As students begin to think about taking the SAT, they may be left wondering what exactly they’re aiming for. Sure, most students would like a high or an average SAT score, but what exactly does this mean? In a traditional high school setting, an average score would likely be somewhere in the 70%-80% range—but what constitutes average when we’re talking about SAT scores?
Interpreting the SAT score report
Unfortunately, an SAT score report is not as simple as reading your average report card. You’ve got to know what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at. First, it’s important to recognize that SAT scores represent a range of scores you might receive if you were to take the test multiple times. Colleges recognize that most students (in certain sections) may score around 40 points above or below their true ability, though a range is typically an adequate predictor of college readiness.
There will be a raw score, which represents the number of questions answered correctly, which will then be converted to a score on a scale between 200 and 800 and will be adjusted for differences in versions of the test. Your score report will show college readiness benchmarks and how you compare with other students.
You’ll know your average SAT score, too—that is, the score earned by other test-takers in the United States in your grade level. This score, unless you score significantly lower than others in your grade, is nothing to worry about. SAT test-takers also receive a percentile between one and 99 that reflects the percentage of students who are equal to or below the score you received. Even this percentage is divided into two categories, the first, which compares your performance to all U.S. students in a particular grade level (even those who don’t typically take the test), and the second, which shows your score in comparison to only some U.S. students (only those who do typically take the test) in your grade.
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National average SAT score
According to the College Board, 1.7 million students from the class of 2015 took the SAT. The average score for Critical Reading was 495, 511 for Mathematics, and 484 for Writing. Together, these numbers mean the total average score was 1490. These numbers reflect an older version of the SAT test, as no numbers are yet available for the average SAT score for the new test.
But SAT scores are about more than national averages—test-takers will need to score well for the specific schools in which they’re interested. You’ll instead be looking at the average score of students attending a school to which you will apply.
Why colleges are using SAT scores
While it may seem unfair to use your SAT score as a significant indicator of college success, some studies have proven that it is a very effective marker. A study at the Michigan State University correlated SAT scores with cumulative GPAs after four years and could fairly accurately predict whether or not students would graduate. So, while students can have a bad test (there’s always the option to retake it), high scores tend to indicate good students—and that’s what colleges are after.
Determining your personal SAT score goal
Given that the average SAT score you need can vary depending upon your goals, it is important to be able to tell what you’re aiming for. You can help narrow down your schools versus your scores in a few ways, beginning with the school and researching average scores for the last few years and comparing yourself or working backwards from your score.
To do this, try using a range of tools (this one is very useful) to match you with a school. Such tools can allow you to enter a region, school size, average SAT score, selectivity, and public or private distinction, and then provide you with a list of schools that meet your criteria. This is a great option if you’re still considering which schools to apply to, scored higher or lower than you anticipated, or are taking the SAT with enough time to retake as necessary.
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Average SAT scores at sample schools
If you’re early in the process of looking at schools and thinking about potential SAT scores, it may be useful to have a general idea about average SAT scores in particular locations. While there are too many schools to list, the following is meant to provide a sample of types of schools available and the kinds of SAT scores they’re seeing (based on the old SAT test).
The College of Idaho, a private liberal arts school in Caldwell, Idaho, has an average admitted student score of 480-600 in Math and 470-630 in Reading.
Colorado State University, a public research university in Fort Collins, has an average admitted student score of 520-640 in Math and 500-620 in Reading.
Duke University, a private research university in Durham, North Carolina with an acceptance rate around 11%, has an average admitted student score of 690-790 in Math and 670-760 in Reading.
Harvard University, a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts with an acceptance rate right around 6%, has an average admitted student score around 710-790 for Math and 700-800 for Reading.
Many schools have ranges that fall somewhere between 500 and 600 for Math and 500 and 600 for Reading. Of course, there are still other schools that do not require an SAT or ACT score or have no minimum requirements. You’ll want to investigate your particular schools before making any significant decisions or preparations.
A closer look at the Math score
If you want to figure out your raw score in Math, you’ll need the total number of questions you correctly answered. There are two sections—Calculator and No Calculator. There are 38 possible points in the Calculator section and 20 in the No Calculator. You receive no penalty for blank or incorrect answers and your top achievable score is 58.
