What are good test scores?

It’s a question I hear all the time: “I got _____ on the SAT. Is that good?” Everyone would like to know that their test scores are good. That they’re valuable, that they’re going to help a student get what she wants, like admission to a top-choice college or a scholarship. The problem, of course, is that none of us are quite sure what makes a test score “good.”

What I’d like to do today is go over all the ways I can think to answer that question, from the fairly objective to the completely dysfunctional. There are a lot of ways to think about your test scores.

The College Readiness Benchmark. Through years of surveying college students and comparing their college success to their SAT scores, the College Board has a pretty good idea of what a college-ready score is: 480 on Reading & Writing, 530 on Math. 1010 total. What do they mean by “college readiness”?

Students with an SAT Math section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in algebra, statistics, pre-calculus, or calculus.

Students with an SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in history, literature, social sciences, or writing classes.

So this is the most basic answer to the question. If you get over 480/530, then you’re probably ready for college. And since it’s a test that really only gets used for that one thing, being college-ready is a good score. You can read all about the Benchmarks here on the College Board website. Many people find this definition of a “good score” completely unsatisfying. A 75% chance of getting a C is not necessarily their idea of “good.”

The minimum to be considered for the prize. Imagine one of the colleges you apply to has a Presidential Scholarship worth $25,000 per year. To be considered for the scholarship, you have to earn at least a 1250 combined SAT score, submit an essay, sit for an interview, and submit two letters of recommendation. The winner of that scholarship is going to based on the essay, interview, and letters. A student with a 1250 gets a shot at the scholarship just as much as a student with a 1550. Getting in the door is all that matters. 1250 is a good score, period, even if it’s right at the cut-off. This is the academic equivalent to the sports truism that “there’s no such thing as an ugly win.” If your score gets you considered for something you want, then it’s a good score.

Percentile. Probably the most intuitive way to understand your score is to look not at the score itself but at the percentile. The percentile means your score was better than ___% of students who took the same test at the same time. What constitutes “good” is completely subjective and up to each individual, but you probably already have an emotional sense of what you want. For some, it’s to be in the top half. (The SAT is designed for the average score to be right around 1000, so “top half” and “meets the college readiness benchmark” are kind of the same thing.) Some want to be in the top 25% or top 20%. Some, whether they achieve it or not, will not believe that their score is good unless it’s in the top 10% If you have PSAT, SAT, or ACT scores already, you can find the percentile and ask yourself how you feel. You’ll probably have a sense that you think your scores are good or not good. If you haven’t already got test scores, do some thinking and decide ahead of time what percentile will feel “good” to you.

What you get on your second try, after studying. You take the test once, and you get a score. It reflects how you did just giving it a try. Then, you take some time to really study and prepare. Maybe you work with a tutor or prep class. Maybe you use Khan Academy or some other online program. Maybe you just keep taking high school classes and gaining a better understanding. Then you take the test again, and this new score reflects your raw talent plus your careful preparation. Whatever that second score is, that’s good. Even if you’re disappointed in the number or percentile, you’ve got to be happy with your raw talent plus your careful preparation. That combination can get you far in life. Don’t knock it.

It depends on your grades. Almost everyone recognizes that some people just don’t have the same talent for standardized tests as some other people. Most selective colleges, even the ones that aren’t test-optional, place much more emphasis on grades and course rigor than they do on test scores. The higher your GPA, the more likely people are to overlook your test scores. What constitutes good test scores depends to some degree on how good your grades are. Beware, though, that there are different ways to interpret a large gap between test scores and GPA. A high GPA and low test scores may mean that you’re a really bright student who just isn’t great at multi-choice tests. Or it may mean that you’re not so bright but were able to game the system, especially if you come from a high school with plenty of grade inflation. High test scores with a low GPA may mean that you’re a brilliant student who was bored with school and needs a challenge, a real diamond in the rough. Or it may mean that you’re smart but lazy, hoping to skate by on your test scores without contributing much else. Disparities in your grades and test scores are open to interpretation, so you need to be aware of that.

It depends on where you’re applying. The SAT and ACT are college application tests. They won’t be used for anything else after that. So a good score depends on where you’re applying. Most schools will tell you what their test mid-range is. That’s the range of scores that half of their students scored within. To take one example out of thousands, Sarah Lawrence College has an SAT mid-range of 1240-1410. Half of their students scored within this range. 25% scored higher, and 25% scored lower. So if you’re hoping to go to Sarah Lawrence, a score over 1240 is good. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be accepted, just as a score below that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be denied. But if your score is within the range of 75% of their students, then you can stop worrying about test scores and focus on other parts of the application.

It doesn’t matter: what’s important are your GRE/LSAT/MCAT scores. This is basically an extension of the “minimum to be considered for the prize” idea. If you’re ambitious and want to go on to graduate study, then those tests—GRE for grad school, LSAT for law school, MCAT for med school—are the ones that you should feel pressure about. Don’t sweat the SAT/ACT as long as it gets you into college somewhere.

There are some common, but less objective and healthy ways, that plenty of people use to gauge whether a score is good. I don’t endorse these, but it really helps to be aware if your thinking falls into these traps. Self-knowledge is the best knowledge.

What your parents say is a good score. There are some students for whom the factor that matters the most is approval from their parents. A good score is whatever makes their parents take notice and be proud. If you get scores that do make your parents proud, that’s awesome. It’s a great bonus. But if you’ve got parents who aren’t going to be satisfied unless you get a perfect score, then that can be really rough and damaging. At the end of the day, though, it’s a college entrance exam, not a parental love exam, and you’ll be much better off looking for a more objective way to think about your scores.

Higher than your older sibling got. Closely related to parental approval is comparison to older siblings. It stinks to be compared unfavorably to an older sibling, and it feels good to score higher than they did. Ultimately, though, this says nothing about your success in college or beyond.

The round number higher than whatever you got. I had a client once who had a 1390 on his SAT. And he hated his score, because he wanted the round number of 1400. I have no doubt, though, that if he got a 1400 he’d be upset it wasn’t a 1450. Some people are like that. They’re the people who’d rather get an 86 on a test than an 89, because the “one point from an A” drives them nuts. They’ll probably grow into the type of adult who would hate to match 5 out of 6 numbers on a Lotto ticket, because they’d “only” win a million dollars and come so close to the big prize. If you’re one of those people, I’m not judging you. I’ve got love and compassion for you. But there’s probably not anything I can tell you that might make you happy about your test scores.

Thanks for reading! What do you think is a good score? Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn