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What's the Minimum SAT Score for College?

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Apr 2, 2016 7:00:00 PM

SAT/ACT Score Target, SAT General Info

 

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Preparing for college applications can feel confusing, overwhelming, and demanding. If you’re nervous about the SAT (or college admissions in general), you may be worried about how low of a test score you can afford to get if you still want a shot at college. You might even be wondering how low of a score on the SAT is even possible.

In this article I’ll discuss the lowest possible SAT score and why it’s unlikely to happen to you. I’ll also provide advice on determining the lowest SAT score you can get and still have a reasonable chance at a given school, and what that means in terms of choosing which schools to apply for and what score to aim for. Finally, I’ll discuss some things you can do if your score seems too low for any of the colleges you want to attend.

  

What's the Lowest SAT Score You Can Get?

The revised SAT is out of 1600 points. The Math section is worth up to 800 points, and the Reading and Writing tests combine into the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section for the other 800 possible points. The lowest possible score on either section is 200 points. So if you got 200 points on Math and 200 on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, you’d have 400 points. So the minimum SAT score is 400. For reference, an average score would be around 1000.

400 is the score you would get if you answered zero questions correctly on any of the tests, or if you just left your entire test blank and took a nap.

Getting the lowest possible score is not a common occurrence! In previous years fewer people have gotten the lowest possible score in the SAT than have received perfect scores, so it is highly unlikely to happen to you. (Unless you really do leave every question blank, in which case it will definitely happen to you, sorry.)

 

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Cute dog. Terrible test-taking strategy.

 

What SAT Score Would You Get if You Guessed Completely Randomly?

To underscore how unlikely it is that you would get a 400 making a good faith effort on the SAT, let’s consider the approximate score you would be likely to get if you guessed completely randomly on every question.

Multiple-choice questions on the SAT have 4 answer choices, so you have a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer. On the Math free-response questions, known as grid-ins, your chance of randomly guessing the correct answer is low enough that I’m going to round down to 0% and assume if you randomly guessed on those you would get them wrong.

The Reading test has 52 questions. Guessing randomly, you could expect to get (.25) x 52 of them correct. That works out to 13.

The Writing test has 44 questions. Guessing randomly, you could expect to get 11 of them correct (.25 x 44 = 11).

The Math test has 45 multiple choice and 13 grid-ins. Assuming you get 0 points on the grid-ins, you could expect to get (.25) x 45 questions correct, which is about 11.

We’ll based our approximate score calculations on the Sample Scoring Guide for Practice Test 1. According to this sample scoring guide, 13 correct questions on Reading gives you a “Reading Test Score” of 19 (out of 40). 11 points on Writing gives you a “Writing Test Score” of 16 out of 40. Adding up the 19 on Reading and 11 on Writing gives you a 30 out of 80. If we multiply that by 10 we get 300 for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score, which is a good margin above the minimum of 200. For Math, 11 correct answers would give you a Math section score of approximately 340; well above the minimum of 200.

If we add together the 340 from Math and the 300 from Evidence-Based Reading and Writing we get 640.  Even guessing completely randomly and leaving all grid-ins blank, you would get over 200 points higher than the minimum SAT score.

 

cube-635334_640.jpgRandom guessing: another dubious strategy.

 

What's the Lowest SAT Score You Can Have and Still Get Into College?

Beyond the lowest possible score, you may want to know what is the minimum SAT score for college admissions. The answer to that is that it depends—mostly on the college in question, but also to a certain extent on your other qualifications.

In general, the more selective a school is, the higher your SAT scores will need to be for you to have a chance at admission. For a top-tier school like Harvard or MIT, you’ll need to break 1400 for a shot (and that would be a pretty low-end score for a selective school). For a selective public institution like University of Michigan, you’ll want to hit at least 1300. Less selective public institutions, as well as many small liberal arts colleges, regularly accept applicants in the 950-1050 range. (Note: these score numbers are based off the middle 50% of admitted students for these schools, converted from the old 2400-point SAT scale).

Public universities in your state may also accept residents with scores on the lower end of the scale depending on their policies and your other qualifications. For example, for Texas residents, UT Austin guarantees admission to anyone in the top 7% of their graduating high school class, and there are other public Texas universities that assure admission for the top 10%. You may still need to submit test scores for these schools for placement purposes, but low scores won’t keep you from being admitted.

