The SAT (officially the Scholastic Assessment Test) is one of the longest standing and most important examinations in the United States – as well as elsewhere around the world, now – in the college and university admissions process.
Specifically designed to help students showcase their aptitude in key educational areas (specifically reading, writing, and mathematics), the test has been set up and refined over almost 100 years to give admissions departments a good idea about a single students readiness for college level workloads.
Below we are going to dig a little bit deeper into the ins and outs of (almost) everything students need to think about to get a good SAT score and not just an average SAT score.
We are talking about the kind of SAT scores that can open up new educational opportunities, help students and test takers get into their first or second choice school, and give students every advantage to make their educational dreams come true.
Sound like some big promises, right?
Well, read on and find out a little more exclamation
As we highlighted a moment ago, the SAT test was first created almost 100 years ago.
In 1926, an organization known as the College Board (a nonprofit organization)was established with a very specific mandate. They wanted to promote access to higher educational opportunities, promote true equity, and give students an opportunity to really show colleges and universities that they would be fantastic additions to their student body.
Before the SAT was established – and before there was really any standardized tests focused on evidence based reading, mathematics, or writing – most colleges and universities were using a hodgepodge of admissions tests that were anything but universal.
This led to some colleges having significant disadvantages over others when it came to getting great students, but it also led to some colleges being misled by test takers that had mastered their admission pipeline but really weren’t great fits for that school.
The College Board recognized the opportunity and stepped into the void, creating a standardized test for college admissions that would really level the playing field.
Initially, the SAT was a pencil and paperkind of test covering a wide range of different subjects. But over time (and with the help of modern technology) it has grown into the test it is today, focused almost exclusively on reading, writing, and mathematics.
There was a big push in the 1960s for the SAT to be revised to focus more heavily on math and critical reading, something that colleges and universities across the country felt was somewhat lacking in the current student body.
In the 1990s, the test was further refined again and expanded with a larger writing section. These three core sections (as well as the optional essay section) have remained unchanged for the last 30 years.
One thing that is almost impossible to overstate is the importance of the SAT test, especially for students that are looking to get into their dream college or their dream school.
Almost all the schools in the United States (and a number of other schools around the world) use the SAT as a cornerstone of their admission process.
The SAT scores that a student receives on this test is a huge predictor of how well they will perform in college, which is why a high school student serious about pursuing a higher education needs to do their best to get higher scores – competitive scores.
This is not to say that the SAT and the role that it plays during the admissions process has gone on scrutinized.
In recent years (particularly in the last decade or so) those in higher education have questioned whether or not the highest SAT score (or even ACT scores) means as much about a student’s capabilities as it might have in the past.
On top of that, there are many who have now come to believe that SAT score ranges unfairly tip the scales in favor of students with better opportunities, better funded educations, and knows that aren’t coming from underrepresented communities.
Right now, though, Ivy League schools, many colleges, and almost every university in the US continues to use this standardized exam and the section scores to determine whether or not a student is the right fit for their organization.
That’s unlikely to change in the short or long-term future.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if new changes are made to the way that the SAT is structured or the way that SAT scores are calculated going forward, though. Change and modernization has always been a part of this test, and it’s always played a role in how students and test takers can get a good score.
Understanding the SAT Scoring System
SAT scores are designed first and foremost to do one thing and one thing only:
Provide colleges and universities with as comprehensive a picture (at a glance, admittedly) of the academic aptitude and readiness of an individual student applying for their organization.
The test itself is structured with SAT scores that scale from 400 (the lowest possible score) all the way up to 1600 (the highest possible score). These SAT scores themselves, though, are made up of a composition of individual scores (the average SAT composite score) pull together from scoring each individual test section.
The math, the reading, and the writing and language sections of the test will all be scored separately and independently, with every section scored based off of a sliding scale of between 200 and 800 points.
The essay section of the SAT (A 100% optional section) is scored separate from all of that, on a scale that slides between 2 and 8 points.
On top of those “main” SAT scores, though, there are also sub SAT score numbers that are included with your scoring report, too.
These “sub SAT score” records – along with cross SAT score records – are designed specifically to give colleges and universities and even more detailed understanding of your specific strengths as well as your specific weaknesses.
