SAT Scores: The Good, the Great and the Ugly

Posted 9 months ago

It’s time to talk about the SAT; the exam every student vying for a position at a US university loves to hate.

While you need a SAT score to apply to US universities, exactly what score you need is less clear.

You might think the higher the university’s ranking or the lower its acceptance rate, the better your SAT score needs to be, but that’s not the case.

Top universities don’t expect perfect SAT scores, and they don’t only accept perfect scorers.

In fact, from 2010 to 2015, Stanford University rejected 69% of those who applied with a perfect SAT score. That's right, Stanford had no interest in educating them despite their obvious academic ability.

Why would one of the greatest universities in the world not be interested in the academically gifted?

Well, it is, but with more than 270,000 applicants to US institutions like Stanford every year, it's a seller's market. The best colleges want to build unique, culturally diverse and balanced classes. Your application needs to show more than your academic ability (in fact, academics only account for about 40% of your application).

That being said, having a good, or rather, a great SAT score will definitely boost your chances of getting in.

So, in order to make your SAT study as targeted and efficient as possible, you should first know what your target university considers a good (and great!) score.

In this blog, I’ll help you figure that out, and show you how your score compares to other applicants.

How is the SAT Scored?

SAT Score conversion chart breakout

Before we go any further, you need to understand how the SAT is scored.

The SAT consist of four scores:

  • Math
  • Reading and Writing
  • Composite
  • Essay

For the purpose of this blog, I won’t talk about the essay score because it’s optional (although if you want to get into a top 100 university you should sit the essay).

Anyway, the Math and Reading and Writing sections are each scored between 200 and 800 and combined to form your composite score out of 1600.

The average SAT score in 2016 was 1080, with 508 the average Math section score and 494 the average Reading section score.

Once you know what the average SAT score is, you can deduce that any score higher than 1080 is an above average score and any score below 1080 is a below average score.

Simple enough, right?

Now, I'll help you to better understand SAT scores.

There are two factors that can help you determine whether your SAT score is good or not:

  1. Percentile

  2. Your dream university

SAT Percentiles Explained

SAT scores

First, let’s take a look at your percentile.

Percentiles reveal how well you did on your exam in comparison to everyone else who took the exam on the same day.

For example, if you’re in the 15th percentile, you did better than 15% of the students who took the exam that day. If you’re in the 90th percentile, you did better than 90% of the students and so on.

Got it?

Good.

You can use your percentile to see just how bad, good or great your SAT score is in comparison to others.

If you are in the 15th percentile, you are well below average – 85% of students did better than you. Really anything below the 50% mark is considered “bad”.

If you’re in the 50-70th percentile you did “good” and if you’re above the 90th percentile you did great!

Check out the chart below to see what SAT scores line up with which percentiles. Keep in mind that these percentiles may change slightly depending on when you take the exam.

Composite ScorePercentile
160099+
155099+
151099
145097
141095
134090
125080
119071
113060
108050
103040
98031
92020
83010
7705
6801
6401-
4001-

While percentiles are a good way to figure out how you stack up against everyone else, different colleges in the US have different SAT expectations. For example, a 1290 would be a great score for the University of Oregon but wouldn’t give you a good chance of getting into Harvard where the average SAT score is 1540.

So, the only way you can truly tell how good your score is is by comparing it to the average scores at your dream university.

In the end, it’s all about getting into the college you desire!

SAT Score Range for Universities

Princeton University

Below is a list of the 25th perentile, 75th percentile and average SAT scores at the top 20 universities in the US (based on 2018 US News and World Reports rankings).

Scoring in the 75th percentile of your dream uni gives you a good chance of getting in (if, of course, the rest of your application is up to par). This is the ultimate goal, but ideally you want to be scoring above average, or there’s going to be a lot more pressure placed on the rest of your application.

The best strategy is to figure out what the 75th percentile score is for the most competitive university you apply to is and then aim for that score.

Worst case scenario, you fall a few points below and still have a good chance to get into the majority of the universities on your list.

