What is a Good, Bad, and Excellent SAT Score? Here’s How to Think About It.

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What makes a good SAT score isn’t an objective numerical answer. While we can tell you what scores put you in the range of top scorers, a good SAT score is the one that helps you achieve your academic goals.


To figure out what score you should aim for, look at the average or median test score of the colleges and universities you want to apply to. You’ll want to be as close to these numbers as possible. A high score doesn’t guarantee you’ll be admitted, but it does mean that you’re less likely to be rejected for a below-average score. In fact, some more selective schools may use academic cutoffs, so an impressive test score is one way to increase the chances of your application being read.


To give you an idea of what to aim for, we’ve included the SAT score ranges for some top schools later in this post. It’s important to remember, however, to build a balanced profile. For example, colleges also give great weight to your GPA and extracurricular involvement. To learn more about the factors that admissions officers consider, check out our post on how college applications are evaluated.


How SAT Scores Work


The most common way people approach SAT scores involves the total score and the section scores.


There are two section scores—one for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and the other for Math. Each section ranges between 200 and 800, and the sum of these scores gives you your total score.


But the SAT also has three tests within it: a Reading test, Writing and Language test, and Math test. The Reading test and the Writing and Language test combine to form your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score, while the Math test is converted to your Math Section score. Each test is scored from 10 to 40.


The SAT also includes two cross-test scores which evaluate how well you did on certain questions from all three tests. The two cross-test scores are the Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science, which are also scored from 10 to 40.


Each of the two sections has subscores. The subscores range from 1 to 15 and focus on your performance for a particular subset of questions. The subscores include:

  • Reading Test, and Writing and Language Test: Words in Context and Command of Evidence
  • Writing and Language Test: Standard English Conventions and Expression of Ideas
  • Math Test: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Mathematics

What is a Good SAT Score?


Most people mean “competitive” when they ask what a good SAT score is. Getting a score in the top 5-25% of scorers gives you an edge over other applicants, but these scores don’t guarantee acceptance. They’re more of a guideline to ensure your application is as strong as possible.


According to the College Board’s Annual Report, these are what the top scores look like:

  • Top 5%: 1400+ total score, 700+ section score
  • Top 25%: 1200+ total score, 600+ section score

What is an Average SAT Score?


Based on the results in College Board’s 2017 Annual Report, the average total score of all test takers is 1060, with an average Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score of 533 and average Math section score of 527.


The SAT also shares the averages for the test scores, cross-test scores, and subscores. Here are those averages:


SAT Test Score Averages

  • Reading Test: 27
  • Writing and Language Test: 26
  • Math Test: 26


SAT Cross-test Score Averages

  • Analysis in History/Social Studies: 27
  • Analysis in Science: 27


SAT Subscore Averages

  • Words in Context: 9
  • Command of Evidence: 9
  • Expression of Ideas: 9
  • Standard English Conventions: 8
  • Heart of Algebra: 9
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis: 9
  • Passport to Advanced Mathematics: 9

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What is a Bad SAT Score?


SAT scores reflect a sliding scale of academic skills, so defining a “bad” score is a little subjective. The SAT College and Career-Readiness Benchmarks are used by many state schools as minimum scores: 480 for the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and 530 for the Math section.


Scoring below these benchmarks will decrease your chances of acceptance; however, you should also note that the average SAT Math score of 527 is lower than the benchmark score of 530, so scoring below the benchmark doesn’t mean you can’t get into colleges.


Like the driving test, you can always retake the SAT, and in-between test sittings you’ll want to practice the concepts you’re shaky on. Unlike the driving test, which is pass/fail, the SAT represents a continuum of academic ability. And while the number of times you take the road test doesn’t matter, the number of times you take the SAT does. The Common Application asks for how many test sittings you’ve completed, and some colleges ask for all past score reports.


The bottom line? Prepare for each test administration seriously to ensure you perform your best.  


What SAT scores are needed for some of the top schools?


These scores come from College Board and represent the middle 50% of applicants, except for Duke University’s scores, which comes from their Class of 2022 profile.


Ivy League Schools’ SAT Scores

  • Brown University: 1410-1570
  • Columbia University: 1450-1580
  • Cornell University: 1390-1550
  • Dartmouth College: 1430-1560
  • Harvard University: 1460-1590
  • University of Pennsylvania: 1420-1560
  • Princeton University: 1430-1570
  • Yale University: 1420-1590


Other Competitive Schools’ SAT Scores

  • Duke University: 1490-1560
  • Johns Hopkins University: 1460-1580
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): 1490-1570
  • Northwestern University: 1420-1560
  • Stanford University: 1390-1540
  • University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA): 1240-1490
  • University of Chicago: 1480-1580
  • Vanderbilt University: 1400-1550

When should I retake the SAT?


Depending on how you scored your first time around, you may not need to! Compare your score to the score range of the schools you are considering. If your score meets or exceeds their average score, there’s no need to retake the test. If it’s below their average or the College and Career Readiness Benchmarks, you may want to retake the SAT.


We recommend students take the SAT at least once in the fall of your junior year. This way you have time to study and improve before retaking the test in the spring of junior year, if you need to. Starting earlier will help you avoid having to test during fall of senior year, when there are so many other things to worry about.


Don’t wait too long between retakes, though. The College Board takes about 3 weeks to send your official score report, so plan ahead if you need to meet deadlines. We compiled a list of all the SAT test dates and registration deadlines to help you get started.


How can I improve my SAT score?


Because subscores focus on more specific types of questions, using these parts of your score report is a great place to start when identifying weaknesses. For a more detailed self-analysis if you haven’t taken an official test yet, try one of the free practice tests that the SAT provides.


Once you’ve identified where you can improve, focus on the weaknesses you want to address one-by-one. Brush up on any difficult concepts and develop strategies to overcome common obstacles. People often say that the SAT doesn’t actually test your intellectual abilities, but rather how well you take the SAT. Half the battle is identifying patterns and understanding how to tackle recurrent questions.


If you want to learn more about improving your SAT score, check out our ultimate guides:


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Gianna Cifredo
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Gianna Cifredo is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, where she majored in Philosophy. She has six years of higher education and test prep experience, and now works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida and is a proud cat mom.