With so much pressure put on students to be the best, it may come as a shock to you that there is no one-size-fits-all “good enough” score on the SAT or ACT. Rather, a good score is one that will allow a student entry into a school that meets their needs.

How can we determine that?

The first step is to create a diverse school list that suits the applicant’s goals. Think about things like geography, size, programs and classes offered, campus culture, support services, and student outcomes. Make sure this list is well balanced—you shouldn’t only look at the Ivies, even if you are a stellar student! You want a variety of options available to you, and that means applying to schools with varying levels of selectivity. If all your schools only have a 5-7% acceptance rate, you aren't setting yourself up for success, even if you are an academic powerhouse!

At this point, you may be wondering: But how can I judge my own admissibility? How will I know if my list is well-balanced?

Thanks to our friends at the National Center for Education Statistics, every school that requires the SAT or ACT in their admissions process is required to disclose their 25th and 75th percentile scores. This means that roughly 50% of their class falls within that score range, with 25% below and 25% above. This can be used as a rough gauge for admissibility to a particular school. However, there are a few things to watch out for:

  • The rest of the student’s application will most likely have a much greater impact on their admissibility than test scores alone. It’s important to prepare for these exams, but studying for the SAT should never come before things like studying for an exam in school.
  • Students should be aiming high. A “good” score for a particular school is at or above the 75th percentile. Students with scores below the 25th percentile are usually admitted for specific reasons, or have elements of their personal lives that naturally result in lower scores (such as a chronic illness).
  • No score will negate the rest of an application. If your student has a low GPA, a test score above the 75th percentile will not automatically gain them entry, though it can certainly boost the rest of the application.

This information does not mean you should take the SAT/ACT and then only apply to schools that accept students in your score range. Instead, it means you must evaluate yourself early in the process to help determine your ideal school list.

We recommend using a baseline score from an official practice test like the PSAT or Pre-ACT. Many old exams are also available online and in books, and can provide a great jumping-off point! Compare your score on this practice test to those from the type of institution you would like to attend. This will help you determine whether you are qualified or whether your score will need to improve, and by how much. Be realistic! A 500-point improvement on the SAT is unlikely, to say the least. That being said, it’s fine to apply to a school slightly outside your range of test scores, since it’s possible that the rest of your application will be strong enough to give you a chance.

Remember that standardized test scores are only part of the application. Many schools, including top universities like Harvard, have been trying to push the emphasis away from these tests, and some have removed the requirement all together! This demonstrates that colleges are really concerned with the quality of your essays, the strength of your recommendations, and your overall motivation as demonstrated through academics.

There is no one thing that will get an applicant accepted to a college or university. The SAT and ACT represent a sliver of a student’s potential; the rest of the application provides much more substantive detail. So instead of asking what score you need to get into your dream school, try asking what schools are best suited for you.

Check out our Guide to SAT/ACT Preparation for more information on standardized test prep!