1. Princeton University: Princeton, New Jersey

Lowest Score Accepted: 1100

25th Percentile: 1470

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1520

Cost of Attendance: $70,010 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 6.4%

2. Harvard University: Cambridge, Massachusetts

25th Percentile: 1470

75th Percentile: 1600

Average: 1540

Cost of Attendance: $69,600-$73,600 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 5.1%

3. University of Chicago: Chicago, Illinois

Lowest Score Accepted: 1020

25th Percentile: 1490

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1540

Cost of Attendance: $81,210 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 8.7%

4. Yale University: New Haven, Connecticut

25th Percentile: 1490

75th Percentile: 1600

Average: 1540

Cost of Attendance: $70,570 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 6.9%

5. Columbia University: New York City, New York

25th Percentile: 1470

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1530

Cost of Attendance: $74,173 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 5.8%

6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Cambridge, Massachusetts

25th Percentile: 1480

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1520

Cost of Attendance: $67,430 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 7.2%

7. Stanford University: Stanford, California

25th Percentile: 1450

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1520

Cost of Attendance: $69,109 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 4.7%

8. University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

25th Percentile: 1450

75th Percentile: 1570

Average: 1510

Cost of Attendance: $59,318-$72,584 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 9.3%

9. Duke University: Durham, North Carolina

25th Percentile: 1480

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1540

Cost of Attendance: $72,710 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 10%

10. California Institute of Technology: Pasadena, California

25th Percentile: 1530

75th Percentile: 1600

Average: 1560

Cost of Attendance: $68,901 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 8%

=11. Dartmouth College: Hanover, New Hampshire

25th Percentile: 1410

75th Percentile: 1580

Average: 1500

Cost of Attendance: $71,827 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 10.4%

=11. Johns Hopkins University: Baltimore, Maryland

25th Percentile: 1460

75th Percentile: 1570

Average: 1510

Cost of Attendance: $65,060- $69,918 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 13%

=11. Northwestern University: Evanston, Illinois

25th Percentile: 1480

75th Percentile: 1580

Average: 1510

Cost of Attendance: $60,332-$72,980 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 9.3%

=14. Brown University: Providence, Rhode Island

25th Percentile: 1440

75th Percentile: 1580

Average: 1500

Cost of Attendance: $71,050 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 8.3%

=14. Cornell University: Ithaca, New York

25th Percentile: 1410

75th Percentile: 1570

Average: 1480

Cost of Attendance: In-state: $52,951 USD a year, without financial aid, out-of-state: $70,321 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 12.6%

=14. Rice University: Houston, Texas

25th Percentile: 1450

75th Percentile: 1570

Average: 1510

Cost of Attendance: $63,188 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 16%

=14. Vanderbilt University: Nashville, Tennessee

25th Percentile: 1480

75th Percentile: 1590

Average: 1530

Cost of Attendance: $67,392 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 10.9%

18. University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame, Indiana

25th Percentile: 1410

75th Percentile: 1550

Average: 1490

Cost of Attendance: $69,395 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 18.9%

19. Washington University in St. Louis: St. Louis, Missouri

25th Percentile: 1190

75th Percentile: 1420

Average: 1300

Cost of Attendance: $71,976 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 16%

20. Georgetown University: Washington D.C.

25th Percentile: 1390

75th Percentile: 1550

Average: 1460

Cost of Attendance: $72,050 USD a year, without financial aid

Acceptance Rate: 15.4%

If Your SAT Score Sucks...

Downsides extracurricular activities

If your SAT score is not to your liking (a.k.a. it isn’t even close to 25th percentile of your dream university), don’t stress. There are a couple strategies you can use to improve your score.

1. Study harder and re-sit the exam

Luckily, you can take the SAT as many times as you’d like (although try to keep it under three, as anything more isn’t a great look on your application)!

However, simply sitting the exam over and over again won’t improve your score. In order to actually make a change, you’ll need to improve your study habits, come up with a proper SAT prep plan and perhaps even get some tutoring!

Your hard work will pay off in the long run.

Pro tip: Some colleges “superscore” your SAT.

A superscore is a combination of your highest score on every section across every SAT you take. Therefore, instead of using your scores from only one date, certain schools combine your highest section score across all dates and create your highest possible composite score!

2. Find better fit universities

If you’ve taken the SAT a few times and still aren’t hitting the scores you need to get into your top unis, it may be smart to add a few more “safety” colleges to your list just in case!

3. Don’t give up

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the score you need to get into your dream uni.

Thanks to the holistic US application system, you can make up for a lower SAT score by having incredible grades, writing fantastic essays and getting involved in unique extracurricular activities!

There is always a way in as long as you’re willing to put in the work and crush the rest of your application.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, your SAT score isn’t the be all and end all.

Although your score is concrete and objective, each university decides how much weight to give to the exam.

In fact, some universities don’t even require the SAT anymore, which goes to show you just how dependent your scores are on ideologies of the universities you send them to!

All I can say is do your very best and try to hit at least the 75th percentile of your dream university to improve your chances of getting in but remember, don’t stress!

The other parts of your application need attention, too :)

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