Congratulations! You’ve got your raw score, and now you’ll simply need to consult a conversion table (available via the College Board’s website) to find out your total score. If you’re working from a practice test available from somewhere other than the College Board, you can consult tables to get an approximate score.
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A closer look at the Reading and Writing score
Again, you’ll want to begin by finding your raw score, which is the total number of questions you answered correctly. The highest score possible is a 52. Then, you’ll need your raw score for the Writing section, to which the same rules apply. The highest score is 44.
Instead of adding your raw scores together, you’ll now consult the conversion table to get the scaled scores for both Reading and Writing. Add them together and then multiply by 10, which will give you your final score. To get a composite score, add both your Math score and your Reading/Writing score.
And then there are the subscores
As part of the official SAT changes in the redesign, you’re now dealing with subscores. Two will look at your abilities in other sections (History/Social Studies and Science) and seven others will look at the details of the Math and Reading/Writing sections.
The College Board offers the type of detailed answer keys that you’ll need to figure in your cross-test scores, so those are the practice tests you’ll need to take if you want to figure these out. To determine your scores, look at a conversion table for cross-test scores to categorize questions and calculate your score. Be prepared to spend some time on this, as you’ll have to count questions in different sections.
For the subscores that are subject-specific (Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, Words in Context, and Command of Evidence), you’ll use the same process as described above. Because there are seven categories, this can require much more time, though it does provide information about your possible areas for improvement.
Scoring the SAT Essay
The new SAT does not combine the Essay score with the final composite score, so there is no need to calculate it to find out how you did on the other part of the test. Instead, the SAT Essay is scored between a two and an eight—a score for Reading, a score for Analysis, and a score for Writing.
To do well on the Reading portion, you’ll need to demonstrate that you can read and comprehend the passage given to you. Your Analysis points will come from analyzing the passage as it relates to the prompt and presenting a good argument. Finally, the Writing section will reward you with points for constructing a response that is grammatically correct, logical, etc.
Two people will read your essay and each provide scores ranging from one to four for each portion. The two scores are added together for each portion to form a composite essay score for each of those three sections (Reading, Analysis, and Writing), which is figured differently from numbers typically given as your average SAT score.
Preparing to earn a certain score
The most important part of aiming for a certain score is to equate your overall raw score with the number of questions you need to get correct. This gives you a measurable goal to work toward and a way of thinking about your score as high, medium, or low. If you’re stronger in Reading/Writing than Math, you may choose to aim for a higher score in that area, allowing a lower score in Math, but still an overall score that you need. It is important to play to your strengths.
You may even further divide the sections according to your strengths and weaknesses. For example, you may be an expert reader but struggle a bit with grammar, meaning you’ll want to place more emphasis on the Reading portion of the exam than the Writing portion (while still reviewing the rules of writing).
Let the number of correct answers that you determine you need help dictate your approach to each section, using your time wisely.
Where to focus your time
It can be difficult to know where your time is best spent, so take some time to come up with a study plan that will work for you. Your first step will be to determine how much time you have available to you and where you’re aiming. Are you working toward an average SAT score with a year to go? Do you hope to score in the top 10% with three months of study time? Knowing the answers to these questions (with some consideration given to what is actually feasible) will give you a good place to begin your prep.
As for time spent on the actual test, there are other things to consider. First, always make a guess if there’s an answer you don’t know on the test. You aren’t penalized for wrong answers, and there’s a chance you’ll be right. Don’t spend a lot of time on these kinds of questions, but pick an educated guess and move on.
You’ll want to spend some time on the essay, though it isn’t the most important part of the SAT. While a high score on the composite is more valuable, you should still aim to do very well on the essay. A lot of colleges look at these to get a general feel for your ability to write, so brush up on your reading comprehension and grammar and you’ll be fine.
Math may not come as naturally to some students, but this means it can be a significant distinguisher if you perform well on its section. If you’re looking for more than an average SAT score, excelling in math could certainly help you stand out and get it.
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Establishing a study routine
So, now that you know what sort of score you’re aiming for, where you might focus your time, and how you’ll score your practice tests, you’re ready to undertake the grand task of getting an above average SAT score. Where do you even begin?
