SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Pass the SAT: Expert Prep Tips

Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Jun 17, 2016 7:00:00 PM

SAT Strategies



The SAT is one of the most important tests you’ll take in high school. When you take a test in class, there are clear guidelines for passing and failing - wouldn’t it be nice to have the same thing for the SAT?

Here, I’ll talk about exactly what it means to pass the test (spoiler: it’s different for everybody) before giving you tips and strategies fo how to pass the SAT and get the score you need.


What Does It Mean to “Pass” the SAT?

To answer your question right off the bat (although I hope you keep reading - there’s a lot more to learn ) is that there is no official passing (or failing) score on the SAT.

On this test, there’s only a range of possible scores - what constitutes an excellent, poor, or average score will depend heavily on your frame of reference. Ultimately, the most important thing that defines a “passing” SAT score is whether it’s good enough to get you into the colleges you’re applying to. This obviously varies widely by student.

The bottom line? For your SAT score to be considered “passing,” it has to be high enough to get you into the schools you like.

The problem is that this score will change not only by school, but also by student - determining your passing SAT score isn’t an exact science, especially because your college applications will be considered as a whole. Other components of your apps affect admissions officers’ expectations for your SAT scores. If the rest of your applications (e.g. your extracurriculars and GPA) are very strong, your SAT may not be weighed so heavily, for example. If your score is low enough, however, your application may get tossed out even if the rest of your app is strong.

For the sake of this post, then, I’m going to define a “passing” SAT score as one that won’t get your application tossed out. Ideally, however, your SAT score will be one that helps (instead of hurts) your college applications. Keep reading to learn more about how to figure out these score benchmarks for yourself.


How to Set Your Own SAT Passing Score

Figuring out a passing score on the SAT means researching what scores are correlated with acceptance at all the schools you’re interested in. You can’t say for sure what scores will you get you in - there’s a lot more to your application than just standardized test scores - but you can look at how other students perform and whether or not certain SAT scores tend to get students into a school.

Once you have this information for schools you’re interested in, you can use it to figure out benchmark passing scores for yourself. Here’s how you do it:



You’ll have to set your own unique passing and target scores for them to be useful.

Make a Preliminary List of Schools

This doesn’t have to be a final list of the schools you’ll definitely send applications to. Even if you have a list of 8-10 schools you’re interested in, this is a good place to start.  

For this exercise to be most effective, try to select mostly “target” schools - schools where you think you’d have a fairly good chance of getting in. You can include 2-3 “safety” schools and 2-3 “reach” schools as well, as long as you maintain overall balance. If you select too many safety schools and you might set a passing score that’s too low, whereas too many reach schools may lead to a score that’s discouragingly high.

The first time you do this, you may not have a great idea of what schools you’d identify as reach, target, and safety. This isn’t just okay - it’s kind of the point of this exercise. You can repeat it as many times as necessary throughout the college process, fine-tuning your list of schools as you go.

Look Up Each School’s SAT Info

Start by Googling “PrepScholar [name of school] SAT score” - the first non-ad link that comes up should be the one you want.


An example of what your search results will look like - the first link that pops up here is the right one!

The page will have the average SAT score and the 25th/75th percentile scores for students accepted to that particular school. Take down these numbers for each school.

  • A 25th percentile score means that 25% of students at the school have a score at or below that number.
  • A 75th percentile score means that 75% of students at the school have a score at or below that number

Students with 75th percentile scores or above for a particular school usually have a good shot at getting in, barring any major with other parts of their application. Students with 25th percentile scores or below usually have other strong application components (e.g. high GPA, great essays) to boost their chances.


Calculate the New SAT Score Out of 1600

Before you calculate your personal passing score, you need to convert the info from these pages to the current SAT scoring system.

You can do this by taking each score and multiplying by ⅔. Then, round to the nearest multiple of 10. If you took down a score of 1870, for example, you’d multiply by ⅔ to get 1247. Round to the nearest 10 to get 1250.


Set Your Benchmark “Passing” Score

This step is perhaps a bit more subjective, and as such, will vary by student - of course it’s important to use your best judgment when establishing your own benchmark scores. If you want to come to a passing SAT score, you’ll want to look at a school’s 25th percentile SAT scores. This is far from a safe bet, however - your chances of getting in will heavily depend on the strength of the rest of your application if your SAT score is at or around the 25th percentile. If your GPA is lower than average for a particular school, for example, your SAT score would have to be higher in order to make up for it.

Ultimately,  I think that the best SAT score to aim for isn’t the “passing” score, but a score that will help you stand out as a strong applicant. The 75th percentile is a sweet spot because you’d be more competitive (in terms of SAT scores) than ¾ of students who are accepted to the school.

Side note: If your typical SAT score is higher than the 75th percentile score, you might want to consider looking at more competitive schools - you want to aim as high as you reasonably can here (more competitive schools often mean better reputations, which tend to lead to better outcomes).

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s how to calculate both passing and ideal SAT score benchmarks for yourself:

  • Take the averages of the scores you collected for each school. First the average of the 25th percentile scores, then the average of the 75th percentile scores.
  • The 25th percentile average is your “passing” goal score - the minimum you should be aiming for.
  • The 75th percentile score is your target score - the score that has a great chance of getting you accepted to the colleges on your list.


What If You’re Worried About Your Ideal Score, or Even Your Passing Score?

