How to Set an SAT or ACT Goal Score

At Signet, we structure much of our work with students around setting and achieving goals.

Goals have two main purposes:

    • They give students something specific to work toward.
    • They prevent students from working endlessly—when you’ve reached the goal, you’ve done enough.

Goal-setting is particularly valuable when it comes to standardized testing. Taking the SAT or ACT is not usually students’ favorite part of the high school experience, but for most students it is a necessary part of the college application process. When students set a smart goal score based on reasonable expectations, it helps keep them motivated and also helps quell perfectionist tendencies. You want to do enough when it comes to standardized testing—and when you’ve done enough, it’s time to move on to something more interesting.

Determine Your Goal Score

A goal score can only be set once you have decided whether to take the SAT or ACT. We do not recommend that you take both exams; you’ll make better use of your energy by focusing on just one. This post has more information on deciding between the SAT and ACT.

Once you know which test you will be taking, you can set a target to work toward in your test prep. In general, you can expect that larger score gains will require more of your time and effort. Temper your expectations by setting realistic goals. Students can typically increase their SAT score by 100-200 points and their ACT score by 2-4 points with consistent, diligent work. Larger increases are possible but may require herculean efforts (and the help of a professional tutor).

Once you’ve established your personal realm of possibility, should you aim to score as high as you can? Not necessarily. Your target scores should be based on the average test scores of current students at the top schools on your college list. Your college list may not be finalized yet, but you probably have a good sense of at least a few schools you are interested in, so start there. You’ll need to do a little research:

    • Look at test scores from both reach and safety colleges on your list—most schools report the SAT and ACT scores of the middle 50% of their student population.
    • Compare the reported scores with your diagnostic scores.
    • Use this information to set a concrete goal score, taking into account how much time you can devote to test prep and how much you can expect to improve your diagnostic score.

Goal scores can and do change. Students who reach their goal score quickly may want to aim higher; others may find their original goal unreachable and can choose to take it down a notch. Periodically reevaluate your goal scores during test prep and adjust them if necessary.

Remember that the purpose of an SAT or ACT score is to help a student meet their academic needs. A perfect score is an impressive accomplishment, but no student needs one to be accepted by their dream school, and the extra effort required to get a perfect score may not be worth it.

In fact, top-tier schools don’t exclusively accept “perfect” candidates! Candidates with perfect scores are routinely rejected from top-tier schools, because highly selective schools care about much more than test scores.

What’s Next?

Once you know which test you will be taking and what score you’re targeting, it’s time to sit down and study! We highly recommend planning your entire test prep schedule in advance, all the way up to the first exam date. This gives you enough time to cover all the necessary material and avoids last-minute cramming sessions, which are much less effective for learning and retaining knowledge. You can get a full test prep plan in our Guide to SAT/ACT Preparation.

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