Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it: the new SAT scoring system is extremely confusing. There are subscores, cross-test scores, an optional essay score and much more. Because I don’t want you to be uncertain about something as important as your SAT scores, I’m here to dispel any confusion and answer your questions.
I’ll talk about all of the different scores: what they mean, SAT score ranges, what SAT scores you need for top colleges, and how everything ties together.
Now let’s get into anything and everything relating to SAT scores and the SAT score range.
Table of Contents
SAT Scoring Basics
- You’ll receive two scores, one math and one verbal (combined from the reading and writing sections).
- Each of these scores is on a scale between 200 and 800 points.
- The total maximum, composite (combined) score you can earn on the new SAT is 1600 points.
- The lowest sectional score you can get on either the reading/writing or the math section is 200 and the highest is 800.
This makes the overall SAT score range (combining Reading/Writing and Math) 400-1600.
Understanding Your SAT Scores
If you’re with me so far, it’s time to talk about average SAT scores: the average score on each section is 500 points. The average overall SAT score is 1000. These are theoretical averages but the real averages tend to be within about 20 points, plus or minus, of 500 points.
Now, this is where things are going to get a little more complicated. On the new SAT there are at least three different types of scores. So hold onto your seats.
1. Test Scores
Okay, so the new SAT lumps the separate reading and writing sections into one 800 score. But the College Board still wants to give colleges a better idea of how to understand your SAT scores: how you did on the reading section and how you did on the writing section.
That makes sense, but for good measure, they figured they’d throw math in as a test score. So the three “test scores” are as follows:
Each one of these tests will be scored on a range of 10 to 40. This score will correspond to how many questions you missed on each section and is adapted to fit the score range.
The two scores, one from the reading test and one from the writing test, will be combined to give you a verbal score on the 200-800 range. The math score on the 10-40 scale will be converted to a final score from 200-800. Add these together and you’ll have your overall SAT score.
How important are these “test scores”? Honestly, they just give people looking at your score report a way to compare your scores to students who took different versions of the SAT. This relates to an idea called equating, which allows the SAT to compare scores between different tests. But it’s pretty technical and the statistics folks over at College Board take care of this–you just have to look at your score.
What is important for you–and what colleges will likely look at if they want to get a better sense of your performance–is how you did on the reading section and how you did on the writing sections. After all, you could do very poorly on reading yet thrive in writing and can get the same verbal score as somebody who was average on both sections.
2. Cross-Test Scores
So the new SAT doesn’t have a science section like the ACT does, but it does have “cross-test scores.” Essentially, there are questions that are science related, whether they are in the math section, the reading section, or the writing section (hence the name “cross-test”).
There are also cross-test scores related to history/social studies.
Here’s how the College Board terms the cross-test sections:
- Analysis in History/Social Studies
- Analysis in Science
Each score will be on a scale of 10-40.
The College Board wants to give college admissions officers as much information as possible. That gives us (I promise) our final set of scores for the required sections of the SAT. There are seven of these scores, the first two relate to reading comprehension, the next two relate to writing and the last three relate to math.
- Command of Evidence
- Words in Context
- Expression of Ideas
- Standard English Conventions
- Heart of Algebra
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis
- Passport to Advanced Math
Each of these subscores is on a scale of 1 to 15.
4. Optional Essay Scores
Last, and perhaps least (for those not taking the essay), you’ll have three scores based on the 55-minute writing sample you’ll have to cough up after working on the test for three hours.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Two graders will be scoring your essay.
- Each grader will give your essay a score (1-4) for each of three different criteria.
- The three criteria are:
- reading (how well do you understand the passage)
- analysis (how well do you describe how the writer is persuading his/her audience)
- writing (how well do you write)
In theory, this gives us a total of 24 possible points. However, the scores from each grader will NOT be added up into a composite score, but will instead be added to the other grader’s scores in each area. Thus, you’ll be presented with three scores, on the following scales:
- a 2-8 range for reading
- a 2-8 range for analysis
- a 2-8 range for writing
So a possible SAT essay score might look something like this: 7 reading/5 analysis/6 writing.
What’s the Deal With All These Different SAT Scores?
Why oh why is the SAT even coming up with such a complex scoring system in the first place? The SAT wants to give schools a lot better breakdown of your skill set. On the old, pre-2016 SAT, there were just three section scores. Now, colleges that want to know the difference between two very similar candidates in terms of SAT scores can learn a lot more with the subscores and cross-test scores.
At the same time, colleges don’t want to be inundated with all this information for each of the thousands of candidates they look at. That way they can start with the general score and if they want to dig deeper, they can look at these other scores.
Old SAT Scores vs. New SAT Scores
How do we compare new SAT scores to old SAT scores? The two tests are very different; a student who scored in the 95% on the old math section might not even crack 80% on the new one, or vice versa.
But we have to be able to compare scores. Otherwise, we can’t know how students who took only the old test did in comparison to those who took the new test.
With a table to show which score on the old SAT corresponds to which score on the new SAT, colleges can get a real sense of how the new test stacks up to the old one.
