The SAT score is one of the most important parts of your college applications because it’s one of the only things that’s standardized. When all student applicants are taking the same exam, admissions officers can use it as a barometer to compare students that come from different backgrounds, educations, strengths, weaknesses, and intellectual abilities.
If all students take the same exam, and all admissions officers look at those exam scores in the same way, then it should be easy to figure out what an excellent SAT score is, right? Not necessarily. Like most things, an excellent SAT score is all relative. In this post, I’ll talk about different types of “excellent” scores in relation to the entire US, your general peer group, your prospective colleges, and (maybe most importantly) yourself.
A Note Before We Get Started: Percentiles
When we discuss exam scores when compared to other groups - groups as big as the US student population or as small as your high school English class - we use percentiles.
Percentiles are different from percentages. A percent score tells you what portion of the exam you got correct, whereas a percentile score tells you how you did on the exam compared to everyone else who took it. For example, a percent score of 80% on an exam means that you got 80% of the questions correct. An 80th percentile score would mean that you scored better than 80% of the students who took the same test.
Percentile scores are more meaningful than percentages when we talk about SAT scores, because what’s important is how you score when compared to other students. To give another example, let's say you take a very difficult exam in a large lecture course and only score a 50%. You might be disappointed because you'd assume you scored poorly. If you learned that everyone else in the class scored lower than 50% on their exam, you'd know that you scored in the 99th percentile - that changes your perception of your performance, right? Same thing goes for SAT scores.
Excellent SAT Scores for the General US Population
Talk about a big comparison group.
If you’re new to the SAT and are unsure what SAT scores actually mean, comparing your scores to those of the general population is the best place to start. The SAT score range isn’t necessarily intuitive, like an exam scored out of 100 points. Seeing how you “rank” relative to all students is the best way to start understanding your own performance.
As you probably know, the SAT is scored out of a total of 1600 points. The average composite SAT score is about 1000 points - around the 50th percentile. An "excellent" score relative to the general population will ultimately depend on your own definition of excellence. For the sake of this post, we'll say that an excellent score sits at about the 75th percentile. This means that if you score at or above the 75th percentile, your score is higher than at least 3/4 of all test-takers.
So how do these (and other) percentiles translate into SAT scores?
- 25th percentile --> about 840 composite score
- 50th percentile --> about 1000 composite score
- 75th percentile --> about 1200 composite score
You can get more detailed information on SAT scores and percentiles here. Given this information, where do you think you would set your "excellence" cutoff?
Excellent SAT Scores for Your Peer Group
What matters when you apply to colleges isn’t necessarily how your performance compares to that of the rest of the high school students in the nation. What matters is how you compare to kids who are similar to you - similar in terms of background, geographical area, high school type, grades, extracurriculars. You’ll have to stand out against your peers, not necessarily against a student who lives across the country from you with different interests, passions, and activities.
In order to determine what SAT scores are considered "excellent" among your peers, you need to have a good general idea of what your peers' scores are. SAT scores can be a sensitive topic, so here are some tips for getting information on this:
1. Get average SAT scores for your high school. Some schools have a report available where you can see aggregated SAT scores from past students. If you're not sure about how to access this information, check in with a guidance counselor. They may have their own thoughts about what they consider excellent SAT scores for your school.
2. Get average SAT scores from your classmates. If you want to narrow down your comparative peer group even more, you could consider the average scores of other students in your classes. SAT scores from peers in honors classes should give you an even better idea of excellent peer scores. If you feel comfortable asking around, make an effort to do that - just make sure not to pressure anyone into sharing scores.
Excellent SAT Scores for College
So now that you have a good idea of how you compare to your peers, you can start figuring out your best target schools based on SAT scores. Now, SAT scores are important for getting you into college, but people don’t tend to care about them once you get in. Your SAT scores don’t have to be at the top of the range (e.g. at the 75th percentile) for the schools you’re interested in attending - that would mean 75% of attending students were accepted with lower scores. Ultimately, they just have to be good enough to get your application considered. (Exception: if you anticipate that your application will be weak in other areas, higher SAT scores than other applicants will help your admissions case.)
The best way to figure out what SAT score is likely to get you into a particular school is to look up the school's "middle 50" SAT scores. The middle 50 is the range of student scores between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile - so if you ranked all the students in a college's class by SAT scores, this would be the score range for the 50% of students standing right in the middle. You can find detailed instructions on figuring out a school's optimal SAT score range.
If your SAT is in the top 25% of scores for schools that you're considering (and your application is otherwise strong), you may want to consider applying to more competitive schools. By more competitive, I mean schools with higher average SAT scores and lower admissions rates. There are many benefits to attending a better-ranked school: it's likely to be more intellectually challenging and to have a stronger student body due to a more selective admissions process. A more prestigious school also sends a better "signal" to graduate programs and future employers, potentially leading to better income and career outcomes.
Excellent SAT Scores for Yourself
Time for some realistic self-evaluation.
So you've considered what "excellent" SAT scores are relative to the country, your peers, and your target schools. Although these are all helpful comparison groups, there's one very important factor we have yet to take into consideration: your own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
Excellent scores by more objective standards may come easier to some students than others. Setting unrealistic goals for yourself based on these standards will be frustrating and unhelpful; setting "easy" goals for yourself based on these standards will mean that you sell yourself short. In order to come out of this process with both strong scores and your sanity intact, it's important to consider your own abilities when determining what SAT scores are "excellent."
So how do you figure out what an excellent SAT score means for you?
1. Get a baseline score. Study for 10 hours in order to gain basic familiarity with the test and its content before taking a practice test. This will give you a baseline score to work from. Students can often improve 160+ points from baseline with additional test preparation.
2. Reach your own score maximum. Students usually reach a max limit after 40-80 hours of effective, focused studying. Getting that much prep in will mean you are dedicating yourself to excellence by your own standards.
How Do You Prepare to Earn Excellent SAT Scores?
You might have a rough range in mind for those excellent scores you're hoping to earn. If not, you'll hopefully get a good baseline score to work from based on the guidelines above. Once you're ready to start working up towards that range, follow the guidelines here for an effective SAT preparation plan:
1. Set a timeline. If you're going to prepare for the SAT, you'll need a reasonable study plan based on how much time you have before the exam. Get instructions on how to do this here.
2. Set a goal score. You won't have anything to work towards if you don't set a challenging, but realistic, goal score for yourself. Start by looking up the "middle 50" SAT score ranges for target schools. You can get up-to-date information on these scores by Googling "[school name] PrepScholar admissions requirements."
3. Stick to a study plan. You can work from a study plan specifically for sophomores, juniors, or seniors, or you can come up with your own. Try scheduling study sessions in your calendar ahead of time, or letting your parents in on your plan so they can hold you accountable. The better you stick to your plan, the more effective your studying will be.
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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.