Taking the SAT is often a high school rite of passage. Each year, millions of students nationwide take the SAT, one of two major standardized tests that assess college readiness by measuring math, verbal, and reasoning skills. While the test does measure your knowledge to some extent, its purpose has always been to measure a student’s critical thinking skills and ability to apply knowledge, rather than measuring the amount or strength of background knowledge a student brings to the test.
The current SAT consists of two primary test sections, and one additional optional test section. One of the primary tests is the Math Test. This is actually comprised of two smaller test sections: the Math Test With Calculator and the Math Test, No Calculator. The other primary test is the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test. This is also comprised of two smaller test sections: the Critical Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test. The final component of the SAT, the SAT Essay, is optional.
For both the Math Test and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test, you will receive a section score ranging from 200-800. These scores are calculated from your performance on the subtests in each section.
You will also receive what is referred to as a composite score. This is basically the total score you received on all required sections, and it is calculated simply by adding together your Math Test section score with your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Test section score. Your composite score ranges from 400-1600.
When students receive their score reports, they often are most anxious to see their composite score. This score is displayed prominently at the top of the score report, and many students and colleges alike think of it as a total measure of success on the test.
But is the composite score always the most important number on your SAT score report? Not necessarily. While it is certainly the most commonly reviewed and referred to, there are a few scenarios in which section scores might become more important.
In this post, we will outline the unique circumstances in which a section score may be weighed heavily in college admissions decisions, other times when section scores might be reviewed, and the situations in which you should consider retaking the SAT to improve a specific section score, even if you’re content overall with your composite score. To learn more about how to weigh your SAT composite score and your SAT section scores, read on.
When is the composite score most important?
In most cases, the composite score is the first thing that any admissions committee will look at. In some cases, it is the only thing they will look at. For that reason, composite scores are generally the most important number on your score report.
Sometimes, a composite score will automatically qualify you or disqualify you from further screening in the admissions process. In these cases, your SAT score is used as a screening tool to thin the applicant pool. If your score meets a certain threshold, your application stays in the admissions game. If it does not, you could be denied admission. Remember, an admissions committee does not always have time to read through every line of every single application, so things like GPA or SAT scores are easy tools to help with initial screenings.
That is not to say, though, that your section scores are never reviewed. This simply means that in many cases, a composite score will be used for initial screenings, while section scores and other details are reviewed later.
When do section scores matter?
Of course, just because an admissions committee might review your composite score first doesn’t mean that your section scores are completely irrelevant. It simply means that this layer of scrutiny usually comes later in the process, and that sometimes, your application will never undergo this kind of scrutiny.
If, however, an admissions committee reviews your section scores, it will usually be for one of three reasons.
The first reason that an admissions committee generally reviews your section scores is to ensure that you are a fairly well-balanced applicant. Particularly if you are applying to a liberal arts school or as a liberal arts major, the admissions committee will want to see that you are generally capable of college-level work in both the math and language fields.
If, for example, you happen to score exceptionally high on one section and put forth a significantly weaker performance on the other, your composite score may place you in the acceptable range, but you might ultimately not be accepted if the admissions committee is concerned that you will not be able to handle the work across all fields of study.
Another scenario is when you are applying to a specialized major or program, and one section score is significantly more relevant than the other. In this circumstance, the scenario of mismatched scores above could actually work to your favor. If you are applying to an engineering program and your composite score is competitive, the admissions committee will likely be impressed by an exceptionally high math score, even if your language scores suffer somewhat. If this case, it is not your general abilities across the board that they are interested in so much as your specific abilities in your intended field.
The final reason that an admissions committee might choose to review your section scores would be to further screen your strength as a candidate. If they cannot make a decision about your candidacy and are scrutinizing the finer details of your application, it’s likely that they will look at your SAT section scores. In this case, obviously it is best to present no obvious weaknesses, but sometimes factors that you cannot control will come into play. For example, they may be dealing with a pool of accepted candidates that is particularly strong in math and wish to level it out a bit with some more language-oriented applicants.
Your score on your SATs can be a critical factor in determining your acceptance at the college of your choice. Your SAT Scores are comprised of three items: your SAT Score, your percentile, and your score range. Each of the three main sections (critical reading, math, and writing) is scored on a scale of 200-800. Additionally, you will receive subscores for the essay (scale of 2-12) and multiple choice writing questions (scale of 20-80).Your test score is determined by first calculating your raw score, and then determining a scaled score. Your raw SAT Score is determined by giving you 1 point for each correct answer and deducting ¼ point for each incorrect answer. Your raw score is then “equated” to derive a scaled score. A scaled score reduces the impact of different test versions and the students who take specific versions.
SAT Score Range
Your score range is an attempt to measure your true performance on the SAT Test. The SAT Score Range represents an estimate of how your scores might vary if you were tested repeatedly.
Interpreting your SAT Scores
The best way to understand your SAT Scores is by comparing them to other students and seeing what your preferred colleges require. The table below lists your percentile compared to other students. For example, if you scored a 580 on your SAT Critical Reading score, this implies that your percentile score is 75 (i.e., you scored better than 75% of the other students who took the SAT Test). For the most recent graduating class, the average (mean) SAT Scores were 502 for Critical Reading, 515 for Math and 494 for Writing. Below the SAT Score Percetiles table is a listing of the SAT scores (25th and 75th percentile) for the top 200+ universities (based on enrollment).
SAT Score Percentiles
|Score||SAT Critical Reading||SAT Math||SAT Writing|
Source: College Board (pdf)
SAT Scores for Top Universities (by Enrollment)
Source: National Center for Education Statistics/IPED data center
SAT Test and College Requirements
The table below summarizes the SAT Test requirements for public and private 4 year institutions.
Public 4-year institutions
Private 4-year institutions
Critical reading, 25th percentile
Critical reading, 75th percentile
Mathematics, 25th percentile
Mathematics, 75th percentile
Source: US Department of Education
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