What is Considered a Bad SAT Score?

Every year, high school students across the country take the SAT in preparation for the college admissions process. They sit in nerve-wracking silence with pencil, paper, and a test booklet as the minutes tick by. When it’s all over, they wait two weeks or more for the results.

You know that SAT scores can make or break your chance at admission. How do you know whether your score is good enough?

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized test that evaluates college readiness. Though colleges look at several facets of a student’s application, the SAT provides them with one opportunity to compare applicants.

What Does the SAT Cover?

The base SAT has two sections, math and evidence-based reading and writing. You can choose to take the essay section if you want. However, since the essay does not factor into your composite score, we won’t address it further.

When Should You Take the SAT?

Most high school students take the SAT, ACT, or both during the spring of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. However, it’s advisable to take the tests earlier so that you have time to retake them for higher scores if necessary.

How Long Does the SAT Take?

Part of the standardization of the SAT involves the time limit. It takes three hours for the two main sections. The optional essay adds fifty minutes to your test time.

What About SAT Subject Tests?

Some colleges also require SAT subject tests. Usually, you need to take the additional subject tests to apply to certain programs. They also give you an opportunity to showcase your strengths, fulfill basic course requirements, or get credit for introductory courses.

If you elect to take one or more SAT subject tests, the scores do not affect your composite score. They function as separate testing measures.

How Are SAT Scores Calculated?

As you know, there are two parts of the SAT. Each part has a raw score that translates into a scaled score to give you a composite score. That means you need to know how to calculate the raw score to find your scaled score, which we need to discuss whether a score is good or bad.

Calculating the Raw Score

Start by finding your raw score. It’s important to understand that SAT raw scores vary by test section, because each part has a different number of questions. The math section has 58 questions. However, the reading and writing portion break into two separate parts with 52 reading questions and 44 writing questions.

Since every question is multiple-choice, each correct answer equates to one point. The total number of questions you answer correctly on each section is your raw score for that portion of the test. Of note, there is no penalty for guessing or skipping a question.

Once you have your raw scores for the math, reading, and writing sections, you can find your scaled score. The scaled score is the one colleges care about.

Finding Your Scaled Score

To find your scaled score, you need the conversion table for your test date. Each SAT test date has a unique table. For example, a math raw score of 57 on one test date may work out to a scaled score of 800, but on another test date, it may be a 790.

Converting a math score is simple; you just locate your raw score on the table for your test date and find the scaled score. Your scaled score can range from 200 to 800.

The Reading and Writing scaled scores require an extra step since you have two raw scores. You need to find the scaled scores for each section, add them up, and multiply by ten to find your scaled score. Like the math portion, the total scaled score for the Reading and Writing section ranges from 200 to 800.

Add your two scaled scores together to find your composite score. Once you have your composite score, how do you know if it’s good or bad?

What is a Good SAT Score vs. a Bad SAT Score?

You may not love the answer we’re about to give, but a “good” SAT score is relative to the student. What one student is thrilled with could be a disappointment to another. How is that possible? It all depends on what you hope to accomplish.

Remember that the SAT is a gauge for colleges to compare students. However, not all colleges have the same requirements for admission. Some schools hold prospective students to high standards, while others expect a score that demonstrates basic college readiness.

What is a marker of basic college readiness? The SAT predicts a 75% chance of achieving a C average or higher in first-semester college courses. If you attain a 480 on evidence-based reading and writing and a 530 on math, you meet the basic college readiness benchmarks.

Understanding SAT Means and Percentiles

To explore this issue further, let’s dig a little deeper into what the numbers mean. There is more to the SAT than raw, scaled, and composite scores. That’s how colleges use it as a comparison.

First, the SAT is meant to have a mean composite score around 1000, or roughly a 500 on each part. The mean is the average score of all test takers.

Percentiles also help colleges compare prospective students. For example, in 2019, the national mean composite score was 1010. So, fifty percent of test takers score a 1010 or less on the test in 2019.

A composite score of 1450 or higher places was the 99th percentile for 2019. Only one percent of all SAT test takers in 2019 scored a 1450 or higher.

As you probably guessed, the means and percentiles shift slightly from year to year based on how test takers perform. Though it doesn’t vary significantly, it is something to consider when assessing your performance and scores.

Is My Score Good Enough?

Only you can decide if your score is good enough. It depends on the colleges and universities you hope to attend. Make a list of the schools you hope to apply to and visit their websites to find the information you need.

Some schools list minimum acceptable scores (usually around the benchmarks or national mean). If your score falls above the set minimum and the school has a high acceptance rate, you should be fine.

Most colleges don’t set a minimum composite score. Instead, they disclose the average standardized test scores for previous classes. You can usually find the information on their website. If you can’t find the information for your target schools, contact their admissions office to ask about their policy regarding SAT scores.

It’s a good idea to score as close to average as possible for your school. For example, if the average score of the most recent class is 1400 and you score a 1390, you’re pretty close to that average.

Should I Retake the SAT?

Again, only you can determine if you need to retake the SAT. If your composite score is significantly lower than the average for your target school (or schools), you probably want to prepare better and retake the test.

If you score lower than average, you probably want to retake the SAT. While there’s no “bad” score on the SAT, a good rule of thumb is that anything below a 1060 could use improvement.

However, as noted above, if you aspire to a top-tier college known for high standardized test scores, then a composite score in the 60th or 70th percentile probably isn’t good enough. You want a composite score that makes you competitive for your target school, and if your current score doesn’t accomplish that, it’s best to retake the SAT.

What Can I Do to Improve My SAT Score?

CollegeBoard provides all SAT test takers with a score report that offers a lot of insight into your performance. If you aren’t satisfied with your results, it’s a good idea to dig into that report for areas of improvement.

The score report breaks down the subscores to give you an idea of your strengths and weaknesses. CollegeBoard even provides an in-depth breakdown through their site. Using the detailed report, you can work on improving your weaker scores.

There are SAT prep books, classes, and tutors available to help you prepare for the SAT. Many of the resources are free or low-cost, and some high schools offer support for students during the process.

Final Thoughts on SAT Scores

While the SAT is an important tool for colleges to evaluate prospective students, it’s not the only measure. Some students score high and still fail to gain admission to some schools because colleges look at more than test scores.

Performing to the best of your ability on the SAT is a good way to show your prospective colleges one aspect of who you are as a student. Your goal is to put your best foot forward, so you want to be satisfied with your SAT score.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.