Scoring on the SAT: Your Ultimate Guide

Every year, millions of students take the SAT. 

While there are a handful of test-optional colleges out there, test scores can profoundly influence the college admissions decision. They can have an even greater impact on merit-based scholarship decisions and athletic recruiting.

First-time SAT test-takers have much to consider, not least that score report that they get at the end of their test prep journey!

What does scoring on the SAT look like? Most importantly, what do you need to know to get your highest score yet? 

In this post, we’ll walk test takers through:

Scoring on the SAT: The Basics

In March 2016, the College Board released its newest version of the SAT. 

While this version is five minutes longer than the “old” version, it has fewer questions: students now only encounter 155 questions (SAT essay included) rather than 171.

According to the College Board, these questions are better poised to assess “college and career readiness.”

This new SAT content aside, the most significant change was to the test’s scoring system itself. Before March 2016, SAT test-takers could earn a maximum score of 2400 and a minimum of 600.

New SAT test-takers now can earn a maximum score of 1600 and a minimum of 400. This composite score is a combination of students’ Verbal and Math section scores.

SAT Section Score Range
Evidence-Based Reading
+ Writing & Language
Math (No-Calculator)
+ Math (Calculator)

The SAT Verbal Score

There are two verbal tests on the new SAT:

  • Evidence-Based Reading 
  • Writing and Language

A student’s scores on both tests are combined into a Verbal section score on a scale of 200 – 800. The Verbal section score does not include the SAT essay.

How is this Verbal section score calculated?

First, the SAT test graders calculate a student’s test score on each verbal test. This test score is on a scale of 10-40 and depends on the number of questions a student gets correct on each test.

This conversion from a student’s SAT raw to scaled score varies from SAT to SAT: in just a moment we will explain why.

SAT test graders then multiply these two test scores by 10 and add the results to get the student’s Verbal section score.

SAT Verbal Score Calculation (1)

Here’s an example.

Let’s say that a student scored a 28 on the Evidence-Based Reading section and a 31 on the Writing and Language section. Multiplied by 10, these would equate to a 280 (EBR) and 310 (WL), or a 590 Verbal section score.

The SAT Math Score

There are two math tests on the new SAT: a shorter No-Calculator test and a longer Calculator test.

SAT test graders calculate how many total questions a student gets right on both of these tests. They then convert this raw score to a sectional score by using a test-specific algorithm.

(Unlike the Verbal score calculation, there’s no multiplying by 10.) 

This conversion from raw to scaled scores varies from test to test. On SAT Math, a student can earn a minimum section score of 400 and a maximum of 800.

SAT Math Score Calculation (1)

Here’s an example of the SAT math score calculation in action.

Let’s say that a student gets 15 questions right on the No-Calculator Math test and 27 questions right on the Calculator Math test. This equates to 42 correct questions total (out of 58). 

Depending on the SAT, this could convert to a Math section score between 630 and 700.

The SAT Essay Score

The SAT essay is the fifth and final section of the test. It is technically optional (but we encourage all of our students to take it).

A student’s SAT essay score does not impact their Verbal section score. Some colleges may, however, require the essay for SuperScoring.

Unlike the rest of the test, the SAT essay does not have a composite score. Two separate readers analyze students’ essays. They give each student a score between 1 and 4 for three categories: reading, analysis, and writing.

The SAT test graders then add these two sets of scores together per category. Students can thus receive a score of 2 – 8 on each of the three categories.

Learn more about getting your highest SAT essay score here!

The SAT Bell Curve: Does It Exist?

In this article, we’ve discussed the fact that SAT score conversions vary from test to test.

There’s a myth out there that these mysterious conversions depend on student performance on each individual SAT. In other words, if everyone else does fairly well on a given SAT, this is bad news for test-takers who struggled with the exam (and vice versa).

This is entirely untrue. Individual test scores have nothing to do with overall student performance. The SAT bell curve does not exist!

