SAT Goal Setting: The Ultimate Guide

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.

– Michaelangelo

You’ve started thinking about the SAT or you’ve taken a practice test and just got your scores back.

Now what?

What do these numbers mean? Is your SAT score good or bad? What is a realistic SAT score increase?

We answer many of these questions in this comprehensive post. With these answers, you’ll have everything you need to set the right goals for your SAT test prep journey.

Whether you’re self-studying for the SAT or working with experts, this post is for you!

We’ll answer 5 important questions in this SAT goal setting guide:

  1. How does your SAT score compare to others’?
  2. What are realistic target SAT scores?
  3. How should you think about reaching your target score?
  4. How many hours of studying will it take to achieve your target SAT scores?
  5. How does your score compare to the average SAT scores of your target colleges?

Want a copy of this guide to review later? Click here to download our free ebook!


1) How Does Your SAT Score Compare to Others’?

Your SAT score doesn’t really mean anything by itself.

In order to give meaning to your score–and develop an SAT study plan–you have to consider your scores in context. This means thinking about how your score compares to:

  • SAT scores of other students in the country
  • SAT scores of your target colleges (we’ll cover this later)

How does YOUR score compare to OTHERS’ in the country?

To answer this question, we have to look at the percentile rank of your score.

What’s a percentile?

  • If you score is in the 75th percentile, that means 75% of SAT scores are at or below your score
  • The higher your percentile rank, the better

Below are some percentile ranks based on the actual SAT scores of students in the graduating high school class of 2017:

Total SAT Score Percentile
1480 99th percentile
1320 90th percentile
1190 74th percentile
1050 49th percentile
910 24th percentile
800 9th percentile

(Source: The College Board)

The average SAT scores of the Class of 2017 high school graduates:

  • Total Score: 1060
  • Critical Reading/Writing: 533
  • Math: 527

As you begin setting your SAT goals, ask yourself: how does your score compare to the average score?


2) What Are Realistic Target SAT Scores?

Your SAT goal scores should depend on two things:

  1. Where your SAT scores currently are – If you’re already a high scorer, your expected score increase will be lower
  2. How much prep you’ve already done – If you’ve already done a ton of prep, your incremental improvement will be lower

Below is a general GUIDELINE for target SAT score improvements based on your current SAT section scores:

Current Section Score Target Score Improvements
200 – 400 +100
400 – 440 +90
450 – 490 +80
500 – 540 +70
550 – 590 +60
600 – 640 +50
650 – 690 +40
700 – 740 +30
750 – 790 +10

DETERMINE YOUR TARGET SAT SCORE:

To calculate your SAT goal score, fill in the table below:

  1. Enter the scores from an official or practice test into the 1st Column (“My Current Score”)
  2. Use the table above to identify the appropriate “Target Score Improvement” based on your section score. Input those numbers into the table below.
  3. Calculate “MY TARGET SAT SCORE” by adding the previous 3 columns
    • For example: If “My Current Score” is 550 for Math, then “Target Score Improvement” would be +60, and “MY TARGET SAT SCORE” would be 550 + 60 + 20 = 630
My Current Score Target Score Improvement Stretch Goal MY TARGET SAT SCORE*
Math  +  + 20
CR/WR  +  + 20

*NOTE: If you’ve already completed a lot of prep, you realistically may only be able to achieve a fraction of these target SAT scores (but keep these targets anyway)

Click here to download our guide and tables so you can keep track of your scores!


3) Reaching Your SAT Goal Score

Let’s say you want to increase your SAT math score by 90 points.

How should you think about reaching this SAT goal score?

One way to make your score increase more tangible is to think about how many additional questions you need to answer correctly.

  • Each math question is worth about 10 points
  • Each reading/writing question is worth about 6 points
  • If you want to increase your math score by 90 points, you will need to answer 90 / 10 = 9 additional questions correctly

This thinking aligns well with our key strategy of carefully reviewing missed questions

  • If we apply this strategy properly, the next time we see a similar math question again, for example, we’ll answer it correctly, and gain 10 points (or more if it’s a frequently tested topic)

Use the table below to calculate the additional # of Qs you’ll need to answer correctly:

  1. Enter your current/diagnostic score in Column 1
  2. Enter “My Target SAT Score” in Column 2 (from the previous page)
  3. Calculate “Targeted Score Increase” in Column 3 by subtracting Column 1 from Column 2
  4. Calculate Column 5 by dividing Column 3 by Column 4
(1) My Current Score (2) My Target SAT Score (3) Targeted Score Increase (4) Each Question is Worth (5) How Many More Qs to Answer Right
Math 10 pts
CR/WR 6 pts

Example:

  • If my current Reading/Writing score is 500 (Column 1), then “My  Target SAT Score” will be 590 (Column 2, pulled from previous section). Thus my “Targeted Score Increase” will be 590 – 500 = 90 points (Column 3).
  • To calculate how many additional questions I must answer correctly to achieve this score (Column 5), I divide 90 by 6 to get 15 question.

Click here to download our guide and tables so you can keep track of your scores!

Not sure WHEN to take the test? We created 9 Sample Testing Schedules to help get you started


4) Achieving Your SAT Goal Scores

The #1 way to achieve your target SAT scores is to … STUDY MORE and STUDY EFFECTIVELY.

