The SAT is a crucial part of the college application process for both national and international students alike. If you're to have any success at getting into your target schools, you'll want to make sure your scores are as good as possible. But what is a “good” SAT score exactly? There's such a broad range of scores and each school can have such different criteria.
This post will cover exactly what a good SAT score is, how to find out your target school's ideal SAT score, and how to improve your own score!
*Before reading though, be sure to check if the school you want to get into actually requires the SAT. Since COVID-19, not all colleges require SAT testing, so just make sure you're not wasting your time. Also, be sure to make the distinction between the SAT and PSAT (they are NOT the same test).
Ready to learn more about America's largest standardized test and also put yourself in a better spot for university applications? Let's dive right in.
What is a Good SAT Score: The Stats
Before determining what a “good” score is, it's important to review some of the stats. Luckily, because the SAT is such a standardized test, there are tons of data publicly available to pull from. One such source of data is College Board.
In 2020, College Board (the organization that administers the SAT) compiled all the scores of students and test takers that year and broke them down into percentiles. Here's what it looks like:
Google defines a percentile as: “each of the 99 intermediate values of a random variable that divide a frequency distribution into 100 groups.”
Really though, percentiles are just rankings. The lower the percentile number, the higher you are ranked. For example, if you are in the 10th percentile of golfers in the world, that means that 90% of golfers are worse than you and 10% are better. If you are in the 90th percentile, the opposite is true (90% are BETTER than you and 10% are worse).
Using actual SAT scores as an example, let's say you hire an SAT tutor, do lots of practice exams, and score a 1380 SAT score! You would be in the 97th percentile nationally (USA). What this means is that you had a higher score than 97% of American kids who took the test. Only 3% managed to beat you.
Let's take a look at a few different data points, benchmarks, and score ranges for the 2020 new SAT scores:
- 25th Percentile: 870 – 880
- 50th Percentile: 1010
- 75th Percentile: 1150-1160
All SAT Takers
- 25th Percentile: 900
- 50th Percentile: 1050
- 75th Percentile: 1200-1210
This means that an “average” SAT score would sit around 1010-1050. This works out to be around a 500-530 on the math section and a 500-530 on the reading and writing section to form the composite score of 1010-1050. An “above average” score would be around 1150-1210. And a “below average” score would be anything below 900. The actual raw score that you need to achieve on the SAT will differ based on the difficulty of it and how it's curved.
Your Target School's SAT Score
Even though the above section shows the percentile breakdown of scores, none of that really matters when it comes to your college application. What's more important is how your own score stacks up compared to others applying to your target school. To find out, you'll need to know what your target school's ideal SAT score is.
To find this out, just google the school you want to go to + SAT scores. So if you want to go to Penn State, google “Penn State SAT Scores”. Google should give you an answer as to what kind of SAT scores get accepted at Penn State.
Out of this range, you should generally aim for the higher end. In the case of Penn State, that would be 640 on the writing and reading test and 670 on the math test, which works out to a total score of 1310. This is the score you should be shooting for if you're looking to get into Penn State. Consequently, if Penn State is your dream school, anything above this number is a good score for you.
Here are some “good scores” for various schools that you may know about:
- Harvard: 1570
- NYU: 1530
- Stanford: 1570
- UC Berkeley: 1530
- The University of Texas At Austin: 1480
- Princeton: 1570
- Northeastern: 1540
- University of California, Santa Barbara: 1480
- Yale: 1570
SAT Scores Matter, But…
It's true that colleges and universities look at SAT scores to determine whether to admit students, but other stuff matters too. Most top schools and Ivy League schools in the USA take a holistic approach when admitting students. What this means is that college admissions will view each candidate as a WHOLE and not just their standardized test scores.
Even if your SAT score ends up falling below the “ideal” for your target schools, you can still make up for it in many ways. Here are some of them:
- Class Rank – how did your grade point average (GPA) stack up compared to others in your high school? This will give college-admissions officers a better idea of the environment you were in and your relative performance.
