SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What Do SAT Subscores Mean? Expert Guide

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Apr 14, 2016 4:00:00 PM




On first glance, your SAT score report may look completely confusing. Altogether, you’ll get a total of 15 distinct scores, or 18 if you take the essay section! While the scores are numerous, they're also helpful. They put your results under the microscope and give you detailed feedback about your performance.

This guide will demystify all these test scores, cross-test scores, and subscores so you can make the most out of your SAT score report. Let’s start with a glossary to help you keep track of all the different score types.


SAT Score Types: A Glossary

These are all the scores that you'll get on your SAT score report. You'll also find out what percentiles your scores represent, or how you did compared to other test-takers in your grade.

  • Total score: your two section scores added together.
  • Section scores: your Math score and your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score from 200 - 800.
  • Test scores: your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math scores; range from 10 to 40.
  • SAT essay scores: three scores for Reading, Analysis, and Writing, each between 2 and 8.
  • Cross-test scores: a score for Analysis in History/Social Studies and a score for Analysis in Science, both between 10 and 40.
  • Subscores:  four subscores for skill areas in Reading and Writing and three for skill areas in Math; range between 1 and 15.

As you can see, there are several score types with various scales. But how do these score types add up to 15 (or 18 with the essay) scores? Check out the chart below for the full breakdown.


SAT Score Ranges: Full Breakdown

# of Scores Score Type Description Score Range
1 Total score Sum of the two section scores 400-1600
2 Section scores Evidence-based Reading and Writing + Math 200-800
3 Test scores Reading, Writing and Language, and Math 10-40
3 SAT Essay scores Reading, Analysis, and Writing 2 - 8
2 Cross-test scores Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. These scores are based on selected questions in all three sections. 10-40
7 Subscores From Evidence-based Reading and Writing: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, and Standard English Conventions. From Math: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. 1-15


The most important scores for college and the ones with which you’re probably most familiar are your section and total scores. A perfect total score is 1600, and an average SAT score falls somewhere around 1000. Regarding sections, perfect section scores are 800, and average section scores fall around 500.

While the new SAT scale should be relatively familiar to most students, the cross-test scores and subscores are a bit unusual. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly these scores measure and why they’re important to understand.



Like a weird hybrid pluot (plum + apricot), cross-test scores select from across sections to bring you an entirely new species of score. 


What Are SAT Cross-Test Scores?

Cross-test scores represent your performance on questions across all three sections, Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. College Board categorizes questions into certain skill areas. The two skill areas that you need to know about to understand cross-test scores are called Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science.

You might be surprised to learn that there are questions in Reading, Writing and Language, and Math that are considered to measure your Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science skills. These skill areas aren’t limited to one section, but rather pop up across the entire SAT.

In reading, Analysis in History/Social or Analysis in Science questions tend to be those based on History/Social Studies or Science passages, respectively. The same goes for the questions in Writing and Language. As for Math, these questions tend to be word problems or data interpretation questions based on graphics.

Here are a few example problems to show you which questions College Board categories as Analysis in History/Social Studies or Science.

These sample questions from Reading are all considered to test your Analysis in History/Social Studies skills.  


This example from Writing and Language is categorized as Analysis in Science.



This example from Math is considered to be an Analysis in History/Social Studies question.  



You can find more examples by taking a look at the scoring guides to College Board’s four free official SAT practice tests. Not only do they help you score your sections, but they also mark the questions that fall into these two skills categories. That way you can calculate your own cross-test scores as you grade your SAT practice tests. I’ll explain how to do this in more detail below, but first, let’s take a look at the other new score type on the SAT, subscores.



SAT subscores are like a photo taken with a macro lens; they reveal your performance in close, sharp detail. 


What Are SAT Subscores?

SAT subscores, like cross-test scores, measure your performance on questions that fall into certain skill areas. Unlike cross-test scores, subscores don’t mix and match questions between all three sections. You’ll get subscores for questions in Math and subscores for questions in Evidence-based Reading and Writing.

You’ll get seven SAT subscores. In Math, your subscores will measure these skill areas: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math. In Evidence-based Reading and Writing, your subscores will measure Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Words in Context, and Command of Evidence.

Of course, you’re not expected to know automatically which questions fall into which skill areas. Let’s take a moment to define each. You can also check out our more detailed guides with sample questions for each section and skill area.


What Are the Seven Subscore Skill Areas?

First, we’ll consider the three skill areas in Math, followed by the four skill areas in Evidence-based Reading and Writing.  

  1. Heart of Algebra: these math questions ask you to solve linear equation and linear inequalities, interpret linear functions, and solve linear equation, inequality, or function word problems.
  2. Problem Solving and Data Analysis: these math questions ask you to calculate rates, ratios, and percentages, interpret scatterplots and tables, and draw conclusions from collections of data.
  3. Passport to Advanced Math: these questions ask you to solve quadratic equations, interpret nonlinear expressions, interpret nonlinear equation graphs, solve operations with polynomials, and solve quadratic and exponential word problems.
  4. Expression of Ideas: these (typically Writing) questions ask you to make word choice or structural changes to improve a passage’s organization or impact.
  5. Standard English Conventions: these (typically Writing) questions ask about grammar, usage, sentence structure, and punctuation.
  6. Words in Context: in Reading, these questions ask you to interpret the meaning of a word or phrase or determine how word choice shapes meaning, style, and tone. In Writing, they ask you to add or change a word to improve meaning.
  7. Command of Evidence: these questions are varied. In Reading, they may ask you to state your evidence for your answer to a previous question or to identify how an author uses evidence to support her claims. In Writing, these questions typically ask you to improve the way a passage develops information and ideas. In both sections, they might ask about the relationship between a passage and its accompanying informational graphic.

