SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Can You Fail the SAT?

 

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The SAT is a pretty high-stakes test - it’s an important part of your college applications, which could mean trouble if you get a low score. But can you fail the SAT altogether?

The good news is that officially, it’s impossible to fail the SAT - but that doesn’t mean that a low score doesn't mean bad news. Here, I’ll review everything you need to know about why you can’t really fail the SAT, but why poor marks may as well count as failing.

Worried about your score? At the end, I’ll go over the steps you should take to pull them up.  

 

Failing the SAT: The Official Answer

Before I go into the official answer on whether you can fail the SAT, I’d like to review some important background information on how the test is scored.

The SAT is currently scored out of 1600 total points. The lowest score you can get on the SAT is 400. This scoring system isn’t necessarily intuitive, so to give you an idea of what the score distribution looks like:

  • The average test score is 1000.
  • The top 25% of scorers  get 1200 points or higher, which is generally considered very good.
  • The bottom 25% of scorers get 840 points or lower, which is generally considered poor.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I want to reiterate that it’s impossible to officially fail the SAT. There are no letter grades or cutoff scores, only your scaled score (the number you receive out of 1600) and your percentile score (the number that tells you how well you’ve done when compared to other test-takers. A percentile score of 60, for example, would tell you that you scored higher than 60% of test-takers).

Because we can link scaled scores with percentile scores, we can tell how well a particular student did on the SAT. Even though there is no official failing cutoff, it’s still possible to get a score that will hurt your college applications.

This brings me a more pragmatic response as to whether it’s possible to fail the SAT…

 

Failing the SAT: The Unofficial (and More Helpful) Answer

The whole point of preparing for and taking the SAT (perhaps several times) is to make sure you’ll get into a college you’d like to attend. There is no official passing or failing grade on the SAT, but there are certain score benchmarks that are considered low.

How you'd define a low score is really dependent on your perspective - do you want to know what's low based on national performance, or do you want a more nuanced look at scores based on your personal goals? In the next sections, I'll show you how you can do both. 

 

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It's helpful to start with a wide perspective, and then focus in on what's most relevant for you. 

 

Low Score Based on National Performance

First, we’ll take a more general view: what’s considered a low score overall, based on national performance?

This one's fairly easy to answer. We can consider a low score to be at the 25th percentile and below (as I described earlier). This means that out of all the people who take the SAT nationwide, those who get an 840 or lower may be considered low scorers.

 

 

Low Score Based on Personal Goals

More importantly, you’ll want to consider what score you’ll consider as a personal failure - not in the sense that the score is a failing grade, but in the sense that the score will fail to help you achieve your personal college admissions goals.

An SAT score is just a part of your college application, but a low score will subject the rest of your app to high scrutinyA very low score might get your app tossed out, even if the rest of your credentials signal that you’d be a good fit for the school. 

I can’t tell you exactly what SAT score lies at these critical points (i.e. the scores that will hinder you from getting into certain schools). But there is a way to get a ballpark estimate of these “failing” scores based on the schools you’re interested in.

Here’s how you do it:

 

Step #1

Make a list of all the schools you’re interested in (8-10 colleges is ideal). You can include a few reach schools and a few safety schools, but try to compose a list of mostly target colleges.

 

Step #2

For each school, Google “[name of school] PrepScholar admissions requirements.” The correct link should be one of the first couple results. Here's an example of what your search results will look like:

 

body_searchresultsexample.pngThe second link is the one you want!

 

Step #3

On the PrepScholar admissions page, find the information for the 25th/75th percentile SAT scores (we currently have data for the old 2400 point SAT - when schools release data for the current SAT, we’ll update these pages).

Because we’re trying to figure out a benchmark for your own personal dangerously low score, we’re most concerned with the 25th percentile score for any school of interest. This means that only 25% of students were accepted to that school with SAT scores lower than the one listed.

 

Step #4

Convert the old 25th percentile SAT scores (out of 2400) to current SAT scores (out of 1600). You can do this by taking the old score and multiplying by ⅔, then rounding to the nearest multiple of 10. This gives you your “danger” score for a particular school in the new scoring system. 

Example: If the 25th percentile score was 1510 in the old scoring system, I multiply by ⅔ to get 1007. I round to the nearest multiple of 10 and get 1010. 

 

Step #5

If you’ve gathered SAT info for several schools (especially if you’re looking primarily at target schools), you can average the converted scores to get an idea of what your personal definition of “failing the SAT” might be.

