When they are considered, SAT scores are just a piece of the college admissions process. Schools also review students’ GPAs, course rigor, extracurricular activities, essays and letters of recommendation.
“A three-hour test on a Saturday morning is a very brief snapshot into a student’s abilities,” says Connie Livingston, head of counselors at college admissions consulting firm Empowerly. “Whereas a transcript really shows how students have grown, improved or maintained their academic excellence throughout the years and how they have maximized those opportunities at their schools.”
More than 1,800 four-year colleges have announced plans to go test-optional or test-blind for fall 2023, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit advocacy group.
But even as many schools move away from requiring standardized test scores, experts say a strong score can still help you stand out as an applicant.
That’s especially true given evidence that grade inflation has been on the rise. High school GPAs, on average, increased from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021, according to a 2022 report from ACT. At the same time, the highest grade inflation — a term used to describe an increase in students’ grades that doesn’t necessarily correlate with an increase in their academic achievement — occurred between 2018 and 2021, an increase of 0.1 grade points.
“The whole point of a standardized test was for there to be a standardized metric, because a 97 (grade percentage) at one school is not the same thing as a 97 at another high school,” says Pranoy Mohapatra, director of New Jersey-based PM Tutoring.
[Read: When to Take the SAT, ACT.]
Livingston advises students to take either the SAT or ACT at least once, as long as there are no logistical or financial barriers. From there, students applying to a test-optional school can decide whether it’s beneficial to submit their scores.
“If they score well, not only is it another metric or data point for the school to use to evaluate their candidacy, but it could also open up merit aid opportunities,” she says.
A Good SAT Score for College Admissions
A strong score is subjective, as expectations vary by institution. The average SAT score for the class of 2021 was 1060, up by nine points from the class of 2020, according to a report from the College Board, which administers the SAT. That score falls within the range of some schools, like Radford University in Virginia, where half of the admitted applicants had an SAT score between 950 and 1150, according to U.S. News data.
But many other colleges, such as the University of Pittsburgh, have an average SAT score over 1200 for incoming freshmen. Ivy Leagues and other top universities, like the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, prefer even higher scores, U.S. News data shows.
Experts suggest students do their research and look up the “middle 50” — the range of scores between the 25th percentile and 75th percentile for the last admitted class — on each college’s website to see if their score falls within or above that range. Students should set their target score to either meet or exceed those ranges. They can also aim to reach a school’s minimum score requirement for merit aid.
Here’s a look at the 25th and 75th SAT percentiles in math and reading combined for newly enrolled students in fall 2021 at the top 10 National Universities, as ranked by U.S. News. California Institute of Technology did not report SAT or ACT scores and through 2025 will not consider them during admissions.
|SCHOOL NAME (STATE)||25TH PERCENTILE SAT SCORE||75TH PERCENTILE SAT SCORE||FALL 2021 ACCEPTANCE RATE||U.S. NEWS RANK|
|Princeton University (NJ)||1460||1570||4%||1|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||1510||1580||4%||2|
|Harvard University (MA)||1480||1580||4%||3 (tie)|
|Stanford University (CA)||1470||1570||4%||3 (tie)|
|Yale University (CT)||1480||1580||5%||3 (tie)|
|University of Chicago||1510||1580||6%||6|
|Johns Hopkins University (MD)||1510||1570||8%||7 (tie)|
|University of Pennsylvania||1480||1570||6%||7 (tie)|
|California Institute of Technology||N/A||N/A||4%||9|
|Duke University (NC)||1480||1570||6%||10 (tie)|
|Northwestern University (IL)||1460||1560||7%||10 (tie)|
Not only is a good score relative to each college, but also to each student. The strength of the score can depend on an individual’s GPA, the rigor of the high school courses they take and where they attend high school, says Amy Seeley, founder and president of Seeley Test Pros, LLC, an Ohio-based tutoring company.
“Students are often judged in comparison to their peers,” she says. “So what is the kind of level of work that’s happening with other students? If a student is at a school where there are no honors or AP courses, then of course they’re not going to be judged as much. But they are going to need a score that sets them apart from the other students at that school.”
A score in the 50th percentile means a student scored equal to or higher than 50% of his or her peers. The higher the percentile rank, the better.
The table below shows a breakdown of SAT composite scores by percentile based on exam results, per the most recent College Board data. It shows nationally representative sample percentiles, which are based on a study of juniors and seniors, and are weighted to represent all U.S. students in those grades regardless of whether they take the test.
Recommendations to Improve Your SAT Score
Retaking the SAT can be time-consuming and costly, so figure out what your bandwidth is. Consider your home responsibilities, after-school activities and homework load.
“It plays a role in how much time students can spend on test prep and perhaps limit their ability to improve,” Mohapatra says.
Some families hire test prep tutors or coaches, but studying for the SAT does not have to cost hundreds of dollars. Students can work independently and use free online test prep resources, like Khan Academy, a College Board partner.
“Our tool gives you insights on the areas where you are already really strong — i.e., don’t bother spending more practice time in those areas — and the areas where you are relatively weaker,” says Priscilla Rodriguez, senior vice president for college readiness assessments at the College Board.
If a college superscores, a student’s highest scores from each section on all test attempts are combined to create a new composite score. In these cases, “you can minimize or reduce your preparation because you may only need to focus on one particular section,” Seeley says.
Some schools, however, require applicants to submit all of their test scores from each sitting.
In that case, “I think there is some disagreement within the industry as to whether (retaking the test multiple times) hurts a student or not,” Seeley says. “But I’ve always said that for the most part, a college is going to take your best scores and use that to create their acceptance profile.”
Practice is key to improving your scores, but don’t overdo it, experts warn. Livingston advises students not to take the SAT more than three times, as their score may start to plateau.
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