Updated: May 14, 2020
SAT stands for the Scholastic Assessment Test, and refers to one of the most popular standardized tests used by American colleges to evaluate potential applicants. It is administered by the College Board several times throughout each year and is almost universally accepted by undergraduate programs during the college admissions process, much like the ACT. Most schools require students to take the SAT in order to even be considered for admission. Once they’ve received students’ SAT scores, colleges then use them to determine which students to accept into their student body and how much financial aid they should offer in the form of scholarships.
Essentially, the SAT is designed to determine your college readiness, and is used by institutions around the world. So, any student considering an undergraduate degree should definitely get to know the test’s structure, content, and scoring. Here, we’ll break down how the test works, how to determine your target SAT score, and how to achieve your SAT goals, so that you’ll know everything you need to feel confident about your score and your college application.
How Is The SAT Scored?
The SAT has 2 main sections, which are further divided into smaller subsections. The main 2 sections of the SAT are the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section (ERW) and the Math section. You’ll often see the ERW portion of the exam split into the Reading and Writing & Language categories, which are its 2 subsections. The Math portion of the SAT is split into 2 subsections also, as students can use a calculator in the first part of the SAT’s Math section, but can’t use a calculator in the second.
Your score for each of the main 2 sections of the SAT will be between 200–800 points. Together, your 2 section scores combine to create a total SAT score between 400–1600.
There is, however, a 3rd section of the SAT: the essay. This essay section is totally optional though, and is completely separate from your overall score. Elite colleges may require the writing section, and while including an SAT writing score will look good on any college application, most colleges will accept SAT scores without the essay section. There’s no penalty if you choose not to write it, but there’s also little risk in giving it a try, so the SAT section is there for anyone who might want to show off their writing chops!
In total, the SAT lasts exactly 3 hours without the writing portion, but this doesn’t include breaks between sections. If you take the SAT with the essay, the exam will take about 4 hours, as you’ll add another 50 minutes of content to the test, plus breaks.
There are no official computerized versions of the SAT, so taking the SAT will always involve some good old fashioned paper-and-pencil. You’ll complete the test on a standardized answer sheet that is then scanned to calculate your raw score. The raw score for your SAT is simply on the number of answers you get correct. Because it’s calculated this way, the number of questions you get wrong doesn’t add an additional penalty, unlike a few other standardized tests This means that if you don’t know an answer, it’s always the best option to take a good guess.
There are 52 questions in the Reading section of the SAT, leading to a maximum raw score of 52. The Writing and Language section has 44 questions, and a max raw score of 44. The Math section has 58 questions, and—you guessed it—a max raw score of 58. The optional essay of the SAT has only 1 question, a prompt, but has a potential raw score of 44.
Once your raw SAT scores are calculated, they are converted to scores on the 200–800 point scale. There are very slight differences in difficulty among different versions of the test, so the scaled scoring conversion accounts for these differences to create fair, consistent scores for every test. These scaled scores are what you’ll see when you get your SAT score report.
How is the SAT Essay Scored?
The SAT essay is completely optional, and doesn’t affect your overall SAT score. If you’re having trouble deciding whether or not to write the essay, and how much time to devote to studying it, refer to your school of choice. Some schools value the essay quite a bit, others may ignore it. For most schools, a good SAT essay score can really set you apart from other applicants, while a bad essay score doesn’t matter as much when balanced with a good SAT total score.
Each essay is read and scored by 2 different people, who score your response based on 3 dimensions:
- How well you understood the essay prompt, including both its overall theme and specific details
- How well you developed ideas and arguments that incorporate evidence from the prompt text
- Your ability to write a cohesive, organized, and precise essay, using a clear command over the English language
Each of these sections will receive between 2-8 points. The score of the SAT section overall is the sum of both readers’ 1–4 ratings in each dimension. So, your SAT essay score could be anywhere between 2, 2, 2, and 8, 8, 8.
The New SAT Scores
In March 2016, the College Board implemented a major overhaul of the SAT’s scoring and structure. Previously, SAT scores went up to 2400 points, and the test looked quite different in general. Though it’s been a while since the change, it’s important to know about the differences in scoring to avoid being confused by any older SAT information you may come across. More importantly, you should know that the College Board also implemented new cross-test scores and subscores to the SAT score report. Although your overall and section scores for the SAT are the most important to colleges, these scores can be very helpful when you’re trying to improve your scores or evaluate your college readiness in certain subject areas.
SAT Cross-test Scores
Cross-test scores are a special type of SAT score that represent your performance in a category of thinking across all sections of the test. The 2 categories they represent are Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science. There are questions throughout the SAT that fall into these categories. These cross-test scores range from 10–40 and are designed to tell admissions officers (and you) how well you analyze texts and solve problems related to these 2 areas. Your cross-test scores are important, especially if you’re applying to a school for a program that’s specifically related to one of these areas, but they also won’t be the most important part of your SAT score report for a college admissions board.
