Preparing for college applications can feel confusing, overwhelming, and demanding. If you're nervous about the SAT (or college admissions in general), you might be worried about how low of a test score you can afford to get to still have a shot at college. You might even be wondering how low of a score on the SAT is even possible.
In this article, we'll discuss the lowest possible SAT score and why it's unlikely to happen to you. We'll also offer advice on determining the lowest SAT score you can get to 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, we'll go over 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 SAT uses a scale of 400-1600. The Math section is worth up to 800 points, and the Reading and Writing tests combine into the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section to give you 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 EBRW, you'd have a total of 400 points. In other words, the minimum SAT score is 400. (For reference, an average score would be around 1000.)
More specifically, a 400 would be the score you'd get if you answered zero questions correctly on any of the sections or just left your entire test blank and took a nap.
This is why getting the lowest possible score is not a common occurrence! In previous years, fewer students have gotten the lowest possible score on 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!).
Cute dog. Terrible test-taking strategy.
What SAT Score Would You Get If You Guessed 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 four answer choices each, 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 that if you randomly guessed on those, you would get them wrong.
The Reading section has 52 questions. Guessing randomly, you could expect to get (.25) x 52 of them correct; that works out to 13.
The Writing section has 44 questions. Guessing randomly, you could expect to get 11 of them correct (.25 x 44 = 11).
The Math section has 45 multiple-choice questions 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 base our approximate score calculations on the Sample Scoring Guide for Practice Test 1. According to this sample scoring guide, 13 correct answers on Reading gives you a Reading test score of 19 (out of 40), and 11 correct answers on Writing gives you a Writing test score of 16 (also out of 40).
Adding up the 19 on Reading and 16 on Writing gives you a 35 out of 80. If we multiply that by 10 we get 350 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 340, also well above the minimum of 200.
By adding together the 340 from Math and the 350 from Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, we get 690. Even guessing completely randomly and leaving all grid-ins blank, you'd still get nearly 300 points higher than the minimum SAT score.
Random guessing: another dubious strategy.
What's the Lowest SAT Score You Can Have and Still Get Into College?
Beyond the lowest possible score, you might want to know what the minimum SAT score for college admissions is. The answer 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 1450 for a shot (and that would still be a pretty low-end score for a selective school). For a selective public institution like the 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.
Public universities in your state might 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 6% of their graduating high school class; there are also other public Texas universities that assure admission for the top 10%. You might still need to submit test scores for these schools for placement purposes, but low scores won't keep you from getting in.
Another thing to note is that specialty schools like art schools and music conservatories also often have lower SAT score expectations, as applications are much more heavily weighted toward things such as 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.
But there are ways you can get an idea of what scores to aim for.
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.
You can also search for "[School Name] PrepScholar" to find that school's admission requirements page in our PrepScholar database.
In general, a score a little below a school's 25th percentile SAT score (think 10 points) is the lowest score you could get and reasonably expect to have any sort of 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.
The following chart shows sample middle 50% ranges, with what would be considered fairly low and high scores:
1130 - 1260
You might be thinking this: 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 your college applications!
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?
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
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 criteria, and a reach school is one where you fall just under the criteria.
Here's what these types of schools mean in terms of test scores and the middle 50% range:
- Safety school: Your score well exceeds the middle 50% range (think 50+ points)
- Match school: You fall within the middle 50%, preferably in the higher end or just above
- Reach school: You fall in the bottom end or just below the middle 50%
- Boston College (middle 50%: 1320-1490)—As Lupita's score is just below the bottom of the middle 50% for BC, 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.
- Stony Brook University (middle 50%: 1230-1420)—With a 1310, Lupita is right smack in the middle 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%: 1100-1260)—With a score 50 points above this middle 50% range, Lupita has a great chance of getting into SUNY Albany (again, with the caveat that her other qualifications are similarly positioned); this makes it a safety school for her.
- Temple University (middle 50%: 1140-1320)—Lupita's score of 1310 is right at the top of the middle 50% for this school. Her score isn't really high enough to consider Temple a safety, but it does make it a strong match for Lupita.
Of course, there are factors other than test scores you'll need to consider when choosing safety, match, and reach schools.
Schools usually provide information on 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.
Additionally, unique talents or other interesting qualifications can go a long way toward 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?
Targets: not just for darts.
Setting an SAT Goal Score Based on Your Dream Schools
If you haven't taken the SAT yet but 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 getting admitted to most of the schools on your list.
First, make a list of the schools you're considering. Then, look up the middle 50% of each of the schools on your list. Write down the top number of the middle 50%—i.e., the 75th percentile—for each school. You can do this for total score, by section, or both—whatever is most useful for you.
Finally, find the highest score in your list of 75th percentile scores. That'll be your goal score!