Another thing to note is that specialty schools like art schools and music conservatories also often have lower SAT score expectations for their applicants, because student applications are much more heavily weighted towards things like portfolios and performance tapes.

The truth is that it’s difficult to pinpoint the absolute lowest score you can get and still have a chance at a particular school because colleges and universities generally admit candidates along a range of test scores. However, you can get an idea.

On their admissions websites, most schools provide the test score range for the 25th-75th percentiles of their own admitted student pool—the “middle 50%.” This is a reliable way to get a decent idea of what kind of score you need to get to be a viable candidate for admission.

I would say a score a little below the 25th percentile (think 10 points) is the lowest score you can get and reasonably expect to have any sort of a chance at admission—and even with other strong parts in your application, that score would make the school a reach for you. By contrast, if your score is decently (50+) above the 75th percentile mark, you’re in a great position.

 

Sample Middle 50% Ranges and Low/High Scores

Low Score

Middle 50%

High Score

980

990-1190

1240

1120

1130 - 1260

1310

1190

1200-1360

1410

1290

1300-1430

1480

1310

1320-1470

1520

1360

1370-1520

1570

1390

1400-1580

1600

1420

1430-1590

1600

 

You might be thinking: if I have a score that’s just below the 25th percentile, doesn’t that mean that people with lower scores than me probably got in?

Yes, it does. But there are always outliers—people who had other specific qualifications or strengths that the college was looking for in particular. No doubt you also have unique strengths and talents that you should emphasize in college applications! And if your dream school’s middle 50% is 1100-1300 and your score is 1020, by all means apply to it as a reach school, understanding that the rest of your application will need to be truly stellar for you to have a chance. You should never assume that you are going to be one of the outliers who gets in with an SAT score at the lowest conceivable end of the admit range.

That’s why it’s important to apply to a variety of schools, where your score falls in different places relative to the middle 50% of admitted students. But how do you go about choosing schools to apply to based on your SAT score?

 

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The only choice more significant than where to apply to college is what gelato flavor to enjoy. 

 

Choosing Schools to Apply to Based on Your SAT Scores 

If you’re picking schools to apply to based on an SAT score, you’ll want some that are safety schools, some that are match schools, and some that are reach schools.

What does this mean? Well, in general, a safety school is one where you exceed the usual criteria for admission, a match school is one where you meet the usual criteria for admission, and a reach school is one where you fall just under the usual criteria for admission.

In terms of test scores and the middle 50% range, a safety school is one where your score well exceeds the middle 50% range (think 50+ points), a match school is one where you fall in within the middle 50%, preferably in the higher end, or just above, and a reach school is one where you fall in the bottom end or just below the middle 50%. Note that even if you got a perfect 1600, highly selective schools like Stanford, the Ivies, etc, are reach schools for everyone simply because admission is so competitive.

Let’s go through an example. Say Lupita got a 1290 on her SAT. How should she consider her chances at the following schools she is interested in?
  • Boston College – middle 50% range: 1300-1430
    • As Lupita’s score is just below the bottom of the mid-50% range for Boston College, we would consider this a reach school. She certainly has a shot at getting in, particularly if her other qualifications are on par with the school’s admits, but her scores would put her in the bottom 25% of admitted students.
  • SUNY-Binghampton – middle 50% range: 1200 - 1360
    • With a 1290, Lupita is in the higher end of the middle 50% for this school. Assuming her other qualifications (GPA, etc) are similarly placed relative to other admits, this is a good match school for her.
  • SUNY-Albany – middle 50% range: 1090-1240
    • With a score 50 points above this middle 50% range for SUNY-Albany, Lupita has a great chance of getting in (again, with the caveat that her other qualifications are similarly positioned). This is a good safety school for her.
  • The University of Portland – middle 50% range of 1110-1280
    • Lupita’s score of 1290 is just 10 points above the middle 50% range for this school. Her score isn’t really high enough to consider the University of Portland a safety school, but this makes it a strong match for Lupita.