The subscores on your SAT score report are similar to your cross-test scores, but instead of showing your performance in categories across the entire test, they only do so within specific test sections. You’ll get 3 subscores within the Math section and 4 subscores for questions in the ERW section. These scores are reported on a scale of 1–15.
The Math section of the SAT has 3 section subscores:
- Heart of Algebra: these questions assess your ability to solve and create linear equations and inequalities using variables.
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis: these questions assess your ability to use math skills to solve real-world problems, like those using proportions, ratios, rates, and application of units.
- Passport to Advanced Math: these questions assess whether you are prepared for college-level math, weighing your ability to understand the structure of expressions and analyze, manipulate, and rewrite the same expressions.
The ERW section of the SAT has 4 section subscores:
- Expression of Ideas: questions in this category ask you to improve texts based on topic development, accuracy, logic, cohesion, and general language use.
- Standard English Conventions: these questions test your mastery of grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation.
- Words in Context: In the Reading section of the SAT, these questions ask you to interpret how the meanings of words can change based on the context of the passage it’s in.
- Command of Evidence: these questions ask you to identify the parts of a text that support, evidence, or otherwise relate to another theory, question, or idea.
These subscores are a great tool for evaluating your skills, and they also provide insight into what the SAT is designed to focus on. Notice that geometry is not one of the subscores, but algebra is. That’s because geometry, basic trigonometry, and complex numbers only make up 10% of the SAT’s math section. Algebra, along with the other subsections in the Math section, are clearly a more prominent part of the SAT.
Now that you understand how the SAT is scored on the section and subsection levels, we can take a look at the one question that’s undoubtedly on every high school student’s mind: what is a good SAT score?
What Are Good and Bad SAT Scores?
Although higher scores are certainly better than lower scores, trying to define any SAT score as downright ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can ultimately be counterproductive when you’re preparing to apply for college. Instead of setting one score as a definitive ‘good’ score, you need to find out which SAT score will be best for you. That means putting in some research and planning into which schools will best help you achieve your professional and academic goals; it takes some effort, but settling on a specific SAT target score early on helps you get the most out of the SAT in the long run.
With that being said, there are still a few national average SAT scores that we can let you in on, which might prove helpful as you navigate the SAT:
The national average SAT score is about 1060 out of 1600. However, this doesn’t mean that a 1070, an 1100, or even a 1060 will get you into any given school. To find out what SAT score you need, consider your circumstance and goals.
For instance, some colleges may consider a score above 1300 (the top 14% of test-takers) to be competitive, and anything between 1060–1300 to be just average. Ivy league schools, on the other hand, may barely accept a student with a 1300 SAT score and an excellent academic record, because they only consider scores between 1450–1600 to be truly competitive. On the essay portion of the SAT, most students score between 4–6 for each of the 3 categories, so scores above 6 could get you into a good writing program, though 7s and 8s would be considered the most competitive.
So that you can see what scores schools may be looking for in the individual SAT sections, we’ve broken down the average SAT scores per section here:
To find out what your ideal schools require in terms of an SAT score, you simply have to do a bit of digging. That research is an important first step in the overall SAT prep process, which we explain in further detail below.
6 Steps to Achieving a Good SAT Score
The SAT is a daunting task for high school students, but a great SAT score can be an attainable goal for anybody—with the right preparation, of course.
Preparing for the SAT will look different for every student, but developing attainable SAT goals, creating and sticking to a personalized study plan, and improving your academic weak points over time is the most surefire way to get a good score
- Set solid SAT goals.
As we’ve said before, put some time into researching specific schools you would like to attend, and find out the SAT score averages for their accepted applicants. If you blindly go into the SAT hoping to score ‘above average,’ you can easily find yourself disappointed, as every school has a different interpretation of what makes an ‘average’ score.
- Register for the SAT.
Take a good look at your calendar and find a date that helps you prepare for the test while staying sane. We recommend that students schedule the exam 3 months ahead of time, as this gives you plenty of time to explore the content of the test and to practice test sections a little bit at a time, while leaving room for other events and unexpected obligations in your schedule. Make sure that the exam date doesn’t conflict with other items on your calendar so you can take the test without being distracted by other priorities. Also, note that when you register for the SAT, you’ll choose up to 4 schools to send your score reports to, as well as whether you want to take the with-essay or without-essay version of the SAT. If you have questions about registration, you can check out our article on registering for the SAT to learn more.