Let's do an example. Say Dashawn is interested in the following schools:
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Indiana University Bloomington
- Purdue University
He would then fill out his middle 50% table (note that EBRW stands for "Evidence-Based Reading and Writing"):
|School||EBRW 25th||EBRW 75th||Math 25th||Math 75th||Composite 25th||Composite 75th|
|Target Score||EBRW: 710||Math: 790||Composite: 1500|
Based on his list of schools, Dashawn's goal score should be 1500. If he can score (or beat!) 1500, he'll be in a great position. But even if he falls a little short and gets 1480 or 1470, he'll still have a good shot at getting into most of the schools he's interested in.
Diego climbing the SAT mountain.
You might want to use the following table to make your own list:
|School||EBRW 25th||EBRW 75th||Math 25th||Math 75th||Composite 25th||Composite 75th|
This method will allow you to calculate a goal SAT score based on the schools you are interested in.
But what if when you take the SAT and get your scores back, it looks as though every school you're interested in is out of reach? What should you do then?
All Your Schools Out of Reach? 7 Possible Solutions
If you get your SAT scores and they're a lot lower than what you were aiming for, you might be concerned that every school you're interested in is a reach. Here are seven strategies you could use to address this dilemma.
Are you this kitty, stranded halfway up? Don't worry!
#1: Prep for the SAT and Take It Again
It's possible that you were simply under-prepared for the SAT. In that case, you'll need to prepare rigorously and take it again. If you have at least a few months left before your college application deadlines, taking the test again is probably your best bet.
You might try doing a targeted, personalized prep program, taking an online or in-person class, working with SAT prep books, and/or using Khan Academy. You can learn all about the pros and cons of these SAT prep methods in our guide.
#2: Take the ACT Instead
The ACT and SAT used to be quite different—enough that students would perform very differently on them. This isn't true anymore, though, ever since the SAT's massive redesign in 2016.
However, if you're particularly scientifically literate, the fact that the ACT has an entire Science section score could help you. Other minor differences between the two tests might help you get a slightly higher score on the ACT if you're just hoping for a little boost.
#3: Evaluate Whether You Need Testing Accommodations
If you feel you have under-performed on your SAT because you have a medical condition, learning disability, or psychiatric disorder, you might qualify for special testing accommodations. Especially if you are on an IEP or 504 plan at your school, it is likely that you are both eligible for and would benefit from testing accommodations.
Bear in mind that this is a time-consuming process, so you need to request them early!
#4: Adjust Your Expectations
If your SAT score is too low for all the colleges on your list, then consider looking at less selective colleges. For example, a 1400 might 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're looking for.
#5: 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 scores. If you've already performed well on AP exams or you feel that you could do well on particular Subject Tests, this could be a good strategy for you.
Examples of schools that accept alternate tests include the following:
- Middlebury College: Accepts three SAT Subject Tests in lieu of ACT/SAT
- Hamilton College: Accepts combos of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of ACT/SAT
- NYU Accepts combos of AP, IB, and SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of ACT/SAT
Alternate testing schools are so alternative.
#6: Apply to Test-Optional Schools
Many colleges these days have implemented test-optional admissions. This means that while you can send in standardized test scores with your application, you do not have to submit any. In this case, your GPA, course records, essay, recommendation letters, and other various application materials will be the determining factors in your admission—not your test scores.
Several top-tier schools have begun to implement test-optional policies. This seems reasonable in light of the fact that there are some courses of study in which you might 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.
Here are some examples of schools that are test-optional:
- Wake Forest University
- Bates College
- Wesleyan University
- Bowdoin College
- American University
- Mount Holyoke College
- Sarah Lawrence College
- Bryn Mawr College
- Smith College
#7: Go to Community College
Maybe your SAT score is so low that you're worried there won't be any schools that will accept you. Even in this worst-case scenario, you can still pursue higher education by opting for a community college.
Most local community colleges are open to anyone in the area with a high school diploma or GED. You could start taking classes at a nearby community college and then transfer to a four-year university upon completion of your associate degree, or after about two years. Your most recent transcripts in this case will be much more important than your standardized test scores.
Key Takeaways: Minimum SAT Score for College
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 SAT score can be for college applications depends on what colleges you are applying to. More selective schools will expect higher scores, while many public universities and small liberal arts schools will accept scores on the lower end of the scale. In short, there are tons of 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 the schools you're thinking of applying to.
If your score seems too low for a particular school (or all the schools) you're interested in, you have several options for your next step:
- Retake the SAT
- Take the ACT
- Figure out whether you might need testing accommodations
- Apply to less selective schools
- Apply to test-alternative or test-optional schools
- Go to community college (a great option if you're worried your scores are too low, period)
So what is the minimum SAT score for college? There's really no SAT score too low for higher education—you might just need to take an alternative path to get there is all!
There are lots of ways to get where you want to go!
If you've got low standardized test scores but a high GPA, use these prep strategies to get you on track to where you need to be.
Looking for colleges? Check out these colleges with guaranteed admissions thresholds for certain test scores, and get tips on how to find school in our guide to researching colleges.
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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.