Of course, there are other factors than test scores in choosing safety, match, and reach schools. Schools also usually provide information about the GPA and class ranks of their admitted students, so you’ll want to consider those factors as well. If you’re on the low end of the middle 50% in test scores, but way on the high end for GPA and class rank, it could be a match school. Unique talents or other interesting qualifications can also go a long way towards mitigating a test score that’s a little on the low end for a particular school.

But what if you already have schools in mind, and you haven’t taken the SAT yet? How should you determine what score to aim for?

 

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Targets: not just for darts.

 

Choosing a Goal SAT Score Based on Your Dream Schools

If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, but you have some schools in mind, you can set a goal score for the SAT. The ideal target score is the highest 75th percentile score for the middle 50% of all the schools you are interested in. This way even if you fall a little short, you’ll still have a great shot at most of the schools on your list.

First, you’ll want to make a list of the schools you are considering. Then, look up the middle 50% range of each of the remaining schools on your list. Write down the top number of the middle 50% - the 75th percentile - for each school. You can do this for total score, by section, or both—whatever is most useful for you.

There are a couple caveats here: Since the new SAT was just rolled out, all middle 50% scores will be on the old 2400-point scale. You can convert the composite score to get a decent estimate (multiply it by 1600 and then divide that by 2400) but for section scores you can just ignore the writing section, or average critical reading and writing. Next year the data will be on the 1600-point scale and things will be simpler. Also, some schools don’t report all subscores and only resport total scores; this is just something be aware of.

Finally, find the highest score in the list of 75th percentile scores. That’s your goal score!
Let’s do an example. Say Diego is interested in the following schools:

  1. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  2. Indiana University
  3. Purdue University
  4. University of Chicago
  5. Notre Dame University

Now we fill out our middle 50% table. (I’ve already converted scores to the 1600-point scale where necessary, and schools where reading and math subscores weren’t reported—in this case, all of them—get an n/a in those columns).

 

 Sample Chart: Diego's Target Score

Name of College/ University

SAT Reading 25th

SAT Reading 75th

SAT Math 25th

SAT Math 75th

SAT Composite 25th

SAT Composite 75th

University of Illinois

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

1320

1470

Indiana University

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

1100

1290

Purdue University

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

1090

1300

University of Chicago

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

1450

1550

Notre Dame

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

(n/a)

1400

1530

Target Score:

         

1550

 

So, based on his list of schools, Diego’s goal score should be a 1550. If he can score (or beat!) a 1550, he’ll be in a great position. But even if he falls a little short and gets a 1530 or 1540, he'll be in a great position for most of the schools he is interested in.

 

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Diego climbing SAT mountain.

 

You may want to use the following table to make your own list:

Name of College/ University

SAT Reading 25th

SAT Reading 75th

SAT Math 25th

SAT Math 75th

SAT Composite 25th

SAT Composite 75th

             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             

Target Score:

           

 

This method will allow you to calculate a goal SAT score based on schools you are interested in. But what if you take the SAT and when your scores get back, it looks like every school you are interested in is a reach? What should you do then?

 

Based on my SAT Score, Every School I'm Interested in Is a Reach!

If you get your SAT scores back and they are a lot lower than you were aiming for, you may be concerned that every school you’re interested in is a reach. Here are seven strategies you could use to address this dilemma.

 

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Are you this kitty, stranded halfway up? Don't worry!

 

Prep for the SAT and Take It Again

You may have simply been been underprepared for the SAT. In this case, you will need to prepare rigorously and take it again. You might try a targeted, personalized test-prep program like ours, working with prep books (see this article for a guide to the best prep books for the revised SAT), and/or the College Board + Khan Academy SAT practice program. See our guide to the pros and cons of all prep methods. If you have a few months left before your college deadlines, taking the test again is probably your best bet.

 

Take the ACT Instead

The ACT and the SAT used to be quite different—enough that students would perform very differently on them. This isn’t as true anymore because the revised SAT is very similar to the ACT. However, if you are particularly scientifically literate, the fact that the ACT has an entire Science section score could help you. Other more minor differences may help you get a slightly higher score on the ACT if you are just hoping for a little boost.

