Last Updated: May 7, 2014
Early on in the course of preparing for the SAT, it’s important to find out exactly what you’re shooting for. Based on that, after a bit of time spent getting familiar with the test, you can see how much improvement you need to make.
That means you know how much time to spend and how much energy to put into your prep. After all, if you happen to be a standardized test wunderkind but only want to apply to schools whose students have pretty average scores, there no reason to drive yourself into the ground studying for the test. There are students out there who don’t really need to do any serious prep at all. But to know if you’re one of them, you first need to find out what the average SAT scores are at the schools or programs you’re going to apply to.
Your goal is not a perfect score
Yes, I know: a perfect score would be great. But the SAT is not an everyday test. Very, very few students get a perfect score, and it’s totally unnecessary. No school expects a 2400. Not Yale, not Harvard, not Princeton. None of them.
But, time and time again, I’ve had students tell me their target score is 2400. In most cases, it’s just because they’re not really sure what a good SAT score would be. It’s easy to just say that you want the best score rather than putting a bit of time and thought into sorting out what you actually want or need. But if you do a bit of research, you’ll find that in order to stand out a bit—to be in the top quarter of SAT takers—you need a total score of around 1800. That’s not necessarily an outstanding score, depending on where you’re applying, but it does give a bit of context. What does the 2400 signify, then? Well, that’s closer to one in a thousand. This isn’t like nailing a math final: the SAT is designed specifically to be so hard that very, very few people ace it.
If you know that, but you still think a perfect score is a reasonable goal for you, then consider the other factors that schools look at. Refining other parts of your application is more likely to make an impact than is getting a perfect score instead of a very high score. And none of those ways to improve your chances are as starry-eyed as the pursuit of the golden 2400. Any essays you have to write in your application should be, for example, errorless and completely unique (your personality counts for a lot at most schools). That takes time and effort. It’d be a shame to get hung up on a 2100 and neglect the essay.
Research schools and know yourself
To set a good target score for yourself, you first need to find out what schools expect of you. At most schools, you won’t find much information on their website about what they like to see in SAT scores, but if you contact the admission offices directly, they’ll often give a bit of insight into what they care about. Some don’t consider the writing scores at all, for example—and if that’s the case, it’s definitely good to know ahead of time.
You’ll also want to find out what the 25th and 75th percentile scores are at the schools—that is, what score do 25% of admitted students not quite hit, and what score do only the top 25% score above? That gives you some perspective as to what would look good on your application.
Besides that, know how you’ve scored on practice tests and how much time you can devote to bringing up your score. If a total of 1800 is the 75th percentile score for your first choice school (meaning 75% score under that) but your last practice test put you at a total of 1200, then don’t make your goal 2000. Be realistic: in a case like that, a goal of 1500 would be more appropriate.
Adjust as you learn
The college application process takes a long time. From the start to the end, you’ll go through a lot of different ideas about where you’ll be in a couple years, and that’s okay. Your target scores might shift as your plans and goals change. Don’t get fixated on one score or another if you’re changing your mind about what schools you want to apply to. Let your target be fluid and adapt to the changes around you.
All of that said, do keep your target in mind! The more you work toward it, the more likely you’ll be just where you want to be for the next few years. And that’s worth fighting for.