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
What is a good SAT score? You took the SAT, got your scores back, and now you want to know how you did. Or maybe you want to know what score to aim for next time.
In this guide, we’ll discuss how to figure out how your SAT scores stack up compared to all the other test-takers out there. Then, we’ll help you figure out what’s a good SAT score for you based on the colleges you are interested in. We’ll also provide the SAT score ranges of 38 popular schools, and discuss what to do if your score turns out to be lower than expected.
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What's a Good SAT Score, Compared to the Entire Country?
The SAT score range is between 400 and 1600 for your total score, and 200-800 for each of your two subscores. One subscore is for Math, and one subscore is your combined Reading and Writing scores to make one “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing” score.
As you would expect, the higher your score, the better you did compared to all the other test-takers. But is there a certain SAT score cutoff that marks a “good” score?
To determine what makes for good SAT scores relative to everyone else, it’s important to understand how SAT scoring works. Your total score out of 1600 (as well as your two sections subscores out of 800) corresponds to a percentile ranking. Your percentile tells you what percent of students you scored better than. So if you got a 60th-percentile score, you’ve scored better than 60% of all test-takers!
The 50th-percentile SAT composite score—the average SAT score—is 1080. (The test is deliberately designed so that the average score hovers around 1000 on the 1600-point scale—about 500 per subsection). The average score for math is between 530 and 540 (530 is 49th-percentile and 540 is the 53rd). The average SAT score for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing is between 540 (49th percentile) and 550 (52nd percentile).
SAT test scores follow a normal distribution. This means that student performance tends to cluster around the middle of the scale. Far fewer test-takers score towards the higher and lower end of the scale.
Here’s an abbreviated SAT score chart with percentiles for new 2016 SAT composite scores so you can check out the score distribution for yourself:
Composite Score (Out of 1600)
As you can see from the percentiles and associated scores, more people score towards the middle of the scale than at the top or bottom. For example, a score jump from 1030 to 1130 (100 points) moves you from the 40th to the 60th percentile—so you’ve moved up past an entire fifth of test-takers! But moving 90 points from 1250 to 1340 only moves you up ten percentile points, from the 80th to the 90th. And moving from 1450 to 1550, a 100-point margin near the top of the scale, nets you only about two percentiles!
In terms of what makes for good SAT scores based on this chart, you already know that 1080 is about average, so anything above that is an above-average score. A 1250 places you at the 80th percentile, in the top fifth of test-takers, which is pretty good. A 1340 puts you in the top 10 percent, which is a strong score. A 1410 is in the 95th percentile—the top 5 percent of test-takers. And any score 1510+ puts you in the top one percent of test-takers!
By contrast, anything lower than a 1080 is a below-average score. A 980, at the 31st percentile, places you in the bottom third of test-takers. A 920, at the 20th percentile, places you in the bottom fifth. Not so great comparatively.
Here’s a chart showing the SAT score percentiles for the two subsections. The distributions are pretty similar, but there are some slight differences. For example, fewer people do really, really well on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. You can tell because a 750 is a 99th-percentile score for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, placing you in the top one percent of test-takers. But it’s a 97th-percentile score for Math, placing you only in the top three percent.
Section Score (Out of 800)
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Percentile
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What's a Good SAT Score for You?
We’ve discussed how your SAT score (and corresponding percentile ranking) shows how you compare to all the other test-takers.
But how well you did compared to all other test-takers isn’t the most important thing for you. What’s more important is what makes a good SAT score for you personally,based on the schools you are interested in.
A 1290 is an 85th-percentile score, meaning you scored better than 85% of test takers. And a 1290 would be a solid score for schools like Drexel (average SAT 1270), Hofstra (average SAT 1220), and Auburn (average SAT 1240). But it would be a very low score for highly selective institutions like MIT, CalTech, Duke, University of Chicago, or Johns Hopkins, for example.