If the scores you’ve calculated seem intimidatingly high, don’t panic just yet! There are a few important things to keep in mind.

First, your target score (the 75th percentile average) is an ideal goal. It’s supposed to be higher than what you’re scoring now (or maybe even what you think you can score), so don't panic even if it's considerably more than 100 points higher than your current score. If you’re already at or above that 75th percentile mark, it's a sign that you might be selling yourself short — consider looking at more competitive schools.

On the other hand, if even the 25th percentile benchmark seems too high, consider re-evaluating your list of schools. You might want to look at colleges that are slightly less competitive.


How to Pass the SAT: Tips and Strategies

I’m going to split this section up into two parts meant for two different types of students: low-scorers and high-scorers. Here, I’m defining score parameters by the national performance standards: high scorers are at about 1200 and above (75th percentile nationally), whereas low scorers are at about 840 and below (25th percentile nationally).

If your performance is closer to the average (1000), check out both sections and follow the guidelines that you find most useful.

Let's move on to everything you need to know about how to pass the SAT.


Worried about where to start? The following sections will help get you started in the right direction.

Guidance for Low Scorers

It’s hard to know where to start with prep if your scores are relatively low - how do you know what your primary issues are if you feel like you’re having a lot of trouble with the test?

The biggest issue for low scorers is often significant gaps in content knowledge, so identifying and filling these gaps is often the first step for effective SAT prep. Other mistakes may be due to:

  • Running out of time
  • Misunderstanding the question
  • Running out of time
  • Careless errors

Before you can practice effectively, it’s important to analyze and understand your mistakes - that is, figuring out which of the above issues are your biggest weaknesses before taking steps to address them. You’ll have to invest some time in some serious self-analysis involving a baseline to work from. Here are best practices for getting a solid baseline score and gaining info on your weaknesses:

  • Take a full, timed, diagnostic practice test.
  • Take note of which questions you missed.
  • Tally the reasons for each incorrect question:
    • Content Gap: Did you not have the information you needed to answer correctly?
    • Timing Issue: Would you have gotten the question correct if you hadn’t run out of time?
    • Question Misunderstanding: Would you have gotten the question correct if the question had been more clear?
    • Careless Error: Would you have gotten the question correct if you had spent an extra couple of seconds checking your work?

If you find that content knowledge is your biggest problem, you’ll want to turn to your class notes, textbooks, and SAT prep books for review - not just SAT practice materials. We also have a bunch of SAT content guides to get you started:

Once you’ve conquered major content problems, you can hone in on specific content areas and work on careless errors and timing issues. You’ll find tips for addressing those problems in the next section.

Guidance for High Scorers

If you’re fairly happy with your score but want to bring it up to the next level, you probably have a general idea of where your major strengths and weaknesses are on the SAT. With a relatively high score, you’re probably pretty strong on content overall. High scorers usually lose points due to these three issues:

  • Carelessness: loss of focus leading to silly mistakes.
  • Timing Problems: you simply run out of time to give each question its due.
  • Minor Content Gaps: small areas of knowledge that you haven’t mastered 100%.

If you want to approach that ideal target score, you should attack each of these issues. I’ll address each of these problems in this section, but you may want to check out our detailed guide for high scorers for more info.


It’s pretty easy to identify a question you’ve missed due to carelessness. You get that horrible feeling when you recognize that you would have gotten the question right, if only you’d paid a tiny bit more attention.

Careless mistakes often occur when students aren’t actively reading. Start focusing your attention with these tips:

  • Double-read each question and underline important words.
  • Take notes on passages.
  • In the math section, mark up diagrams with important info and write out your arithmetic.
  • Double- check your answer before marking it down.  


Let’s avoid silly mistakes when possible, shall we?

Timing Issues

Running out of time at the end of sections? First, spend less time on easy questions - just keep an eye out for those careless errors.

Next, skip tough questions and come back to them later. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t guess if you’re out of time (there’s no guessing penalty, so you should definitely guess). If you’ve still got plenty of time to work through the section, though, mark the problem question and come back to it later.

Filling in Content Gaps

Before you can work on filling in content gaps, you have to determine where these gaps actually are. This means identifying which questions you get wrong in your practice, and more importantly, why you get them wrong. You can start this process by going over all your mistakes after each practice session. Keep a careful tally of each content area every time you identify an error (hint: most content errors happen on the math section).

Once you figure out which content areas give you the most trouble, use your class notes, textbooks, or reliable SAT prep book to review this content. Come back and do more practice problems in this area until you’re confident in your understanding.  


Summary: How to Pass the SAT

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer when it comes to figuring out a passing score on the SAT. It’s different for each student - your idea of a passing or ideal score may even change over time as you continue to improve with dedicated SAT prep.

The important thing is that you put in the research to figure out what schools you’re interested in and what you need to do to get there. The good news is that regardless of whether you’re a relatively low scorer or a relatively high scorer, there are plenty of things you can do to address your weaknesses to boost your performance.

What’s Next?

There are a lot of helpful materials available if you’re worried about “passing” the SAT. For an overview, read our guide with 15 tips for improving your SAT score.

If you need a fun, refreshing way to study, learn about the six best SAT prep games.

Maybe you’re looking for more detailed information. If that’s the case, check out our ultimate study guide for SAT prep.


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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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