Your SAT preparation strategy is entirely your own, but no matter your studying style, we highly recommend that you try the PSAT (or Practice SAT) before taking the SAT itself. This is a great way to familiarize yourself with the test and determine what you need to improve as you study. As you practice and prepare, you may find that studying on your own just isn’t working out. If that’s the case, don’t worry, as there are plenty of resources available to you. You can find free test resources online, but you may want to take a look into an actual SAT prep course that provides you with the structure and professional guidance you need to effectively prep. If you’re not sure about how this works, check out our list of the Best SAT Prep Courses of 2020, where you can learn more about some of the fantastic courses that improve countless students’ scores each and every year. Though you may worry about how a course like this will fit into your schedule (or your budget), there are so many unique options out there, and we have no doubt you’ll find one that suits your particular lifestyle and academic needs.
- Take the SAT.
You can prepare for the SAT all you want, but when it comes to applying for college, all that people will see on your college application is how you did on test day. Though the test is stressful, don’t let it get to you! Make sure that you’re well-rested and well-fed in the days leading up to the exam, and consider arriving early to get comfortable with the testing environment. Take a deep breath, be confident in the work you’ve put in thus far, and crush the SAT.
- Review your scores.
After you’ve received your SAT scores, you have to decide your next course of action. This is where setting good SAT score expectations for yourself really comes in handy—if you know exactly what you needed to reach in order to make it into your dream school, your decision process here becomes a lot easier.
- Revise/ Replan/ Retake.
If your SAT score isn’t where it needs to be, then there are plenty of options for you. Decide whether you want to take a second try at the SAT, as plenty of students do, or instead pursue another standardized test or application route, such as finding a school that doesn’t require a standardized test score. If you do want to retake the SAT, take a good look at your score report to identify the concepts you struggled most with, apply what you need to improve to a new course of action. At this stage, looking into a SAT prep course can easily help you fine-tune your SAT preparation and ensure a better score on your second attempt.
Setting a Target SAT Score
Now that you have a structured plan for approaching the SAT, you can start with the first step: finding the SAT score you need. Remember, every school has different academic expectations for its students, so no 2 schools are exactly alike. Finding the average SAT scores and application requirements for your school is a great way to develop an idea of what you need to shoot for on the SAT.
How Do I Find Average SAT Scores?
Most schools regularly release the average SAT score, or the average SAT score range, for the students they accept each year. You can usually find this information on a school’s website. However, keep in mind that a school’s average SAT score is just that, an average. This means that plenty of students scored above and below that score, so if it seems just inches out of reach—but the rest of your application package is solid—you’re in pretty good shape.
The rest of your college application plays a critical role in determining the SAT score you need. If you have a near perfect GPA, good letters of recommendation, and a list of contributions to extracurricular activities, then your SAT score can be a little lower and your application overall will still be competitive. If these areas are lacking, then you may want to spend more time preparing for the SAT to ensure the best chance of getting admitted. You can also consider where colleges are accepting more students from. Certain colleges prioritize hiring in-state students or out-of-state students, so students from the college’s desired location may get accepted with lower scores than those who aren’t.
If you’re having trouble finding the SAT average, admissions requirements, or other information about a certain school, don’t hesitate to call the school’s admissions office directly to learn more about them. Striking up conversation and developing a better relationship with the school personally is often a great move!
If you’ve done your research into a school’s requirements but are still wondering whether your other college application materials are up to snuff, or if you’re struggling to navigate the world of college admissions in general, you may want to consider using an admissions counselor. These professionals have invaluable insight into all the details about the admissions process, and we’ve compiled a list of the Best College Admissions Consultants to help you narrow down which one might be the best option for you. They’ll help you navigate not only the SAT test itself, but even which classes to take in high school to maximize your college potential; these guys are pros.
After you’ve set your SAT goals, prepared for the exam with careful practice over time, and followed through with a solid attempt on test day, it’s time for you to see how you did!
Understanding Your SAT Scores
When Will I Receive My SAT Scores?
SAT scores are available within 2–6 weeks after taking the test. If you’d like to see specific dates, you can check out the score release schedule for the 2019–2020 academic year.
The SAT offers several ways for you to receive your score report. If you’ve created a College Board account, you can receive your online score report online through the College Board website. If you haven’t created an account, and instead registered for the SAT by mail, you’ll receive your SAT score report by mail. You can also get your report by phone, but there is a fee for this form of delivery.