But you already knew this.

If you’re signed up for one of our SAT classes or private tutoring sessions, you will learn the best strategies and review important concepts, but you have to spend time outside of class by doing homework and practice tests.

How to Study Effectively?

  • Many students don’t study efficiently or effectively… This means a lot of wasted time and little to no improvement
  • It’s important to learn how to study,  when to study, and to utilize tools to make the most out of your time – this results in larger improvements over a shorter amount of time

How to Study More?

  • The more effectively you study, the higher your score. It’s that simple!
  • We know that your time is limited, but you must prioritize your SAT prep if you’re an 11th or 12th grader
  • Compared to your grades and extracurriculars, the SAT has a disproportionate impact on college admissions when considering time spent on each activity
  • It’ll be a little painful, but it’ll be worth it

HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD YOU SPEND STUDYING?

This is the million-dollar question. Below is a general guideline:

 

Target # Hours of Studying: 40 hrs

  • Score Improvements*:
    • Expect reasonable score improvements
  • 40 hrs translates to:
    • 5 hrs per week over 8 weeks
      • ~1 hr per day (5 days/wk)
    • 10 hrs per week over 4 weeks
      • ~2 hrs per day (5 days/wk)
  • FYI – our courses are designed with 40 hours of homework
Ideal # Hours of Studying: 80 hrs

  • Spread these hours out over a longer period of time.
    • E.g. 80 hours over 4 months
  • Score Improvements*:
    • Expect to hit the higher end of your target scores
Superstar # Hours of Studying: 120+ hrs

  • These hours should be spread out across 6 to 12 months or even longer
  • Score Improvements*:
    • Expect to exceed your target scores
Bare Minimum # Hours of Studying: 20 hrs

  • At a bare minimum, commit to at least 20 hours of studying
  • Score Improvements*:
    • Expect to see moderate improvement
  • 20 hrs translates to:
    • 2.5 hrs per week for 8 week course
      • ~30 min per day (5 days/wk)
    • 5 hrs per week for 4 week course
      • ~1 hr per day (5 days/wk)

*Take these estimated score improvements with a grain of salt. Every student is different and score increases will vary across the board, especially if you’ve already done a lot of prep beforehand.


5) Your SAT Score vs. Average Scores of Target Colleges

While it’s great to know SAT percentile comparisons to those of other students in the country, what really matters is how your SAT score compares to the scores of the student body at your target colleges.

To have a decent shot at your target college, aim to score in the higher range of the “middle 50 percent SAT Scores” of that college.

What is the “Middle 50 Percent SAT Score”?

  • The Middle 50 Percent SAT score is a score between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile of SAT scores for that college
  • To find these scores, just Google your target college + “admissions statistics”
  • Your should aim for the 75th percentile (or higher!)

Example Middle 50 Percent SAT Scores (Class of 2021):

College/ University 25th Percentile 75th Percentile
Princeton University 1380 1540
UNC Chapel Hill 1270 1450
Rutgers (Arts & Science) 1250 1430
Michigan State University 1120 1290
UC Riverside 1090 1310

FILL OUT THE TABLE BELOW WITH YOUR OWN TARGET COLLEGES:

College/ University 25th Percentile 75th Percentile
Target College/University
Target College/University
Target College/University
Target College/University
Target College/University

How do the target scores you identified earlier compare to the SAT Middle 50 of your target colleges?

If Your Target Scores Fall WITHIN the SAT Middle 50 of Target Schools:

  • Great! Your SAT goal scores are well aligned.
  • Now all you have to do is put in the work to achieve those targets. How? You can self-study, sign up for an SAT Class, get private tutoring, or a combination of all of the above!

If Your Target Scores Fall BELOW the SAT Middle 50 of Target Schools:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Adjust your list of target schools:
    • Keep the schools on the list, but re-classify them as “Reach” schools
      • While your chances are significantly reduced if your SAT scores are outside the middle 50, the SAT is not the ONLY admissions criteria
      • You still have a chance at these schools, especially if your other academics are very strong and you have exceptional extracurriculars
    • Add some colleges that are more aligned with your target scores
  3. Study more… up to a limit:
    • The more you study, the higher your score
      • This is true as long as you’re studying effectively
      • How to study effectively? Don’t worry, we’ll teach you how
    • However, there are diminishing returns
      • Once you reach this level, stop and re-evaluate – you shouldn’t be spending all your time doing SAT prep
    • Some of our students blast through their targets. You might be one of them.

If Your Target Scores Fall ABOVE the SAT Middle 50 of Target Schools:

  • Congrats! If not already on your list, consider adding some more selective schools that align with your target SAT scores.

As you can see, understanding the SAT Middle 50 of your Target Colleges can help you adjust your college list and your study plan.

The SAT Middle 50 also tells you when you can STOP studying:

  • If you’ve taken the test and you’re scoring in the 75th percentile or above of your target colleges, you can stop studying and focus on other things
  • However, feel free to continue studying and trying to improve your score if you truly have extra free time and everything else is in good shape

Next Steps

Now that you know all about SAT goal setting, it’s time to create an SAT study plan. Read our post on doing so here!

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We’ve helped thousands of students improve their grades and test scores.

At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child increase their test scores and get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.