 

Evaluate if You Need Testing Accommodations

If you feel you have underperformed on your SAT because you have a medical condition, learning disability, or psychiatric disorder, you may qualify for special testing accommodations.  Especially if you are on an IEP or a 504 plan at your school, it is likely that you are both eligible for and would benefit from test accommodations. Bear in mind that this a time-consuming process so you need to request them early!

 

Adjust Your Expectations

If you score is too low for all the colleges on your list, look at some less selective colleges. 1350 may be too low for Johns Hopkins, but it’s a solid score for Boston University. There’s a huge universe of colleges out there, and there are probably less selective schools that have the things you are looking for.

 

Apply to Schools That Accept Alternate Scores

Some schools will accept AP Exam Scores or SAT Subject Test Scores in lieu of more traditional SAT or ACT exam scores. If you’ve already performed well on AP exams or you feel you could do well on particular Subject Tests, this could be a good strategy for you.
Examples of schools that accept alternate tests include:
  • Colorado College - Accepts various combinations of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of the ACT/SAT. 
  • Colby College - Accepts 3 SAT Subject Tests in lieu of ACT/SAT. 
  • Middlebury College - Accepts 3 SAT Subject Tests in lieu of ACT/SAT.
  • Hamilton College - Accepts various combinations of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of the ACT/SAT. 
  • New York University - Accepts various combinations of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of the ACT/SAT. 

See a more comprehensive list of test-optional and test-flexible colleges

 

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Alternate testing schools are so alternative.

 

Apply to Test-Optional Schools

Still other colleges have implemented test-optional admissions. This means that, while you can send standardized test scores as a bonus or qualification with your application, they are not required. In this case, your GPA, course records, essay, recommendation letters, and other application materials will be the determining factors in your admission—not your test scores.

Though a fairly newfangled notion in college admissions, several high-quality schools have implemented test-optional policies. This seems eminently reasonable in light of the fact that there are some courses of study where you may not take hardly any tests, and certainly not many long, grueling, marathon-style standardized ones.

Test-optional schools are a particularly good strategy for applicants who are good students but poor standardized test takers.

Schools that are test-optional include:

  • Wake-Forest University, NC
  • Bates College, Maine
  • Wesleyan University, CT
  • Bowdoin College, Maine
  • American University, Washington DC
  • Mt. Holyoke College, MA (women’s college)
  • Sarah Lawrence College, NY (women’s college)
  • Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania (women’s college)
  • Smith College, MA (women’s college)
See a more comprehensive list of test-optional and test-deemphazised colleges at Fairtest.org.

 

Go to Community College

Maybe your score is low enough that even if you lower your expectations, you’re worried there aren’t any schools that will accept you. But you can still pursue higher education! Most local community colleges are open to anyone in the area with a high school diploma or GED. You can start taking classes at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year university upon completion of your associate’s degree; your most recent transcripts in this case will be much more important than your standardized test scores.

 

With these strategies, you’ll be sure to find a college solution that works for you even if your test scores don’t seem stellar.

 

Key Takeaways

The lowest possible SAT score is 400 on a 1600-point scale, but you’re very unlikely to get this score unless you leave every question on the test blank. How low your score can be for college applications depends on what colleges you are applying to. More selective schools will expect higher scores, while many local public universities and small liberal arts schools will accept scores on the lower end of the scale. There are colleges that accept low SAT scores.  

Based on your scores, you should select safety, match, and reach schools to apply to. If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, you can also figure out a goal score based on schools you are already interested in.

If your score seems too low for any school you’re interested in, there are several things you could do: 

  1. Retake the SAT
  2. Take the ACT
  3. Figure out if you need testing accommodations
  4. Apply to less selective schools
  5. Apply to test-alternative or test-optional schools
  6. Go to community college (a great option if you are worried that your scores are too low, period.)

So what is the minimum SAT score for college? My final answer is that there’s really no SAT score too low for higher education—you may just need to take an alternative path to get there!

 

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There are lots of ways to get where you want to go!

 

What's Next?

Struggling with a low SAT score? We've got some tips on improving lower section scores for Reading, Writing, and Math.

If you have low standardized test scores but a high GPA, here are some prep strategies specifically for you. 

Looking for colleges? Here are colleges with guaranteed admissions thresholds for certain test scores. Or see our guide to researching colleges

 

Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Compare Prep Methods

 

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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