- Other Test Scores – this includes your ACT score / ACT scores, SAT subject test score(s), and AP exams
- Essays and Short Answers – this isn't your SAT essay, but rather the essays and short responses you write for your college application. This is where you can let your voice shine through and really show admissions officers who you are.
- Extracurricular Activities – what did you do outside of school? Were you a part of a team or maybe a club? Did you do any interesting art? All of these could help you get into the school of your dreams.
- Coursework Rigor and Trends – how hard did you push yourself in high school? Someone with straight As taking easy classes versus straight As taking hard classes are going to be viewed differently. Also, did your academic performance get better or worse with time? This stuff matters a lot to colleges looking to admit future students and is reflected on your transcript.
- Letter of Recommendation: usually written by your educators and counsellor, these letters show colleges who you really are beyond your standardized tests.
How to Increase Your SAT Score
Let's say you score 1020 on the SAT but want to go to Virginia Tech. You do a quick google search and realize that your ideal SAT score is around 1400. If you're in your junior year, it might be time to adjust your list of target schools (or bolster your other application areas). If, on the other hand, you are a freshman or sophomore, you might be thinking “how can I increase my SAT score?”
Personally, I scored 1440 the first time I took the SAT, then went back and studied for a year and retook the test. The second time around I managed to score 1560 and have since helped tutor a few other kids for the SAT. Here are the tips and tricks I have found work the best for improving SAT scores.
- Read a LOT of smart stuff – on my first SAT, the critical reading section destroyed me. To prepare for the reading passages on the second time around, I spent lots of time reading “smart stuff”. This included articles from the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the New York Review of Books. Doing this helped me get a high score in the evidence-based reading section and signficantly boosted my SAT score.
- Learn the rules – for most native English speakers, the grammar section is a whole bunch of estimated multiple choice guessing. They “feel” out the answers and most of the time are correct… but to really improve your SAT score you'll want to learn the actual grammar rules that back your intuition. This applies to SAT math too! Higher scores can be achieved if you learn the basic geometry and algebra rules that govern your “feel” of the answer.
- Do TONS of SAT practice tests – no matter how many questions you do, you'll never know the feeling of the SAT test until you actually take one. The best way to prepare for this is by doing a practice test. Try to simulate the environment as best as possible: wake up early, don't pause in between sections, and don't cheat!
Do these 3 tips and you'll be sure to improve your SAT score the next time you take it. Also, if you're really serious about improving your score, consider SAT tutoring and prep. It's better to learn from someone who's “been there, done that” than to try and do test-prep all by yourself.
Recap: What is a Good SAT Score
The SAT is an important part of the college application process (especially if you're gunning for more selective colleges / competitive schools). It's natural to want to know what a good SAT score is. This post has hopefully answered your questions. As a quick recap:
- A perfect score on the SAT is 1600 (the highest score you can get).
- Scoring around 1000-1100 will put you around the 50th percentile ranking (aka this is around the “average SAT score”).
- A “good” SAT score will depend on where you're trying to apply to selective schools, whether you've had adequate prep time, and whether you're from the United States.
- You can make up for lower scores by doing a number of things (most notably excelling in your extracurriculars).
- Increasing the number of questions you get right on the SAT is not easy but completely doable if you have a good study plan and stick with it.
So there you have it: everything you need to know about what is a good SAT score. By now you should know exactly what the percentile breakdown is for the SAT, what a good score for you is, and how to improve your score. You have all the tools you need to successfully retake the SAT and get the SAT results you want (or get your goal score on the first try).
At this point in time, it's up to YOU to up your readiness and start improving your test-taking abilities today. So what are you waiting for? I promise that that you'll thank yourself in the future after all the hard work has paid off.
Jeff is a current Harvard student and author of the blog Financial Pupil who is passionate about learning, living, and sharing all things personal finance-related. He has experience working in the financial industry and enjoys the pursuit of financial freedom. Outside of blogging, he loves to cook, read, and golf in his spare time.