If the average score that you calculate seems impossibly high, you might want to re-do this exercise with less competitive schools (i.e. schools with lower SAT scores for admitted students). Applying to schools with average SAT scores that are closer to your own may increase your chances of admission - if your own SAT score is relatively low for a particular school (i.e. at or below the 25th percentile), it won’t necessarily be impossible to get in, but it will definitely be more difficult. 

For more detailed info, check out our guide on how to calculate an ideal target SAT score

 

What to Do If You Have a Low Score

If your SAT score is around or below that critical 25th percentile mark, there are a few things you can do.

  • Option 1: You can look at schools with less competitive SAT scores for admitted students (like I mentioned earlier).
  • Option 2: You can strategically prepare for the SAT to bring your scores closer to your target. 

Here, I’ll walk you through the steps you should take if you choose Option 2.

 

How to Prep for the SAT: A Low Scorer's Guide

The following tips and strategies are for students with lower-than-average SAT scores (remember that the average is about 1000 out of 1600). If your scores are already pretty high but you’re applying to extremely competitive schools, you should start by checking out our guide to getting a perfect SAT score.

 

Understand Your Mistakes

Before you work through any more prep material, it’s really important that you spend some time figuring out why, exactly, you’re missing points. Understanding your mistakes will help you hone in on your weaknesses in future study sessions. If you haven’t done enough practice material to do this sort of analysis, I encourage you to sit through a full diagnostic practice test.

Most errors on the SAT fall into one of these four categories:

  • Careless mistakes - you should have gotten the question right but missed the point because you were unfocused or rushing. 
  • Time mismanagement - you missed questions at the end of a section because you ran out of time. 
  • Lack of content knowledge - you missed a question because you never learned what was necessary to answer it correctly (this most commonly happens in the math section). 
  • Misunderstanding the question - you interpreted the wording of the question incorrectly, which led to you selecting the wrong answer (or just guessing). 

For more information on this process, check out our guide to effectively tallying and analyzing SAT errors.

 

Fill in Content Gaps

Building up foundational knowledge is extremely important for students who hope to significantly improve their scores. Like I mentioned earlier, you may notice this issue most often in the SAT math section - to get a head start on determining which content areas may need more work, learn about what exactly is tested on SAT math.

The best way to fill in content gaps isn’t to complete more official practice tests - you’ll have the most luck with class notes, textbooks, and reliable SAT prep books.

 

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When you've filled in knowledge gaps, you can focus less on content and more on test strategy. 

 

Prevent Timing Issues 

All questions on the SAT are worth the same number of raw points. If you find yourself stuck on a particularly difficult question, circle it and come back to it after you work through the end of the section. Remember, though, that since there's no guessing penalty on the SAT, you should answer every question even if you have to guess

If you find yourself consistently running out of time on the test, read about nine ways to buy time on the SAT.

 

Eliminate Question Misunderstandings

Even if you have the content knowledge you need to answer a question, you can’t use it effectively if you don’t really get what the question is asking. This is sometimes related to timing issues - if you’re rushing to read through a question, you can end up missing important information.

Simply working through practice problems and familiarizing yourself with the test format can help with this issue. Also, marking up your test booklet as you read questions can help you read more actively, especially if you make a point of underlining the most important parts of a question.

  

Conclusion: Can You Fail the SAT?

Even though it’s impossible to fail the SAT, it is possible to get a score low enough to hurt your college admissions chances. This critical score will vary based on the sort of schools you’re interested in, but it’s easy to calculate if you follow the steps I’ve outlined above!

If you’re worried about a failing performance on the SAT, there are many steps you can take to bring up your scores. Remember that you’re not alone in this - a lot of smart students struggle with low SAT scores

If you customize your study plan to address your weaknesses, you’re on the right track to achieving your target score

 

What's Next? 

If you're still concerned about low SAT scores, there are a lot of things you can do to either boost your SAT performance or boost your college applications more generally. 

First, read more about what constitutes a good, bad, or average SAT score. If you want to focus on bringing up your scores, check out our guide for low SAT scorers. There are unique steps for students to take if they have a relatively high GPA but are still struggling with underperformance on the SAT. 

If you don't really have time to work on your scores but want to make sure your college apps are successful, check out our ranked list of colleges with the lowest average SAT scores.  

 

Disappointed with your SAT scores? Want to improve by 160 points? We have the industry's leading SAT prep program. Built by Harvard grads and SAT full scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so you get the most effective prep possible.

Check out our 5-day free trial today:

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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.



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