Of course, not everyone is trying to get into super-selective schools! A score like 1050 (just below the 1080 average) is solid for schools like CSU Sacramento (average SAT score 1020), UT El Paso (average SAT score 1000) or Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (average SAT score 1030).
So to sum up, a good SAT score is a score that makes you competitive for the schools that you want to attend.
It’s also worth noting that the higher standardized test scores, the more likely schools that offer merit scholarships are to offer you them. For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to focus primarily on figuring out the score you need for admission, but it’s something to keep in mind. Another thing to consider is that a test score can help you get admitted at some schools if you have a lower GPA than their typical admits. (However, this won’t help you so much at very selective institutions—they expect students to have high marks across the board.)
Does this puppy have competitive scores for your heart?
How to Find Your Goal Score
In this section, we’ll walk you through how to figure out what makes a good SAT score for you, based on the schools that you are most interested in. Our quick 5-step process only requires a worksheet (linked below), a writing utensil, and an internet-browsing device!
Step 1: Download This Worksheet
First, you’ll need to download our worksheet so you can fill it out with information for your schools of interest. Click here to download it, or click the image below.
Step 2: Fill in the Schools You Want to Get Into on the Left
Fill in all the schools that you know you want to apply to already in the leftmost column. If you don't know what schools you're aiming for yet, feel free to use ones that have been suggested to you by parents, friends, teacher, or counselors. However, I recommend that you take the time to do some research into schools you might want to attend first, so that you have a realistic target score. The more your list reflects the schools you actually end up applying to, the more accurate your target score will be for your goals.
Step 3: For Each School, Google "[Name of School] PrepScholar SAT"
For example, if I'm interested in University of Alabama, I'll do the following search:
Click on the the SAT and GPA post (or the Admission Requirements post, they’ll both have the information) and scroll down to find the 25th and 75th percentile composite ACT scores for admitted students for the new SAT. The new SAT—the one offered since last May—is out of 1600 points, unlike the old SAT, which was out of 2400 points. For students who applied to college this past fall, they might have submitted the old SAT or the new SAT. But most students applying this coming school year will be using new SAT scores.
For some schools, it’s hard to find the new SAT information. But if you search for our SAT/GPA page for that school, we do the searching (and converting of old scores if necessary) for you!
When we scroll down to the new SAT information for University of Alabama, we can see that the 25th percentile SAT score is 1070. This means that 25% of admitted students have a score of 1070 on the SAT. That would be a below average score for admitted students to U Alabama.
The 75th percentile score for University of Alabama on the SAT is 1320. That means that students with that SAT score scored better than 75% of all the other admits. So scoring at 1320 or above puts you in the top quarter of admits score-wise—a very competitive score for admission! In summary, the 25th/75th percentile range describes the scores of the middle 50% of all students admitted to a particular school.
If you score at the 75th percentile for any school, you have a great chance at getting in (assuming your other credentials are on point for the school). So that’s a good SAT score for that school. If you're at the 25th percentile, you'll need to have a particularly strong application to boost your odds of getting in.
For each school on your list, google the Prepscholar SAT score information and write down the 25th and 75th percentile scores for the new SAT in the appropriate row for that school on your goal score sheet.
Step 4: Calculate Your Final SAT Target Score
To calculate your target SAT goal score, look at the 75th percentile column. Find the highest score in that column. That’s your SAT total score goal. If you score at the 75th percentile level for the most competitive school on your list, you’ll be competitive at all your schools for test scores. So that is a good SAT score for you!
Another advantage of choosing a high goal score is that if you end up falling 10-50 points short, it’s not a huge deal because you’ll still be competitive for most of your schools.
You might be thinking—hey, wait! Why did I fill out that entire sheet if I was just going to pick the highest 75th percentile score? Well, the advantage of filling out all that information is that you now have it handy as a reference. You’ll be able to check your SAT score against the 25th-75th percentile ranges of all your schools of interest as soon as you get your scores back!
