What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

What’s More Important: My SAT Composite Score or My Individual Section Scores?

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Taking the SAT is often a high school rite of passage. Each year, millions of students nationwide take the SAT, one of two major standardized tests that assess college readiness by measuring math, verbal, and reasoning skills. While the test does measure your knowledge to some extent, its purpose has always been to measure a student’s critical thinking skills and ability to apply knowledge, rather than measuring the amount or strength of background knowledge a student brings to the test.


The current SAT consists of two primary test sections, and one additional optional test section. One of the primary tests is the Math Test. This is actually comprised of two smaller test sections: the Math Test With Calculator and the Math Test, No Calculator. The other primary test is the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test. This is also comprised of two smaller test sections: the Critical Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test. The final component of the SAT, the SAT Essay, is optional.


For both the Math Test and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test, you will receive a section score ranging from 200-800. These scores are calculated from your performance on the subtests in each section.


You will also receive what is referred to as a composite score. This is basically the total score you received on all required sections, and it is calculated simply by adding together your Math Test section score with your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test section score. Your composite score ranges from 400-1600.


When students receive their score reports, they often are most anxious to see their composite score. This score is displayed prominently at the top of the score report, and many students and colleges alike think of it as a total measure of success on the test.


But is the composite score always the most important number on your SAT score report? Not necessarily. While it is certainly the most commonly reviewed and referred to, there are a few scenarios in which section scores might become more important.


In this post, we will outline the unique circumstances in which a section score may be weighed heavily in college admissions decisions, other times when section scores might be reviewed, and the situations in which you should consider retaking the SAT to improve a specific section score, even if you’re content overall with your composite score. To learn more about how to weigh your SAT composite score and your SAT section scores, read on.


When is the composite score most important?

In most cases, the composite score is the first thing that any admissions committee will look at. In some cases, it is the only thing they will look at. For that reason, composite scores are generally the most important number on your score report.


Sometimes, a composite score will automatically qualify you or disqualify you from further screening in the admissions process. In these cases, your SAT score is used as a screening tool to thin the applicant pool. If your score meets a certain threshold, your application stays in the admissions game. If it does not, you could be denied admission. Remember, an admissions committee does not always have time to read through every line of every single application, so things like GPA or SAT scores are easy tools to help with initial screenings.


That is not to say, though, that your section scores are never reviewed. This simply means that in many cases, a composite score will be used for initial screenings, while section scores and other details are reviewed later.


When do section scores matter?

Of course, just because an admissions committee might review your composite score first doesn’t mean that your section scores are completely irrelevant. It simply means that this layer of scrutiny usually comes later in the process, and that sometimes, your application will never undergo this kind of scrutiny.


If, however, an admissions committee reviews your section scores, it will usually be for one of three reasons.


The first reason that an admissions committee generally reviews your section scores is to ensure that you are a fairly well-balanced applicant. Particularly if you are applying to a liberal arts school or as a liberal arts major, the admissions committee will want to see that you are generally capable of college-level work in both the math and language fields.


If, for example, you happen to score exceptionally high on one section and put forth a significantly weaker performance on the other, your composite score may place you in the acceptable range, but you might ultimately not be accepted if the admissions committee is concerned that you will not be able to handle the work across all fields of study.


Another scenario is when you are applying to a specialized major or program, and one section score is significantly more relevant than the other. In this circumstance, the scenario of mismatched scores above could actually work to your favor. If you are applying to an engineering program and your composite score is competitive, the admissions committee will likely be impressed by an exceptionally high math score, even if your language scores suffer somewhat. If this case, it is not your general abilities across the board that they are interested in so much as your specific abilities in your intended field.


The final reason that an admissions committee might choose to review your section scores would be to further screen your strength as a candidate. If they cannot make a decision about your candidacy and are scrutinizing the finer details of your application, it’s likely that they will look at your SAT section scores. In this case, obviously it is best to present no obvious weaknesses, but sometimes factors that you cannot control will come into play. For example, they may be dealing with a pool of accepted candidates that is particularly strong in math and wish to level it out a bit with some more language-oriented applicants.

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Are there cases when my section scores may matter outside of college admissions?

Anytime that you submit your SAT scores, your section scores could possibly be reviewed. This means that they are potentially relevant on applications for scholarships, summer programs, and even internships.


In these cases, your section score most closely related to the subject area or field of work will probably matter most. If there is not an obvious favored section, then it’s best to present well-balanced section scores for these purposes.


When should I retake the SAT to improve a specific section score?

The most obvious reason to retake the SAT to improve in one section is if your composite score is still not where you’d like it to be. If you score near an 800 in Math, but only a 580 in Reading and Writing, your composite score will be a 1380. This isn’t a bad score, but increasing your reading score by 80-100 points is a very feasible goal when you’re starting from 580, and a composite score of 1480 will be far more competitive than your previous 1380.


Another reason to retake the SAT to improve one specific section is if you know that that section is highly relevant to your application. If you’re applying to a specific program directly related to that section, your single section score could become highly relevant. You’ll want to make sure that it’s as competitive, if not more so, than your composite score.


Finally, even if you aren’t applying to a specific major or program, if you plan to pursue a field closely related to a specific section (such as an engineering internship or summer math program), you’ll want to be sure that your section score is competitive enough to qualify you for the programs in which you might be interested.   


Ultimately, how your SAT scores are weighed and taken into account on your college applications or elsewhere will depend on a number of different factors. Different schools will place more or less weight on different sections according to their specific priorities or needs as an institution, while other schools will review composite scores as an initial screening, viewing your section scores only later in the application process. 


SAT scores can be a source of stress for even the most successful students. There are very few tests you’ll take in your life whose results will be as closely scrutinized as your SAT scores. It bears remembering, though, that ultimately an SAT score is simply a number. It might be considered on your college applications, and it may not be. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t define your worth as a student or your potential to succeed.


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.