All of these subscores, along with the cross-test scores and other score types discussed, will show up on your SAT score report. However, they’re not for your eyes only. Your prospective colleges that you’ve indicated as score recipients will also get to see all your scores. These score types are new this year, so how are colleges going to use them as they evaluate you as an applicant?



Just how crucial are your cross-test scores and subscores for college? As it stands now, not very.


How Do Colleges Use Your SAT Cross-Test Scores and Subscores?

According to College Board, your detailed score report is great at “highlighting your strengths and showing colleges that you’ve been building the skills and knowledge you need for college and career.” They’re meant to show that you have skills like Analysis in Science and Command of Evidence to do well in college courses and life in general after high school.

At this point, though, it doesn’t appear that your cross-test or subscores are particularly important for colleges. Many colleges are still catching up to the changes in the new SAT and figuring out which test they’ll accept for Class of 2017 and Class of 2018 students. For now, your section and total scores remain the most important metric for applying to college and determining whether your SAT scores make you a competitive applicant.

Even though these cross-test scores and subscores don’t seem particularly important for college yet, they can still play a very influential role in your SAT prep. 


How Are SAT Cross-Test Scores and Subscores Useful?

It may be tempting to look past these cross-test scores and subscores as unimportant, but they can actually be quite useful as feedback for your SAT prep. If you’re retaking the SAT, then you can use these scores to figure out your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker. If you haven’t taken the SAT yet, then you can calculate these scores on your SAT practice tests to get the same information.

For instance, you may be looking to raise your EBRW score. Your subscores may show that you’re solid on Expression of Ideas questions, but need to study grammar and usage rules to do better on Standard English Conventions questions. On Math, you may be strong on questions in Heart of Algebra and Passport to Advanced Math questions, but need to focus your prep on Problem Solving and Data Analysis problems. Your cross-test scores and subscores point out the question types and skill areas that you should study to maximize your improvement for next time.

As mentioned above, you don’t have to wait until you take the official SAT to get this kind of feedback. You can take the time to calculate your cross-test scores and subscores on your own from SAT practice tests.



Figuring out your cross-test scores and subscores can be time-consuming, but it's well worth it if you're prepping for the SAT.


How to Calculate Your Cross-Test Scores and Subscores from Practice Tests

To score your practice tests, you can consult their accompanying scoring guide. As it turns out, the guide also labels the questions that fall into the various skill areas pertinent to cross-test scores and subscores, like Analysis in Science, Words in Context, and Heart of Algebra. For instance, this example is taken from the scoring guide to College Board's SAT Practice Test 1 and tells you which questions fall into the Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science skills categories: 



First, you use your practice test's scoring guide to identify the relevant questions in a skill area. Then you calculate your raw score by simply adding one point for every correct answer. If you’re calculating your raw score for Words in Context questions, for example, then you would locate these questions with the help of the scoring guide and answer key and add one point for every one you answered correctly.

Then you can consult official conversion tables to convert your raw scores into scale scores. As you read above, your cross-test scores get converted into a scale from 10 to 40. Your subscores get converted to a scale between 1 and 15. Below are the cross-test score and subscore conversion tables provided by College Board.

SAT Cross-Test Score Conversion Table (10 - 40) 



SAT Subscore Conversion Table (10 - 15)



For an even more detailed list of step by step instructions for calculating your cross-test scores and subscores, you should consult our comprehensive guide on SAT scoring. While this process may feel a bit tedious and time-consuming, it can really be worth it. These scores can give you invaluable insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker and help you prep smarter for your next test.


To Sum Up…

Your SAT score report may look like a bunch of confusing numbers at first, but hopefully, now you understand what all those scores mean. Your total scores will fall between 400 and 1600. Your section scores for Math and Evidence-based Reading and Writing range between 200 and 800.

Your cross-test scores and subscores dig deeper into your performance, revealing how well you did on specific skill areas and question types. Cross-test scores, as their name indicates, sample questions across all three subjects. Subscores shed light on questions from Math and Evidence-based Reading and Writing.

While these specific scores don’t seem to be particularly important for colleges yet, they will appear on your SAT score reports and be visible to admissions officers. For now, they’re most useful as feedback for your skills as a test-taker and areas for growth.

Whether you’re looking at your official SAT score report or grading your own practice tests, you should take the time to interpret these scores. The insight they reveal into your strengths and weaknesses can be invaluable feedback as you sharpen your skills for the SAT.


What’s Next?

At this point, all students will be taking the redesigned SAT. If you're one of them, check out our comprehensive guide on how to study for the new SAT. You can also find lots of helpful strategies and study tip by section here.

Just as cross-test scores and subscores can help you study in the most effective way, so too can taking the time to analyze your mistakes. Check out this guide to learn why studying your mistakes is the secret to boosting your scores and how to do it in the most effective way.

Are you wondering how many hours of prep time you need to achieve your target scores? This 6 step guide helps you figure out exactly how long you need to study for the SAT to meet your goals.


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:

Get Sample Lesson


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

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

You should definitely follow us on social media. You'll get updates on our latest articles right on your feed. Follow us on all 3 of our social networks:

Twitter and Google+

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!