These SAT score records include, but are not limited to math test scores, reading test scores, and writing test scores. Sub SAT score records are ranked between one and 15, giving admissions departments a better idea about your capabilities in algebra, geometry, grammar, analysis, etc.
Because of these sub SAT scores it’s hugely important for test takers and students to really focus on every aspect of the question they are answering, as well as every aspect of their answer.
If test takers want to get into their target schools and want to get the best possible SAT scores they can, they are going to need to improve their sub SAT score numbers. Good SAT scores are only possible when the total of the individual parts add up to something really impressive.
What is a Good SAT Score?
Now that we have that squared away little bit, let’s dig deeper into what a good SAT score is, how to come up with a target SAT score, and dive a little bit into the average score nationwide so that you have a better idea of what you’re looking to achieve with this exam.
For starters, trying to answer “what is a good score” is a little more difficult than some people expect.
Some schools add a lot more weight to a specific target score than others, which means there’s no real universal “good score” that you should shoot for. Maybe you are looking to go to a school where the SAT isn’t quite as important, or maybe you’re looking to go to school where your SAT score is hugely important.
That’s something you’ll need to research during your admissions process.
As a general rule of thumb, though, SAT scores that come in anywhere near 1200 – and certainly above that – are going to be considered really solid test scores.
A 1200 score report puts these kinds of test takers in the top 50% of all students, well above the average SAT scores of around 1050.
All that said, if your target schools are very competitive you’re going to need an above average score even just to get consideration. A competitive school might only look at SAT applications with scores of at least 1200, for example.
The most competitive school organizations out there – and we’re not just talking about Ivy League school or elite universities, either – are going to want to make sure that their incoming freshmen have a good SAT score ,like a 75th percentile SAT score, for example.
We are talking about a 1300 score, well above the average score but not quite the perfect SAT score at the same.
Many of the most selective colleges and universities in the United States will not settle for anything close to a below average score, average score, or even a slightly above average SAT score.
These kinds of schools – schools like Harvard University, for example – are going to want the very best of the best students possible, and that means they want their students scored to come in as close to 1500 or above as possible.
Here’s a quick breakdown of 10 different colleges and universities around the United States with the SAT score range they are looking for during the admissions process just to give you a better idea of what we are talking about here:
- Lincoln University, PA – No SAT requirement
- Southern Illinois University Carbondale – SAT score of 1000
- Eastern Kentucky University – SAT score of 1010
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas – SAT score of 1030
- University of Alabama – SAT score of 1060
- Ohio State University – SAT score of 1160
- Indiana University, Bloomington – SAT score of 1190
- University of Michigan – SAT score of 1280
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – SAT score of 1350
- Harvard University – SAT score of 1460
One real important thing to mention here, though, is that even if schools publish their SAT score range that they are looking for that’s no guarantee that you’ll be admitted to the college or university.
Colleges and universities like Harvard, for example, are going to be looking far beyond a good SAT when it comes to adding students to their organization. They want well-rounded, really special students, students that have great academic performance under their belt but also have diverse extracurricular activities and special essays included with their SAT exam, too.
Coming Up with a Target Score
Test takers would do well to come up with a target score for their target schools before they even think about registering for the SAT exam.
Sure, there are maybe other test takers out there that just sort of “wing it” when comes to taking these exams – hoping for the best possible score and then looking for a school based off of their number – but many students want to be more prepared.
You’ll want to start this process by researching the school you want to attend, schools that will receive your college application. Look at the SAT score range they require, look at what they would consider to be an excellent SAT score, and then shoot for that number during your test prep.
This will help you relax a little more when you’re taking the test, especially if the school you are hoping to attend doesn’t require the best SAT score possible (1500 or above).
You’ll be much looser, much more relaxed, and much better positioned to get the total score you need to attend your dream schools when you do this legwork in advance.
Preparing for the SAT
Preparing for your SAT can feel a little bit overwhelming at times, but when you have the right resources and a strategic approach – and begin your prep well ahead of your actual test date – you really set yourself up for success.
Today, more than ever before, there are tons and tons of resources available to help you get your prep in.
We are talking about official study materials from the College Board themselves, the ability to take a practice test multiple times, and even private tutoring if you want to maximize your opportunities to get the highest total score that opens up as many colleges and universities as you’d like to attend.
The first thing you’ll want to do when prepping to get the best SAT score possible, though, is to familiarize yourself with the layout of the test, the timing of the test, and the content you are going to be tested on.