Though the tests are pretty different, another way to compare the two is by using SAT score percentiles. If a score of 800 used to correspond to the top 1%, then the same should apply to the new test. (Of course, I’m just using a vague answer here. It’s actually a lot more complicated than this—some of the statistics involved is Ph.D level stuff!)
If you’re confused about SAT percentiles on top of everything else, I definitely don’t blame you! The College Board’s most recently released SAT percentiles are in a confusing format. So let’s break down what their terms mean, and then take a look at the percentile tables.
Terms to Know
First of all, if you look at the College Board’s document, you’ll see that they give you two percentiles: the “Nationally Representative Sample” and the “SAT User.” You want to focus on the SAT User percentiles, which are what we’ve provided below.
- The Nationally Representative Sample scores are actually based on research the College Board did about how 11th and 12th graders would score on the new SAT…including those students who aren’t actually taking it. (Confusing, right?) But because students who are actually taking the SAT are more likely to be applying to college, they are also those who would generally score higher on the test anyway. In short, this sample lowballs the percentile.
- SAT User percentiles aren’t perfect—after all, the College Board only has data from March 2016 to present to base their percentiles on—but they are based on the actual scores of actual users (those graduating in 2017). And they’re going to be the percentiles colleges are more interested in.
Whew! With no further ado…your new SAT percentile tables.
SAT Percentiles (Composite)
|Total (Composite) Score||Percentile|
SAT Percentiles (Math)
|Total Score (Section)||Percentile (Math)|
SAT Percentiles (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing)
|Total Score (Section)||Percentile (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing)|
Good SAT Score Ranges by Grade Level
A question I get a lot is from parents wondering whether their child should take the SAT as a junior, or wait until senior year.
Their thinking is that if the student does well enough on the SAT for a junior, then they don’t have to worry about taking the SAT as a senior. The thing is, colleges don’t give preferential treatment to those who take the SAT at a younger age. You can take the SAT in 6th grade, get a 1200, and then never take the SAT again. That 1200 actually isn’t any different from a senior’s 1200.
Yet it might not be quite so simple. Given that, at least on average, students become more intellectually mature in an extra year of schooling—vocabularies enlarge, a sense of proper grammar becomes more fine-tuned, the ability to concentrate increases slightly—a senior might expect to see a 50-point increase in an SAT score. That might not seem like much, but going from a 1450 to a 1500 does look like a big deal on paper.
What Is a Good SAT Score in Senior Year?
A good SAT score for a senior really depends on the schools you are applying to, your current GPA, and a host of other factors, such as your essay or extracurricular activities. 1200 is a pretty good score; 1300 is clearly a good score and 1400+ is a great score.
What Is a Good SAT Score in Junior Year?
Provided that you continue to pay attention in school and you continue to do some SAT prep in your spare time, you will probably do a little bit better as a senior, but not by too much.
A good SAT score for a junior, therefore, is about 50 points less than what a good SAT score is for a senior.
If you are a junior and you have enough time to study, then getting close to 1400 is a good score.
What Is a Good SAT Score for Sophomores and Freshmen?
We highly recommend that you take the PSAT rather than the SAT if you are a sophomore or a freshman. You don’t have to include the score on your college apps, and it puts you in the running for National Merit Scholarships!
With that said, if you take a (good) SAT practice test before your junior year…1300+ is a great score for a sophomore, while 1200+ is a fantastic score for a freshman. But that’s only if you’re willing to continue to put in work on the SAT as you progress through your coursework! Otherwise, you’re more than likely to see your score stagnate pretty seriously.
SAT Score Ranges for College Admissions
Now that you know the general SAT score range to aim for, what is a good SAT score for your dream school, or to earn some scholarship dollars? Let’s take a closer look.
What SAT Score Range Do I Need for the Top 100 US Universities?
Just to make things a little easier on you, we’ve put together this table of SAT score ranges for the top 100 universities in the United States. The numbers are from the middle 50% score range (meaning 25% of admitted students had lower scores and 25% had higher scores).
Expand the table by choosing a number of entries from the drop-down menu, or type the name of your chosen school in the search box to find its the middle 50% score range!
SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.
Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?
No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics — officially or unofficially — based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.
How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?
On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200-800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2-12) of two readers’ 1-6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2-12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score — which included grammar and usage — entirely.
With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400-1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2-8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1-4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.
Readers avoid extremes
What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable — readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that a80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.
What is a good SAT Essay score?
By combining multiple data sources — including extensive College Board scoring information — Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.
We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.
College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.
The role of luck
What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one — far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?
Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores — 4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.
What do colleges expect?
It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students — especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th-75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8-10 on the ACT’s old 2-12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5-7 range (possibly closer to 4-6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8 — for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].
Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th-75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges — including those at UCLA and Berkeley — are 17-20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.
How will colleges use the domain scores?
Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.
How low is too low?
Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.
Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?
For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems — California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same — for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.
Should I skip the essay entirely?
A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85-90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.
Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?
Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1-2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.
Will I be able to see my essay?
Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.
Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?
Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.
Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?
Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.
Key links in this post:
ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests