Understanding how the SAT scoring system works is an important part of preparing for the test. After all, how else are you supposed to measure your progress and set goals?
The SAT underwent some big format changes in 2016, which means that the scoring system most people were familiar with was radically overhauled. Here, I’ll cover how the scoring system has changed on the SAT, how this has affected the highest possible SAT score, and what this means for test takers.
How Has the SAT Changed in Recent Years?
Before 2005, the SAT had just two sections (Math and Critical Reading), and each was scored on a scale of 200-800, giving you a maximum possible SAT score of 1600.
In 2005, the College Board instituted a newer version of the SAT with three sections; this changed the maximum possible score to 2400. The new version of the SAT also came with updates to test content and question types.
But in the beginning of 2016, the College Board updated the SAT a second time both in terms of its scoring system and content. There are still three parts of the test but these are now scored as two sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (which is a combination of Reading and Writing). Each of these sections is scored on a scale of 200-800. In addition, there’s an optional Essay section (whose score is separate from your overall SAT score).
You might notice that the structure of the current SAT is fairly similar to that of the ACT.
Another important change is the switch to rights-only scoring, which means that points are no longer deducted for wrong answers. Simply put, there’s no guessing penalty on the SAT!
Now, let's take a closer look at what these changes mean for the highest possible SAT score and the SAT Essay.
The Highest Possible SAT Score
As I mentioned, the current SAT is scored as two sections (Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, or EBRW). Each has a maximum of 800. This means that the new highest possible SAT score is 1600.
Basically, the SAT shifted from a maximum score of 1600 (before 2005), to a maximum score of 2400 (2005-2015), to back down to a maximum of 1600 (2016-present). Note, though, that even though the SAT returned to the 1600 scale, the current SAT format differs a lot from its very old (pre-2005) format.
You can learn more about what counts as a good, bad, or average SAT score by reading our guide.
The Highest Possible SAT Essay Score
The essay used to be a mandatory part of the SAT Writing section. Now, though, it's an optional separate section with an independent scoring system. This means that your Essay score is not included in the total maximum SAT score of 1600.
Two graders will read your SAT essay and score your work on three different dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. Each grader will give you between 1 and 4 points for each dimension. In sum, each dimension is being scored out of 8 possible points.
Three separate scores (out of 8 points each) means that the highest possible SAT Essay score is 8|8|8, or 24 total points.
Because the essay is now scored on three separate dimensions, it may make it easier for you to hone in on (and improve) your writing weaknesses.
What These SAT Scoring Changes Mean for You
These structural and scoring changes to the SAT might not sound like a huge deal, but they could change the way you approach the test. Here are the major features of the new SAT to keep in mind as you prepare for the test:
#1: There's a Greater Emphasis on Math
On the old SAT, the Reading and Writing sections accounted for two-thirds of your total SAT score, whereas Math accounted for just one-third (remember that each of the three sections was scored on a separate scale of 200-800 points, adding up to a maximum of 2400 points).
Now, the Math section accounts for half your total SAT score. If Math isn’t your strong subject, you'll need to dedicate more time to preparing for this section than you would have had to do had you taken the old version of the SAT. Since Math now counts for a far bigger fraction of your score, you don't want to do poorly on it!
To get started on your SAT Math prep, check out our ultimate guide to the SAT Math section.
#2: Know the Expectations for the SAT Essay
The current SAT Essay gives you three scores for three different dimensions, with each being out of 8 points. Check out the SAT Essay rubric to see exactly what graders are looking for from test takers. I also recommend reading our guide to getting a perfect 8 on each of the three SAT Essay dimensions.
#3: Don't Be Scared to Guess on Questions
With the 2016 switch to rights-only scoring (meaning that there are no point deductions for wrong answers), there’s no reason to leave any questions blank. You have nothing to lose if you guess on a question that you’re otherwise unable to answer, so go ahead and put down an answer!
Take a look at our article on how and when to guess on SAT questions to learn more about how to increase your chances of getting a question right on test day.
Guessing obviously isn’t ideal, but these changes to the SAT mean you don’t have to stress about whether to guess if you’re super stuck on a question!
How many people actually score a 1600 on the SAT? Read our expert guide to learn what the answer is!
Knowing how the SAT is scored can be useful—but it’s even more helpful if you have a context for understanding these scores. Start off by learning about the SAT score range. Afterward, read up on what counts as good, bad, or excellent SAT score.
Intrigued by the idea of a perfect SAT score? Check out our famous guide on how to get a 1600, written by an actual perfect scorer!
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:
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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.