One of the most important parts of establishing a study routine will be to identify a dedicated study space. Having a go-to location can help prepare your brain for the study and testing by freeing it of other distractions. Ideally, your SAT study space will be for studying only—no double duty. It should be well stocked with everything you need to study, including practice tests, writing utensils, calculators, paper, and a timer (you may also want to download the free Varsity Tutors SAT Prep Book). It should also be comfortable and maintain the level of noise that is most conducive to your studying.
Next, you’ll want to think carefully about how long you should study for the SAT. Think about when your test date is and also how much time you’ll realistically be able to spend studying with all of your other obligations. Finally, identify areas where you need the most practice and those with which you are most comfortable. Initially, you may feel overwhelmed by what you don’t know—but you’re probably doing a lot better than you think.
To avoid feeling bogged down in the enormity of the SAT, try dividing your prep into smaller, more manageable tasks. Familiarize yourself with the structure of the test (as described above) so you know exactly what’s in store. Work on comprehending math formulas that will undoubtedly be used on the test by using flashcards and repetition. Begin reading material on areas you may be weaker in—this will strengthen your knowledge of a subject and increase your reading, grammar, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. Use a variety of SAT resources to study, including SAT flashcards, videos, outlines, podcasts, and so on. Cater to your learning style and don’t be afraid to try some new things out.
You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with your calculator, taking care not to switch calculators in close proximity to your test date. Because you’ll be timed, knowing how to use all the features on your calculator quickly might be one of the things that helps separate you from the average SAT scores. Use every minute to your advantage!
As discussed earlier, you won’t need to spend all of your time on the essay portion of the SAT, but you will want to practice a few times. You’ll need to plan, write, and edit an essay in a short amount of time, which takes some serious skill. Look at past prompts and practice prompts, and see where you might be struggling. Meet with a teacher or an SAT tutor and have him or her review your response with you to determine where you are weakest. Perhaps you are struggling with organization and need to pay closer attention to the way paragraphs fall. Maybe your spelling is poor or your sentences don’t flow—whatever the problem, practice will ensure that your score doesn’t suffer.
Finally, practice, practice, practice! The best tool you have at your disposal, and the one that will earn you a higher than average SAT score, is the many SAT practice tests available to you. Aim for a practice test at least every two weeks, and take them as though you’re taking the real thing. Use a timer, take the test uninterrupted, and figure out how you’ll pace yourself. This will help with test timing, but will also give you a better idea of where you could use additional study time.
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Dealing with a below or an above average SAT score
Going into your SAT test day, you’ll likely have some idea of where you’ll score. Perhaps you’re only aiming for an average SAT score and you end up in the top 10%. Perhaps you’re aiming high and end up falling below average because you become sick on test day. Either way, things can change, but you’ve got options.
If you’ve consistently taken SAT practice tests and know your scores and find that your actual test is at least 100 points lower, you should consider retaking the test, assuming you’ve allotted yourself enough time. There are a number of benefits to testing multiple times, including a general increase in score. In this event, let the first test act as another practice and you’ll feel more confident going into the second SAT—your score will likely reflect it.
If you’re lucky enough to have really out-performed your expectations on the SAT, you may want to reconsider your college choices. Maybe you were aiming low because of a lack of confidence, denying yourself the opportunity to challenge yourself at the school of your dreams. If this is the case, and again, if you’ve allowed yourself enough time—now is your chance to revisit all college options and make decisions according to your official scores. Keep an open mind and explore new opportunities that may be available to you.
Remember that an SAT score, while important, is not the only deciding factor for college admissions departments. Adequately prepare for the test, but don’t allow yourself to wallow in despair if you’re still not getting the results that you want. Either way, make yourself a competitive candidate by maintaining a high GPA, taking challenging classes, and involving yourself in relevant extracurricular activities. Part of transitioning into the adult world is learning to pursue new and exciting opportunities, even when things don’t go as expected. As a student, you’re in a great position to be flexible—embrace your score, whether it is what you expected or not.
By arming yourself with test-taking knowledge, subject-specific information, and confidence, you’ll be well on your way to exceeding that average SAT score. Happy studying!