Although schools won’t view all of them, there are a total of 18 distinct scores that you’ll find on your SAT score report. These may seem overwhelming at first, but all this detail can be incredibly helpful to you and the colleges you apply to, because they provide great insight into your specific academic strengths and weaknesses.
|Total Scores||400–1600 points, in 10-point increments|
|Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section Score||200–800, in 10-point increments|
|Math Section Score||200–800, in 10-point increments|
|Test Scores||3 individual scores, 10–40 points each|
|Essay (optional)||3 individual scores, 2–8 points each|
|Cross-test score||2 individual scores, 10–40 points each|
|Subscores||7 individual scores, 1–15 points each|
Sending Your Scores
Most colleges require a score from at least one entrance exam, and want an official score report sent directly by the test administrator. Although you choose 4 schools to send your reports to when you register for the SAT, you can change that list of recipients using your College Board account within 9 days of taking the test.
If you’d like to send your scores to more than 4 schools, you can sign into your College Board account and send them directly to the schools, with a fee.
Part of your score report will show benchmarks for each section of the SAT, which represent the exam’s standard for ‘college and career readiness,’ In 2019, the SAT benchmark scores for the ERW section was 480, while the benchmark score for the Math section was 430, for a total of 1010. Remember that these scores won’t necessarily equate to the specific score standards for colleges, so don’t assume that reaching these benchmarks means you’re ready for every college.
How Are the SAT Sections Scored?
On the score report, you’ll notice 3 scores called ‘Test scores.’ These are essentially the scaled version of your raw scores in each category, Math, Writing and Language, and Reading, each scored between 10–40.
If you want to see how you got your total ERW section score (which is between 200–800), you can add your 2 ERW test scores together and multiply that by 10 to get your total ERW score.
To do the same for your Math section score, take your test score, multiply by 2 (once for the calculator portion and once for the no-calculator portion) and then by 10. This will give you a total Math section score out of 800.
What Are SAT Score Percentiles?
Percentiles are a commonly used way of interpreting standardized test scores. Essentially, a percentile ranking shows you the percentage of students that scored below you on an exam. So, if you score in the 75th percentile, you scored better than 75% of test takers, but worse than 25% of test takers. So you can familiarize yourself with how percentiles equate to SAT scores, here are the SAT percentiles for the graduating class of 2019:
Source: College Board (PDF)
Improving your SAT Score
What if I get a Bad SAT Score?
There’s no doubt that the SAT can be a source of anxiety for high school students, but a lot of this fear comes from the idea that a ‘low’ SAT score will prevent you from getting into a good college. If you didn’t score what you wanted to on the SAT, don’t worry! You’re in good company, and there are plenty of things that you can do to improve your SAT score or revise your application plan:
- Retake the SAT.
Depending on your application timelines and when you took the SAT, you may be able to take it again. Of course, retaking the SAT without additional prep work likely won’t help at all. This would be a great opportunity to take a look at a few professional SAT prep courses with score improvement guarantees; for these courses, if you don’t improve, you don’t pay a dime.
- Improve other areas of your application.
If your SAT score isn’t great, find other ways to make yourself stand out from the competition. This could include raising your GPA (if you have the time), seeking out stellar letters of recommendation, or perfecting your application essays.
- Take the ACT.
The SAT is one of 2 widely-used standardized tests in the college application process; the ACT is the second. These tests are remarkably different, as the SAT is designed to measure your reasoning and verbal skills, while the ACT is more focused on actual concepts you’ve learned in school. Students often perform better on one test than the other, so you could easily be better suited for the ACT, which is not a problem in the slightest. Most schools take both the ACT and SAT on college applications, but be sure to check and see which tests your schools will accept. If you’re considering taking the ACT, review our in-depth articles to familiarize yourself with the specifics of the test and its differences from the SAT.
- Find a school that doesn’t take or require the SAT.
There are over 800 colleges that don’t require standardized test scores, and an increasing number that won’t even look at your scores if you send them. These are well-respected institutions that simply believe your academic record and other application materials are a better predictor of your potential college success than a standardized test. If you’re struggling to succeed on standardized tests, finding a great school that doesn’t require them may be the perfect option for you.
- Find a school where your bad score is a good score.
Different schools have different average SAT scores, and if your score wasn’t competitive at one school, it’s still likely to be competitive somewhere! If you find yourself without enough time or energy to improve your score, find a school where your score will really shine. Sometimes this is a better option than students realize, as many students will perform better at a lesser-known institution where they can excel, instead of at a well-known institution where they will struggle to stand out. In short, don’t be afraid to expand your college options!
Every student’s college application package is unique, and the SAT is just one part of it. Determining an effective target score, making a plan to prepare for the test, and following through with focused efforts and determination is a surefire way to get the SAT score you need.
We know that every test-taker’s SAT journey is different, so we’d love to hear about yours! What is your target SAT score? How did you determine it? And if you have already taken the SAT, how did you do? What tips and tricks would you give others going through the SAT process?