Step 5: Make Your Goal Known
As a last step, I suggest that you do two things with your target SAT score:
Share it with your parents. This can turn into a helpful conversation around your personal goals and how you want to achieve your target SAT score. Plus, they can help keep you accountable throughout the preparation process!
Tape it to your wall. This will keep your goal score front and center in your mind, which help you stay motivated to keep up with your SAT study schedule.
Puppies are also a great motivator.
Good SAT Scores for Popular Schools
To help you with determining your goal score, here’s an SAT score chart with 25th-75th percentile SAT scores for 2016 for 38 popular schools. I’ve also provided the current US News ranking (from the National Universities list) and the 2016 acceptance rate to give you some reference points as to how selective the school is.
25th Percentile SAT
75th Percentile SAT
US News Ranking
2016 Acceptance Rate
University of Chicago
University of Pennsylvania
Johns Hopkins University
University of Notre Dame
University of California, Berkeley
New York University
University of Florida
George Washington University
University of Pittsburgh
North Carolina State
32 (Liberal Arts Colleges)
What If My Score Is Too Low?
What if your SAT score ends up being lower than your goal score? What should you do? In this situation you have a few options to consider. We’ll go over them here and help you figure out which one is best for you.
Strategy 1: Retake the Test
If you have the time to do additional preparation for the test and retake it, this is probably your most straightforward strategy. However, keep in mind that if you really want a better score, you’ll need to invest a lot of time and really work on shoring up your weaknesses. These are the estimated time estimates for particular score improvements for the SAT:
- 0-30 point improvement: 10 hours
- 30-70 point improvement: 20 hours
- 70-130 point improvement: 40 hours
- 130-200 point improvement: 80 hours
- 200-330 point improvement: 150 hours +
Strategy 2: Don’t Worry About It
If you were just under your goal score (think within 50 points), you might not actually need to do anything if that slightly lower score is still competitive. If you were going for a 1580 for your most selective school, Columbia, but you got a 1540, you’re definitely still in the competitive range for that school. Depending on how soon you’ll be applying to college, it might make more sense to use the time and energy you would spend preparing for and retaking the test on other parts of your application.
However, if you were more than 50 points short of your goal score, you should at least consider strategies 1 or 3.
Strategy 3: Adjust Your List of Schools
If you are 50+ points short of your goal score and you don’t have time to retake the test, you may need to make some adjustments in your list of schools. While you definitely should still apply to your dream schools as reach schools, you’ll probably need to pad out your list of match and safety schools to be in like with the lower scores.
Maybe you were going for a 1510 but you got a 1410 instead. With your goal score, you had NYU (middle 50% 1350-1510) as a match, but with 1410 it’s more of a reach. And then you had Lehigh University (middle 50% 1220-1410) as a safety, but now it’s a better match. Consider adding some additional safety schools for your 1410, like Cal Poly (middle 50% 1200-1390) and University of Connecticut (middle 50% 1210-1400).
You can see more on choosing appropriate safety, match, and reach schools here.
Thankfully, all puppies are safety puppies.
Review: What Is a Good SAT Score for You?
So what are good SAT scores? Your SAT total score (out of 1600) corresponds to a percentile ranking that compares you to everyone else who took the test. The 50th percentile or average SAT score is a 1080.
What is a good SAT score for you? This depends on what schools you want to attend. In this article, we described a five-step process to figure out good SAT scores for you.
We also gave SAT score ranges for 35 popular schools. Finally, we provided some advice for what to do if you miss your goal score. You can prepare and retake the test, do nothing (if you were pretty close to your goal), or adjust your list of schools.
So what is a good SAT score? The most important thing to remember is that good SAT scores are specific to you. You won’t necessarily need the same scores as your friends and peers.
Trying to figure out a good SAT score for each subsection? Or are you wondering what makes a good SAT score for super-selective institutions? We can help!
If you got a lower score, we have a low score guide! We can also help you figure out whether or not you should retake the SAT.
Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: