The short answer is this: a good SAT score is one that gets you into college. We’ll come back to this in detail and I’ll walk you through how to figure out what a good SAT score is for you.
But first, here are some other ways of approaching this question:
What is the Average SAT Score?
When you ask what a good SAT score is, what you might be wondering is “how does my SAT score stack up against other SAT scores?”
The average SAT score is 1080 out of 1600.
How does this number fit into context? Here is a table showing the percentage of students world-wide who score at or below the score shown (out of 1600):
|SAT Composite Score||Percentage Scoring Below|
What Score Will Make You Feel Good?
Many people, to their detriment, define their performance by seeing how they measure up to the performance of their close friends or a selection of classmates. But this type of “looking at your neighbor” is unhelpful. Many parents will say things to me such as, “at Nick’s school, everyone scores above 1500.” This may be true, but even if it is, it’s unimportant. SAT scores are about college admissions, and college admissions is a global competition, not a local competition. It doesn’t matter what people at your school are scoring. It matters what the world is scoring. So parents, remember: a good SAT score is NOT defined by your best friend’s child!
What Would a Good SAT Score Be for Me?
Now we are getting toward a better way of articulating the question, but we can still improve it. SAT scores are all about college admissions, and college admissions is a personal process. So, another way of phrasing this question is to ask:
What SAT Score Do I Need to Get Into College?
First, there are many colleges that don’t have admission criteria, or have low enough admission criteria that hard work alone can essentially guarantee admission. For competitive colleges, where a minority of applicants are accepted, a good SAT score would be a score that is above average for the students who receive offers of admission at that school.
To determine the SAT score needed for admission, you’ll need SAT admissions data from the target school. Pick a target school (you can simply choose a school located nearby at first). Google “SAT scores [school-name]” and search the results for data. Many schools don’t exactly report average SAT admissions scores, which is frustrating. But, they will report the 25th and 75th percentile scores of admitted students. To approximate the 50th percentile score, I always take the simple average of those two numbers.
This method isn’t exact, but it’s close enough because you’re looking for a rough indicator of the SAT score you need to be competitive at the target school.
If I Hit the Target SAT Score, Will I Be Accepted?
It depends. At competitive colleges, admissions is never guaranteed. Schools have agendas when they build a class and you never know what that agenda is going to be. It could be that your target school is looking for someone who is just like you in every way, and it could be that your target school has many applicants who are similar to you, so it is difficult to stand out. Here’s how I counsel people to think about their SAT score:
An SAT score above the average admitted score at a target school works for you. A below average score works against you.
That is, there are many pieces of your application to a school, and you are more likely to get into schools where your SAT score is a positive piece of the application package, as opposed to a piece that is weighing it down.
What Other Factors Affect College Admissions?
There are 6 major factors that affect college admissions.
|Objective (higher importance)||GPA, SAT/ACT Score|
|Subjective (lower importance)||Essays, Letters of Recommendation, Extra Curriculars, Diversity|
The objective factors matter the most in admissions precisely because they are objective. Imagine someone hands you a stack of 2,000 college applications and tells you to take no more than 1 month to pick your favorite 100 students. Assuming you work non-stop and take no breaks, that’s around 5 minutes per application. That’s the task facing admissions officers at competitive colleges. They need some lever to push on to control the madness, so objective factors such as GPA and SAT score are a quick way to sort that stack. After the sort, most of the admits will be close to the top of the stack. You can’t do that with subjective factors such as essay and letters of recommendation, so those things are typically considered after objective factors when choosing between two students with otherwise similar stats.
What Are My Chances of Admission?
For the most competitive schools, admissions rates are lower than 5%, meaning 19 out of 20 students will not be accepted. If you do the math there, you’ll realize that even if you apply to 10 ultra-competitive schools, you still don’t stand a good enough chance of admission to count on it. In fact, if we crunch those numbers…
Your chances of being admitted if you apply to 10 ultra-competitive schools is only 40.1%
For this reason, students who are aiming for admission to competitive colleges are typically applying to between 10 and 20 schools. They also apply to a mixture of schools at different levels of competitiveness. Here is my recommended balanced portfolio of applications by school selectivity:
|Admissions Category||Category Definition||Number of Applications||Chance of admission|
|Reach Schools||Your SAT score: < 25th pctile||5||5%|
|Competitive Schools||Your SAT score: 25th <-> 50th pctile||7||25%|
|Safety Schools||Your SAT score: > 75th pctile||3||75%|
Your chances of being admitted if you apply to this broad portfolio of schools is 99.8%
Of course, you’ll want to moderate the SAT score criteria to account for the strength of your application in other areas. In particular, consider your GPA, which is the other major objective criteria for college admissions. ‘Average class rank’ is reported by most schools, and can give you a sense of the normal GPA for admits at that school. If your GPA is better than average, you can lower your SAT scores a bit. If your GPA is lower than average, you’ll need to show strength in other areas such as SAT score.
