The SAT is a standardized test that objectively measures your ability to learn. It’s one of the two most popular college readiness tests.
About 1.7 million college-bound students take the SAT every year. Your score is one of several factors that can affect the schools and programs you get into. Some scholarship foundations use it, too.
While your GPA tells admissions offices how you did in high school, not everyone has the same assignments, teachers, or curriculum. Variables like these make it hard to compare GPAs from different schools. Tests like the SAT and ACT make it easier for colleges and other organizations to compare applicants and make reasonable inferences about your ability to perform at the college level.
Here’s what you should know about the SAT.
Quick facts about the SAT
Eligibility requirements: You must be applying for college.*
Length: three hours and fifty minutes
Sections: two or three—reading and writing, math, and an optional essay
Number of questions: 154 (plus one optional essay question)
Types of questions: multiple choice, student response, optional essay
Score range: 400–1600
Cost: $46 (or $60 if you take the essay, too)
What does SAT stand for? Nothing. SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. Then it stood for Scholastic Assessment Test. But now it’s just the SAT. The ACT has a similar sad story.
You may also hear people refer to the New SAT. That’s because the test changed quite a bit in 2016.
*The College Board is extremely protective of their tests, so if you want to take the test for fun or something weird like that, you can only take it after the results have been released. (And my guess is you would probably take it alone.)
What’s a good SAT score?
Unfortunately, the answer to “What’s a good score?” is “it depends.” Sure, objectively, a 1500 or above is amazing, and a 1600 is perfect. But a good score is what you need to get into the colleges you’re applying to, and that’s a lot more subjective. A good score depends on:
- The school you’re applying to
- Your demographic
Obviously, the best colleges—such as Ivy League schools—are going to have a different definition of a “good score” than your favorite state university. Remember that amazing score of 1500? At the California Institute of Technology, that puts you in the bottom 25 percent of students. There are several universities where at least 25 percent of the students have a perfect score.
That’s just crazy.
Most colleges have an average range somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400. And some colleges accept students with ridiculously low scores, like York College in Nebraska. If you score 530 or above, you’ve done better than 75 percent of their students. (And remember, you get 400 points even if you get every answer wrong or leave them all blank.)
I’m just going to say it: that’s a bad score. But even a bad score can be “good enough” to get into some schools. A lot of universities don’t have an official minimum SAT or ACT score, they just want you to take one.
If you fall into an underrepresented demographic, or have an especially amazing college application essay, you may be able to get by with a lower score than your run-of-the-mill middle class caucasian male. (Sorry fellow dudes.) It may not sound fair, but Michele Hernandez Bayliss makes a living helping students with test prep, and she says college admissions teams “factor a socioeconomic kind of calculation in their head.”
You can’t do anything about that. But if you have a list of particular colleges you’re trying to get into, you can literally Google “average SAT score for [name of school]” to find the range of scores that were accepted for the most recent class. This will give you a ballpark for what a “good score” looks like for you.
And if you’re not sure where you want to go yet, College Simply has a sweet database of SAT score ranges for 4,000 colleges, so all you have to do is enter your score (or an estimate), choose a region or state, and they’ll show you all the schools that may accept someone with your scores.
Of course, when you score well above average, scholarships you didn’t even know existed may start showing up in the mail. Schools know that the best students have their choice of schools, so when you do well on tests like the SATs, don’t be surprised if your acceptance letters include some hefty offers.
Last thing about good scores, though: you have to look at your percentile.
How do the SAT score percentiles work?
When you get your test results back, you’ll see the number of points you earned in each section (reading/writing, math, and optional essay), your composite score (reading/writing and math combined) and the percentage of students you scored higher than.
Remember how I said 1.7 million students take the test? And how the whole point of this test is to help colleges objectify your brain and compare you to other students? Your score percentile lets admissions offices see at a glance how you stack up against the competition.
Again, a “good score” mostly depends on your school, but a score percentile like “You scored higher than 68 percent of test takers” is a lot less abstract than “You got an 1150.”
So what do you consider good? For some people it might be scoring in the top 50 percent. Someone else might not feel good about anything under the 75th percentile. Or the 90th.
Here’s what you’d have to score to hit a good percentile, based on 2017 SAT scores:
Interestingly, the College Board lets you compare your score to students who didn’t officially take the test. (Weird, right?) They use a “nationally representative sample” of juniors and seniors to compare you to the “typical U.S. student.” Not surprisingly, the typical student who takes the SAT scores better than the “typical U.S. students” who don’t take the test. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter, or maybe it’s because they studied, and got better at taking tests.
Why do some people have scores out of 2400?
Test makers are always fiddling with their tests. In 2005, the essay portion of the SAT was required, and it added an additional 200–800 points to your score. In 2016, they decided to go back to the 1600 point system. Now the essay is optional.
It doesn’t mean much to you now, but some people (like me) are stuck in an alternate reality where SAT scores are out of 2400 and they can’t relate to anyone.
Fun fact: Back then, you were also penalized for wrong answers.
How do you get a good SAT score?
