Many students worry that a bad SAT score will be the kiss of death for their college applications. The SAT is an important part of the admissions process, so you obviously don’t want to submit a crummy score - but how do you know whether your score is all that bad to begin with?
If you're worried about low scores, understanding where your scores stand in relation to other students’ is the first step to improvement. In this post, I’ll talk about comparing your own scores to those of the general population, your peer group, your target schools, and even your own potential scores. I'll finish off with strategies to bring up scores no matter your goals or study timeline. With this information, you'll be well-prepared to make necessary steps in improving your SAT scores.
A Note on Percentiles
Before we get started, I want to take a minute to explain percentiles, which are an important concept to grasp when we talk about comparing your SAT scores to different groups, whether they're big or small.
Percentile scores are not the same as percentage scores (for example, a number out of 100 that tells you the fraction of correct answers you gave on a test). Percentile scores tell you how you do in relation to other people, which is really helpful when you’re dealing with a scoring system that isn’t necessarily intuitive. For example:
- A 10th percentile score means that you scored higher than 10% of the people who took the same exam
- 50th percentile means you scored higher than half
- 90th percentile means you scored higher than 90% of test-takers.
You can have a high percentage score on a test and still end up with a low percentile score (if the test was easy), or a low percentage score and a higher percentile score (if the test was hard). For example, if you score a 90% on an exam where only 10% of students scored below a 90%, you'd be in the 10th percentile.
This information is important because your actual SAT scores are only useful when you can translate them to percentile scores. When we talk about good or bad scores, we're inevitably comparing your test scores to those of other people or groups. Now that you know all about percentiles, we can get into the nitty-gritty stuff: what is a bad SAT score?
Low Scores Compared to the US General Population
We're starting big here - to get a basic understanding of low SAT scores, we'll look at how the general population performs on their tests. Your definition of low or poor scores might differ from other students - a reasonable cutoff for low scores, for simplicity’s sake, would be at the 25th percentile (so, the bottom quarter of scorers).
As you may already know, the SAT is currently scored out of 1600 points (the lowest you can score is 400). The average composite SAT score is around 1000, which is about the 50th percentile. Because the scoring system has recently changed, we don't have a lot of information about typical
So that you can get a better understanding of general performance, here are some other important percentile cutoffs and their corresponding composite scores:
- 25th percentile → about 840 composite score
- 50th percentile → about 1000 composite score
- 75th percentile → about 1200 composite score
If you'd like more detailed information about SAT percentiles, check out our score rankings guide.
Low Scores Compared to Your Peers
I don't usually recommend comparing yourself to peers; in this case, it's unfortunately necessary.
Now that you know how you may compare to the rest of the country, the next step in figuring out what a low score is would be to figure out what your peers are scoring. Although college admissions officers often view SAT scores as a decent measure of academic preparation, they recognize that many other factors - including family income, social privileges, and educational advantages - play into students' scores as well. Thus, you'll be most likely compared to students who are similar to you in terms of school type, geographical area, background, interests, and grades. The better a handle you have on your peers' scores, the more nuanced your understanding of what a low score will be.
Getting ahold of this information will be a bit more sensitive than just looking up average national SAT scores. Even if you can't get information right from your classmates, there are steps you can take to get a good estimate of peers' SAT score ranges:
- Get your school report with SAT score information. This report will have aggregated scores from students from your high school. How does the high school average compare to the national average? How do your scores (real or target) compare to those of your peers?
- See your guidance counselor. If you don't have access to your school report, or you're having trouble interpreting the information, your guidance counselor should be able to give you an idea of how your peers perform on the SAT.
- Ask around. If you're still having trouble getting information on peer scores, you could try asking your classmates. This will be especially helpful if you can get info from honors students - their scores will generally be more competitive. SAT scores can be a touchy topic, however, so be sensitive and respectful if you discuss this information with your classmates.
- Use a rough rule of thumb. When lacking good information about peers' performance, you could use these (general) rules of thumb. Just keep in mind that these may deviate from your own school's averages depending on average performance (i.e. whether SAT scores at your school are above or below the national averages):
- Low composite scores for honors students (top 1/3rd of the class) will be around 1117, or 70th percentile nationally
- Low composite scores for top honors students (top 1/10th of the class) will be around 1256, or 85th percentile nationally
Low Scores for Your Target Colleges
Knowing how your scores compare to your peers may help you hone in on appropriate target, reach, and safety schools. How do you figure out what these schools will think of your SAT scores? What's the low score cutoff that will put your application in danger?
Put simply; a low score is a score that will get you rejected. Schools don’t really publish hard minimum SAT requirements, but it’s east to get a general idea of what SAT scores they expect from applicants. In general, the bottom 25% of scores for a particular school is the danger zone. You can still get into a school if your score falls below the 25th percentile, but the chances are that your application will have to be exceptionally strong in other areas (e.g. GPA, extracurriculars).
The "middle 50" percent of scores is a pretty safe range to aim for. If all students' scores were lined up in order, the middle 50 would be the range of scores from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile. Your SAT scores don't necessarily need to be at the top of this range to get into a particular school, because by definition, 75% of its students have scores lower than those at the 75th percentile. If you want more information about SAT score ranges for particular schools, just google "[school name] PrepScholar admissions requirements." You can easily convert old SAT scores (out of 2400) to the new scoring system by multiplying by 2/3.
What do you do, though, if your scores consistently fall in the bottom 25% of score ranges for the schools you're considering? Although it's important to have reach schools, it would be wise to apply to some less competitive schools as well. Apply to several schools where you fall into the "middle 50" score range in addition to a few safety schools to optimize admissions options.
Low Scores for Yourself
This isn't a comparison that many students consider when setting their own goal scores. There's so much focus on outward comparison that sometimes we forget to consider our own capabilities when thinking about low or high scores.
It's important to be realistic about your own strengths and weaknesses when setting low score and high score parameters. If you set your score goal too high, you'll cause yourself unnecessary stress and frustration; set it too low, and you could miss out on opportunities at more competitive schools. How do you get an idea of what's reasonable?
Your first step is to get a baseline score. Study for about 10 hours to gain basic familiarity with the SAT before taking a full practice test. Your score will give you a concrete place to work from. Keep in mind that many students, with adequate test prep, can improve 160+ points from this original baseline.
This important initial step should help you understand what to expect from yourself when it comes to good and bad scores. If you’re not improving much after your baseline, then you know that the way you’re studying isn’t working. You may consider your baseline score to be within your low score range since you achieved it with minimal study time. To learn more about how to set appropriate SAT goal scores, read our guide to good and bad SAT scores.
Don't get discouraged if you have low scores - that just means you have room to grow!
How Do You Raise a Low SAT Score?
If you've gone through all the steps of comparison and you find yourself disappointed with your scores, not to worry! There are things you can do to bring up those scores, but your plan of attack will vary based on your goal score and your study time availability.
So what's your goal score? If your scores are already pretty high, and you want to get them as close to perfect as possible, read our guide to scoring a 1600. If your scores are in the lower end of the range, and you want to bring them up across the board, check out our posts on bringing up your reading, writing, and math scores.
How much time do you have to study? If you have quite a bit of time on your hands, read more about setting a study timeline. You can also dive deeper into our blog sections dedicated to the reading, writing, and math sections. If you are taking the SAT relatively soon, check out our last-minute study tips and strategies.
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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.