Secondly, you’ll want to research different prep materials, prep classes in your local area, and even watch prep videos online (YouTube is a very valuable resource). Take your time going through these resources, specifically looking for ways to get a higher SAT score than you would have been able to without this inside information.
Practice tests are a very valuable piece of the puzzle here, and a real secret to getting even just a decent SAT score. Students score significantly higher following a practice test than they do “going in blind”.
The real advantage in a practice test isn’t just sort of going through the motions, either.
You’ll learn about the way the test is structured. You’ll learn about the way questions are asked, and you’ll be able to time yourself as you move through each individual section so that you can find your strengths and weaknesses.
That’s big, and something other test takers will tell you gives you a huge advantage, too.
Lastly, whether or not you decide to hire a private tutor to help you lock in good SAT scores you’ll want to come up with a study strategy and study schedule that works well for you.
Set aside time each day to go over the material you’ll be tested on. Take practice tests as often as you’re able to (especially free ones available online). Practice writing an essay, especially if you are shooting for a good SAT essay score – even if the SAT essay is optional.
A solid SAT essay (and a decent score on it) could give you a leg up when it comes time for your application to be reviewed.
On top of the prep strategies we highlighted above, there are a bunch of test taking strategies you’ll want to consider when it comes time to sit down and actually take the test itself. These are the kinds of strategies that 75th percentile SAT score students use all the time to give themselves every advantage at getting way better than an average SAT score.
Time management –If you are serious about getting a better than average SAT score you need to make sure that you have your time management down pat. Pace yourself, understand exactly how much time you have available for each section of the test, and try your level best not to get bogged down on any one single question. Answer all questions – even if you have to guess – but don’t let a tough question stop you from moving into others you can answer pretty quickly.
Skim and scan –To get a good score in the reading section of the SAT test you’ll need to read, understand, and identify important bits of information in sometimes large chunks of material. To increase time and efficiency, skim and scan material to pull out the main ideas and the key details so that you can move swiftly through this section.
Process of elimination – Remember that, above all else, the SAT is designed to be a challenge. You may not know the answer to every single question, so you have to stack the odds as much in your favor as possible. Use the process of elimination to narrow down potential answers you’re not sure about and make an informed guess. Wrong answers are better than having no answers on the board.
There are going to be times moving through any good SAT exam that you feel a little pressured and a little overwhelmed. That’s normal. That’s the way the test is set up.
Recognize that, use the strategies we highlighted above, and push through those feelings and you’ll be able to get a better than average SAT score with a lot more certainty.
Improving Math Scores
Getting a good math score while taking the SATs is a huge piece of the success puzzle. Colleges and universities want their incoming students to have strong mathematic skills.
To help you better prepare for this section of the testyou’ll need to be comfortable with mathematical formulas, quickly tackling problem-solving issues, and developing strong strategies for resolving mathematical equations in a timed environment.
Here are some tips to help you improve your math score:
Master and memorize formulas – The more familiarity you have with keep mathematical formulas and concepts (things like linear equations, quadratic functions, and geometric formulas, for example) the better math scores you’ll be able to anticipate going forward.
Practice SAT style mathematics problems – Use official SAT study materials to really analyze the kinds of math questions you might find on your real test. This inside information will prove hugely valuable, showing you how these kinds of questions are structured so you can get to the answer faster.
Push yourself with word problems – Word problems routinely proved to be one of the biggest barriers to students getting a better score percentile on the math section of the SATs than they might have otherwise. Spend time on these during your prep and you’ll have a much easier go of it.
Master your calculator – The SATs allow you to use a calculator, but you have to be able to use the hardware available quickly and efficiently if it’s going to help you maximize your score percentile. Practice with your calculator so that you know how to use it best when it’s time to take the actual test.
Improving Reading Scores
SAT reading scores are going to be assessed based off of your capability to read and comprehend the written word from a wide variety of different texts.
You’re going to need to really develop your skills in reading, analyzing, and understanding core ideas, supporting details, and showcase your vocabulary – often all at the same time.
The reading section is a big part of your final SAT score, and if you want to get into that 75th percentile SAT score (a really, really good score) you want to make sure that you have your fundamentals down pat.