However you define what a good score is, there’s really only one way to get a good score: study, and stay healthy.
How to study for the SAT
The SAT is intended to test your ability to learn, so unfortunately, you can’t just study particular subjects and call it good. The cool thing is though, by preparing for the SAT, you’re essentially optimizing your brain’s ability to learn new concepts. Still, there are some core concepts you’ll need to master in order to navigate test questions, especially on the math section.
(We’ll talk about what’s actually on the test in a minute.)
People always say that standardized tests are really testing your ability to take tests, and that may be most true of the SAT. The single best way to improve your SAT score and prepare for the test is to take practice tests.
The best practice tests will walk you through why an answer is correct and the others are wrong. So even if you do horribly and have to eat a whole sleeve of Oreos to feel better, the process will show you what the test is really looking for, and then you can score higher on the next test—even with completely different material.
The College Board has several free downloadable SAT practice tests. They also have a Daily Practice for the New SAT app that gives you one question a day, and sample questions for each section of the test.
You might also want to start an SAT study group with some like-minded friends. Or at least the smart ones.
How long should you study for?
There are a lot of different theories about how much actual time you should spend studying, and none of them are particularly encouraging. Some say a couple hours can only improve your score by about 10 points. Some say you should study anywhere from 10 to 100 hours.
You know how some people like to binge on Netflix and other people prefer to watch their shows once a week? OK, bad example, everyone prefers to binge. But when it comes to studying, “binging” may sound nice (just get it over with, right?), but that’s almost guaranteed to burn you out. And if you’re brain-dead after two hours, tacking on six more won’t do you much good.
This is the best advice I can give you: pace yourself. How much time you actually need depends on your definition of a “good score” and how far you are from that. (A practice test or two will give you a good baseline.)
Here’s what you should do:
- Figure out when you’re taking the SAT, look at the calendar, and see how many days, weeks, or months you have left to prepare.
- Take a practice test, get a score, and determine how far you are from a “good score.” (If you’re already there, don’t sweat it, but it wouldn’t hurt to put a little time in.)
- Estimate how much time it’ll take to get from your practice score to your desired score, knowing that it takes 1–2 hours to go up 10 points. For improvements over 50 points, it starts to take more time.
- Space out your estimated hours over the time you have left until the test. You probably don’t want less than one hour or more than 10 hours per week.
- If your timeline is too scrunched, it’s probably time to reevaluate your goals. If it’s too thin, try to come up with a study schedule that starts no earlier than six months before the test. (Do you remember everything you learned last semester? Or before the summer? That’s why.)
- Decide on a consistent time to study. You might not feel like it’s necessary, but this is going to take some dedication, and consistent study habits will make it easier.
Whatever else you have going on in your life, make sure you give yourself time to sleep, eat healthy, and seriously, exercise. Those three things may not have anything to do with the material itself, but they all affect your body’s ability to concentrate for an extended period of time.
The average marathon runner finishes 26.2 miles in about four and a half hours. This is a three hour and fifty minute test with 154 questions. It’s literally like a marathon for your brain.
While some of your fellow test takers will inevitably be tempted to stay up all night studying and forget to feed themselves on the day of the test, don’t be like them: lack of sleep plus poor diet will do more harm than whatever you’d gain from cramming.
If you have an especially lofty goal, you may want to check out the Khan Academy. They’ve partnered with College Board to provide official SAT prep, and students have used them to improve their scores by 200 points or more.
What’s on the test?
The College Board keeps the questions themselves under lock and key, but this test has been around since 1926. People know what’s on it by now. And while the test has undergone numerous updates, the material it’s based on hasn’t changed much.
The reading section includes a section from a classic piece of literature and important works like the founding documents. The math section is, well, mostly algebra, which has been around for hundreds of years.
I could prattle on about what’s in each section of the test, but here’s the thing: the College Board already put together some snazzy videos that are probably more interesting than me. They’re concise, not terrible, and sometimes it’s nice to kick back and watch a video.
Time: 65 minutes
Writing and language test
Time: 35 minutes
Time: 80 minutes
Time: 50 minutes
Do you need to take the SAT?
This kind of comes back to the “what’s a good score?” question. It really depends on the school you want to go to.
You definitely don’t need to take the SAT or any other college readiness test if you’re planning on going to a community college. Almost all of them have open enrollment, which means you don’t even need a high school diploma or GED to get in.
Plus, you can always start at a community college, save some money, and transfer to a four-year university. Your credits will make it a lot easier to get into a good school, even without a shiny SAT score.
And again, a lot of good schools don’t even have a set minimum score—they just want you to take the test.
But that’s the easy way out. Doing well on the SAT will open doors to the schools you want to go to, help you land the scholarships you need to get there, and get you into competitive programs that launch your career. So it’s a pretty good use of $50.
One last thing to consider: the ACT recently passed the SAT as the most popular college readiness test. Admissions offices say they don’t favor one over the other, but they’re different enough that it could be worth checking out.
Whatever you decide, remember: a good score is the one that’s good enough for you.
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