75 percent of their 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 from the graduating class of 2017.

SAT score Percentile
1600-1550 99+
1540-1340 99-90
1330-1240 89-80
1230-1170 79-70
1160-1110 68-60
1100-1060 58-51
1050-1010 49-41
1000-950 39-31
940-880 29-20
870-810 18-11
800-640 10-1
630-400 1-

SAT Study Strategies

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.

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

"If you can, get a tutor," says Rachel Altman, who went on to study at Tulane University in New Orleans after taking both the SAT and ACT, another college admissions test. Studying alone can get boring, she says, and a tutor can help you focus.

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

Chris Lele, senior GRE/SAT curriculum manager for California-based test prep company Magoosh, says that 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.

"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. 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," Lele says.

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 1,000 schools, including hundreds of ranked four-year colleges, have implemented test-optional policies, a growing trend in college admissions. But before college-bound students think about skipping the SAT or ACT, Lele advises them to reconsider. While some colleges have moved away from the SAT or ACT, he notes the majority have not.

"What we see right now in the market shows that the test is still going to be relevant. I think it would have to take many, many institutions (opting out) to no longer make the test required," Lele says. "It definitely does not signal the end of the SAT's relevance."

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