Here are some tips to help you improve your SAT score in reading:
Read and analyze complex passages – A big part of your prep for this part of the SAT should be focused on stretching your mind and your ability to read and analyze complex written passages. Engage with material “above” your level, analyze it as best you can, and really take the time to pull those pieces apart. You’ll be much better prepared to get a good SAT score with this approach.
Focus on main ideas – To quickly analyze a piece (and get what is a good SAT score in reading) you need to identify the main ideas of a passage ASAP. Focus on the first and last paragraphs of a passage, as they are going to have the most relevant content more often than not. Reread the question to try and clean what the test is looking for, too.
Find supporting info – To really understand a text you Natalie need to identify the main idea but also the supporting info that helps prop up that main contention. Read the questions before you read a passage, giving you a better idea of what you are to look for specifically. Take quick notes as you read on scrap paper and you’ll be able to get a good SAT score for sure.
Build out your vocabulary – Building your vocabulary will play a major role in improving both your SAT reading score as well as your SAT essay. Flashcards can help you learn new words, but reading broadly (all different kinds of material, including material you might not read much of right now) will help you build your vocabulary faster than almost anything else.
Improving Writing Scores
Figuring out the answer to “what is a good SAT score” in the writing section can be a little challenging, mostly because the essay section of the SAT can feel real subjective.
You are, after all, going to have to write concise and well constructed essays in direct response to prompts provided to you – but the audience (and the actual individual reading and scoring your essay) has a lot of control over how well your essay gets scored.
Write more often – The fastest way to become a stronger writer is simply to write more often than you probably do right now. Think about test prompts, come up with ways to craft clear and concise responses, and then go back to edit your initial draft to see where you can improve. Reading broadly can help you boost your writing, too.
Spend a lot of time on your test prompt – Too often otherwise fantastic students breeze right through their writing prompt on the actual SAT test, conflating it with something else in their mind, and then end up writing a decent essay on something that doesn’t directly answer the question. That’ll tank your score. Take a little bit of extra time to really consider the prompt and how to respond to it best.
Develop a thesis before jumping in – The next thing you want to do is really take time to think about how you want to respond, what you want your main point to be, and how you want to convey that point with the written word. Jumping right into writing anything at all probably won’t get you the SAT score you’re hoping for. Taking time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it before you write anything will make a big difference.
Relaxation and Mental Preparation
An often overlooked aspect of getting a good SAT score is keeping yourself relaxed, calm, and ready to deal with the inevitable diversity this challenging exam will bring to the table.
In fact, some students report that mental preparation – rather than material preparation – was much more important for them getting into the 75th percentile SAT score bracket than almost anything else.
Here are some things to help you out:
Stay cool and calm – Assuming you have done plenty of test prep and are as ready to rock ‘n’ roll as you’ll ever be ahead of the SATs, there’s really nothing to freak out or worry about when you actually sit down to take the test itself. Try to stay cool, try to stay calm, and use things like intentional breathing or mindfulness to settle any nerves that you’re feeling.
Overcome test anxiety – Few things help students overcome SAT test anxiety more effectively than taking sample tests and preparing themselves as best they can. A good nights sleep, a great and healthy breakfast, and taking quick “mental breaks” during the test can work wonders to unlock a great SAT score, too.
Maintain focus – Because the SAT is such a long examination (nearly 4 hours long) you need to think of it as more of a marathon than anything else. Your mind is going to wander, you’ll be tempted to daydream, and your focus is going to try and break down on you. When you feel that, take a deep breath, have a snack, take a drink of water, or find a way to recharge and re-center.
When you get right down to it, the SAT – and a good SAT score – have the opportunity to open up a whole host of educational opportunities you might not have otherwise had available to you.
At first blush, that can put a lot of pressure on people. But when you think about the opportunity you have in front of you – and how much time and energy you can dedicate into preparation ahead of time – it’s easier to see this as a good thing rather than a stressful thing.
On top of all of that, you should remember that a good SAT score is only one piece of the puzzle for admissions to the colleges and universities you want to attend.
Other details are going to be considered as well and it’s important to showcase yourself as a well-rounded student during the admissions process for sure. Do not rely too heavily on the SATs or your SAT score, but don’t discount the value of a solid score, either.
Be sure to use the tips and tricks we highlighted above to give yourself every advantage when taking this test and you should be good to go!