How Much Can I Raise My SAT Score?
Good news: you can raise your SAT score in a relatively short amount of time. (GPA on the other hand, is largely fixed once students hit Junior year and are planning college admissions.)
Here are examples of what happened for some high performing coaching students at Testive. On a recent SAT, Lily raised her score 560, Maria raised her score 390 points, and Matthew raised his score 420 points.
Not everyone achieves these results, however. We’ll talk in a moment about the 2 key behaviors we have found that separate the top performers from the mediocre performers. According to a broad study completed by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, the average student sees an improvement of only 30 points on the SAT.
There are two major reasons the average student improves only 30 points: (1) many students focus on improving the wrong skills, and (2) many students don’t do enough deliberate practice.
Focus on These Skills to Raise Your SAT the Fastest
It’s very important for you to take an organized approach to determining your weak areas because even small improvements in your weak areas have a large impact on your score. Improvements on your strong areas, on the other hand, will probably affect your score less.
Caution: Don’t just use your intuition to determine your strong and weak areas.
Instead, take a full length practice test under test-like conditions (official timing, paper & pencil, no breaks between sections.)
Next, plug your answers into Testive to get a breakdown of your strong and weak areas at the category and sub-category level.
Lastly, focus most of your work on your three weakest areas. Keep focused on those areas until they are no longer your weakest areas. Then, repeat the process. Take a full-length practice test, analyze the results and pick 3 new focus areas.
If you use the Testive software, all of this analysis and focus will happen for you automatically, and your abilities will be recalculated after you do each practice problem. Testive is built on top of algorithms developed at MIT that improve learning speed and score improvement, so every minute you spend preparing will raise your scores as much as possible.
Do 100 Hours of Deliberate Practice to Reach Your Potential
The main way you improve your SAT scores is by learning important things. Learning is a long-term process that doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, you need to (1) set a goal, (2) make a plan, and (3) get support.
If you want to do a great job at all three at once, you can work with a Testive coach, who meets with students weekly on video chat and logs weekly written reports for parents detailing goal, plan, and progress.
After coaching thousands of students, we have noticed a trend where the typical student achieves mastery around 100 total hours of prep including practice tests and real exam sittings, so I recommend that you budget enough time to raise your SAT score to the target level.
Budget Enough Time to Raise Your SAT Score
Most students need about 100 hours of total practice before they achieve mastery on the SAT. My experience is that the total hours matter more than the allocation of hours, so it doesn’t matter whether one does 10 hours per week for 10 weeks, or 5 hours per week for 20 weeks. (There does seem to be a ceiling at around 10 hrs per week, where more isn’t particularly helpful.)
Depending on how big of a weekly time commitment you’re willing to make, plan for 10-20 weeks of prep or somewhere between 2.5 and 5 months of prep before your first “competitive” sitting for the SAT. (I often counsel students to plan an earlier official run-through of the test just to get acclimated to it.)
The best time for most students to schedule their first competitive sitting for the SAT is the fall of Junior year, therefore, the best time for students to do SAT prep is the summer before Junior year. Sophomores should do no more than minimal prep, such as an optional question of the day.)
Students testing later than the fall of Junior year find themselves in a time crunch and also have to balance prep against the school work of Junior year, so if you’re starting prep after Junior year has begun, budget a longer prep window to account for a lower weekly time commitment.
You’ll Understand Where You’re Going Once You Get Started
So, as you have seen, there are many components to honing in on what a “good” SAT score will be for you. You’re unlikely to figure out a number today that you can set in stone. Instead, you can use the methods detailed above to get an idea of what you might be aiming for, and revise – and hopefully increase! – this goal score as you prepare for the SAT and go through the process of taking the official exam.