Understanding PSAT/SAT Percentile Ranks

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You took the test and waited what felt like years for the results. Now that all-important email is in your inbox, and there’s only one thing left to do: figure out what your scores actually mean.

 

Unlike English or math test scores you receive in class, PSAT and SAT results aren’t always so straightforward. In fact, many top colleges are less interested in the composite score a student receives than its percentile rank. In other words, how did you score on the SAT compared to other students?

 

To help students and institutions put scores into context, the College Board provides two different percentile ranks: Nationally Representative Sample Percentiles and User Percentiles. Numbers between 1 and 99. These percentiles represent the percentage of students whose scores are equal to or lower than the one you received. So, if you scored in the 99th percentile, then you did better than 99 percent of students.

 

Read on to gain a deeper understanding of PSAT/SAT percentiles ranks and determine how they affect your odds of attending your dream school.

 

How User Percentiles Work

 

Appearing on your online score report, the User Percentile indicates how your score compares to other 11th and 12th-grade students who are planning to attend college. In other words, the College Board evaluates the score distribution among high school juniors and seniors, maps it, and determines where an individual test-taker falls on the spectrum. For example, if 50 percent of students who took the SAT scored a 1000, and you received a score of 1050, you would likely be placed around the 50th User Percentile.

How Nationally Representative Sample Percentiles Work

 

On the other hand, Nationally Representative Sample Percentiles are more broad. With the NRSP, the College Board compares your score to all high school juniors and seniors, not just those who have taken the SAT and plan to attend college. Because it’s impossible to know how students who didn’t take the SAT may have scored, the NRSP numbers are generally regarded as less exact than the User Percentiles. For this reason, the latter is typically seen as more valuable by colleges and universities looking to evaluate student performance. Similarly, students can rely more on their User Percentiles when determining how likely they are to gain admission to a particular school.

 

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Maintaining PSAT and SAT Percentiles

 

If you’re taking the PSAT, you can also expect to receive a percentile rank. However, it’s worth noting that students seeking to maintain their PSAT percentile ranks must raise their scores for subsequent tests, because scores per percentile increase with each round of testing. Say you received a score of 1310 on your 10th grade PSAT and were placed in the 97th percentile. If you wanted to stay in the 97th percentile, you would have to achieve a higher score than you did the first time around on subsequent tests — a minimum of 1400 on your junior-year PSAT and 1450 on your SAT.

 

Percentiles and College Selection

 

Percentiles are important because colleges use them to compare your application to that of other students. Because the contents of the SAT change from one year to the next, a group of students may score higher or lower in given years. In other words, earning a 1300 in 2016 might be more or less impressive than scoring a 1300 in 2017, depending on how hard the test was. With percentile ranks, colleges can get a feel for how a particular student compares to all other test-takers, regardless of the toughness of that year’s questions.

 

Note that the Common Application requires students to report the date on which they took the SAT along with their scores. So, colleges that allow self-reporting of SAT scores can still opt to look up percentiles based on test dates, should they desire.

 

Understanding both composite scores and percentile rankings can help you assess your PSAT/SAT performance and evaluate your odds of getting into particular colleges. You can view 2018 total score percentiles from the College Board online.

 

It’s important to remember that SAT percentiles aren’t the only important factor in determining college admissions. In fact, there are even some test-optional colleges that allow students to decide whether or not to submit their SAT results! Still, many colleges and universities do put stock in this measure. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to boost your scores and improve your odds of being accepted by a top school.

 

Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT.

 

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April Maguire
Blogger at CollegeVine
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A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.