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How to Set Good Expectations for Your SAT or ACT Scores

What really counts as a "low" SAT or ACT score? What's an "average" score? And, most importantly, what's a reasonable score for you?

You may have overheard your peers in the halls lamenting their supposedly inadequate SAT or ACT scores—but what really counts as a “low” score? What’s an “average” score? And, most importantly, what’s a reasonable score for you?

It may seem like everyone you know got a 1600 on their SATs, but, in fact, both very high and very low scores are the exception, not the norm. Besides, we can’t all be perfectionists, so it’s good to keep in mind what a reasonable, attainable SAT or ACT score looks like for you. Here are some tips for figuring that out.

Related: Essential Tips, Tricks, and Strategies for Taking the SAT and ACT

Average—and above average—SAT and ACT scores

SAT score data tends to change every year, depending on the particular exam, but the national average SAT score is typically just above 1000 (since the updated 1600-point SAT). Not too shockingly, the two main SAT sections—Math, and Reading and Writing—have average scores around 500 each. (This doesn’t include the optional essay portion.)

According to PrepScholar, the 2016 SAT had a national average score of 1020, with the two sections each averaging 510. The average for college-bound test takers was slightly higher at 1083, so those who want to compare themselves against other college applicants should take the higher standard into account.

College Board data released for the 2016 SAT reported any scores above 1300 are well into the 90th percentile. So scoring about 1300 on the SAT is not something the average student should expect and certainly nothing to be disappointed about if you don’t achieve it. Conversely, low scores, such as sub-900 scores, are also rare, so don’t go into the test worrying about getting a 400 (aka the lowest you could possibly get)!

ACT scores tend to fluctuate less from year to year, with a consistent average ACT score around 20. Magoosh reported the 2016 average at 20.8. Since the ACT averages points for each section instead of adding them, sections typically score around 20 as well; the average ACT taker in 2016 scored 20.1, 20.6, 21.3, and 20.8 on English, Math, Reading, and Science respectively.

The 90th percentile marking for the ACT fell around scores of 28–30, according to PrepScholar’s 2016 data. Again, remember that standardized test scores in the 90th percentile are rare, and anything from ~22–36 is above average. So don’t discount the possibility of getting into your dream college just because your score wasn’t “perfect.”

It’s also important to note that all these average test scores and statistics vary significantly by demographics, including socioeconomic background, location, and student age. Some states require every high school junior or senior to test, so their average scores are often lower than states where only college-bound students with a drive to perform well are accounted for. However, colleges may or may not take these demographic factors into account when reviewing your test scores, so don’t give yourself a lower standard simply because of your geography.

Setting your own test score expectations

If you’re looking for an idea of how you’ll do on the SAT or ACT (before sitting down for the actual test), your best bet is likely taking a least one practice test—each. You’ll get a helpful practice score, you’ll determine if you’re more comfortable with one test over the other, and you’ll get a sense of any weak spots you may need to address in your test prep. The key is to make your practice test as close to the real thing as possible. Perhaps most importantly, make sure you time yourself (including breaks). And, yes, if you want to do it right, you should take the practice test early-ish on a Saturday morning!

If you have colleges and universities in mind, check the admission information on their website to determine what their cutoff scores may be. You may also find more information on what the college is looking for in evaluating your test scores. Most schools also report the average test scores of their student population. However, if these seem out of your league, don’t panic! These scores are not minimum requirements; they simply give you an idea of the caliber of the student body. As in all averages, there are students who test both above and below these numbers.

You can also use this information as a basic metric in determining if the college is a reach, safety, or match/target school for you. Even if your eventual SAT or ACT scores are lower than you’d like, you can still find colleges that will accept you, whether it’s because they are test-optional or because they are open to accepting students on a conditional basis. And/or you could enroll at a community college to improve your academic record and transfer into the college of your choosing, as many colleges and universities will waive the standardized test requirement for transfer students (provided other criteria are met).

Finally, remember that there are myriad opportunities to improve your score on the ACT or SAT, especially if you start thinking about taking the exams in your junior year of high school. Official practice sites include Khan Academy for the SAT and the official ACT website. However, many other test-prep sites also offer free practice tests and/or questions, including Magoosh, PrepScholar, and Varsity Tutors. If you want a more personal experience, you could also look for tutors in your area (college campuses are often a good place to start), who will certainly be no stranger to preparing for standardized tests.

How are you setting your ACT or SAT score expectations? And what are you doing to prepare for the tests? Leave a comment and let us know.

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About Ruthie Carroll

Ruthie Carroll is a current freshman at Western Washington University and plans to pursue a degree in English and/or Linguistics. She has always been passionate about writing, especially short fiction and novels. Aside from writing and studying, Ruthie also dances ballet, reads an inordinate number of books, and plays traditional Irish fiddle music.


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