However, it’s virtually impossible to create SATs with identical difficulty but different content. For this reason, the College Board uses a process called “equating” to adjust scores based off of each test’s difficulty. In their words:

To make sure a section score from any SAT is equivalent to that same section score from any other SAT, regardless of its level of difficulty, we use a method called “equating.” Equating is a universally accepted statistical process used for all standardized tests. It ensures that scores are fair and valid for all test takers.

What does this mean?

Getting 35 Math questions right on one test may result in a different score than getting 35 Math questions right on another. But, the College Board emphasizes, this still results in a fair score.

In the next session, we display a comparison of two previously administered SATs that proves this point.

Sample SAT Scoring Chart

Source: The College Board Practice Tests #1 and #3

Notice how 35 correct Math questions on Test 1 equated to a 570. On Test 3, the same number of correct Math questions resulted in a 610. Roughly speaking, Test 1’s Math sections were likely easier than Test 3’s. 

Conversely, 30 correct Writing and Language questions on Test 1 equated to a test score of 29. On Test 3, the same number of correct questions resulted in a 30. 

Can you predict the difficulty levels of SATs? No. Nor should you hold out hope for an “easy” SAT.

In fact, an “easy” SAT does not guarantee a higher score. On easy SATs, more test-takers will answer more questions correctly. This means those high-difficulty questions will be worth more.

But you can prepare for difficult SAT questions in your test prep journey. You can also prepare to take the test at least twice to maximize your odds of achieving your highest score.

SAT Percentiles

There’s one more aspect to scoring on the SAT that parents and students should emphasize throughout their test prep: SAT percentiles.

When students receive their SAT score reports, they will also receive percentages based on their performance. Students receive sectional percentiles and composite percentiles.

These are quite different from high school percentages, which often translate directly to how many questions students got right.

SAT percentiles reflect the percentage of test-takers an individual student out-performed.

An SAT composite percentile of 77%, for example, signifies that a test-taker earned a higher score than 77% of all students who took that particular test.

Percentiles are important, especially when assessing eligibility for more competitive colleges. When it comes to test prep, however, it is often more valuable to establish a goal score range rather than a goal percentile range.

Average SAT Scores

Here are the average SAT scores from the last two years of SAT administration. As you can see, SAT averages are actually declining.

SAT Score National Averages for the Class of 2019

  • Verbal: 531
  • Math: 528
  • Total: 1059

SAT Score National Averages for the Class of 2018

  • Verbal: 536
  • Math: 531
  • Total: 1068

Source: The CollegeBoard:  2018 Report and 2019 Report

Scoring on the SAT: Where This Leaves You

There you have it: your complete guide to scoring on the SAT. So what happens next?

1. Set a goal score before beginning SAT test prep.

It’s vital to have a goal score or percentile in mind prior to starting SAT test prep. Doing so can help students more efficiently prioritize specific content areas and strategies. It can also give your test prep journey trajectory and focus.

Some students begin their SAT test prep with a goal score in mind. Others may have no idea what score range to aim for, especially if they are still fleshing out their list of colleges.

Students who have already taken the PSAT, administered to high school sophomores, can refer to their PSAT score report for assessing goals and percentiles. Those who have yet to take the PSAT should begin with a diagnostic SAT practice test.  

2. Practice questions of all difficulty levels.

The notion of an SAT bell curve can understandably make students anxious! 

However, it is possible to succeed on the SAT despite this curve. It all begins with test prep. Increasing your fluency in all kinds of practice questions, including the most challenging ones, can help combat test fluctuations.

We also strongly recommend that students take the SAT officially at least twice. 

3. Understand what a good SAT score looks like.

While a “good SAT score” is a relative phrase, students should have a sense of competitive SAT scoring before they start preparing for the exam. 

So, what does a good SAT score look like? Is there such a thing as a “bad” SAT score? What should be your goal SAT score? 

We answer all of these questions and more in our comprehensive guide to good SAT scores. 

Students can also work with our SAT experts to establish a goal score and concrete steps for achieving it!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.