I am asked this question often, and I have never come up with a good answer. That’s because the real answer amounts to little more than a vague “it depends.” The truth is, students curious about what makes a “good SAT score” need to find out for themselves. Here’s how:
First, let’s think about what kind of question this is. It’s a question asking for an evaluation—something like, “Is that a good movie?” But there is something qualitatively different about the movie question. When students ask me about their SAT scores, they expect an objective answer: 1200, 1300, or 1400, something numerical and certain.
But when you ask a friend about a movie, you know going in that you’re getting an opinion. If you know your friend well, you know what kind of things she looks for in a film. Your friend might care mostly about special effects, or about the quality of the acting, or the cinematography, or the plot, or some balance of these or other factors. When you ask a friend whether a movie is good or not, you’re asking that friend to explain if the movie met the particular standards that she has laid out for that movie in particular or for movies in general. In other words, you’re asking your friend whether the movie in question did what she wanted it to do.
This gets us back to the SAT question. What do you want your SAT score to do? Do you want it to prove that you’ve mastered the subtleties of critical reading, the rigors of English grammar, and the complexities of trigonometry? Do you want it to impress your parents and your siblings? Do you want it to match the numbers of your birth month, day, and year?
No! Of course not! You want your SAT score to get you into college. Yes, the SAT does test on a number of essential skills, which you’d be keen to study and master in preparation for the exam. There is, in fact, more to gain from test preparation than college admission. But your SAT score is first and foremost a means to an end. It’s one important ingredient to get you into the school or schools of your choice.
So, what’s a good SAT score? A score that helps you get into a college or university that you want to attend.
Before students ask the SAT question, they need to ask themselves the college question: Where do you want to go to school?
Let’s say you want to go to Harvard. Great choice! If you want to get into Harvard, though, you’re probably going to need a minimum SAT score of 1480. (Of course you’ll also need a stellar GPA, an impressive record of extracurriculars, and an overall knockout of an application.)
According to Harvard’s website, the school’s 25th to 75th percentile of SAT scores (often referred to as a school’s “middle 50%”) for admitted students range from 1400 to about 1560.* That means a score of 1400 would put you in the bottom 25 percent of admitted students at Harvard—and likely would not be good enough to gain you admission. A nearly perfect score of 1560 would only place you in the top 25 percent. Those are some very competitive and very intimidating statistics. But they’re important to know as you prepare for the test. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that most students will need at least a 3.90 unweighted GPA to go along with a 1460+ SAT to have a puncher’s chance (not to mention a pretty stellar record of extracurricular activities).
Perhaps Harvard is a bit out of reach, though, as it is for the vast majority of students. Let’s look at NYU, also an excellent school. To get into NYU, you’ll likely need a minimum SAT score of 1280. Keep in mind that this score places you in the bottom 25 percent of applicants, though, so you’ll want to aim for a higher score—something in the 1400-1500 range. Of course, your SAT score is just one piece of the college application puzzle, so you’ll need a strong GPA and record of extracurriculars, too.
Let’s look at one more school: Skidmore, an excellent liberal arts school located in Saratoga Springs, NY. So many students fixate on the Harvards, Princetons and Yales of the world that they miss truly outstanding schools like Skidmore College. Don’t be one of those students.
I would include Skidmore as one of the schools students are likely to get an education just as strong as, if not better than, those offered at Ivy League universities, an idea I’ve explored in two previous articles: When it Comes to Colleges, the Biggest Name Doesn't Always Mean the Best Fit and How (Not) to Choose a College.
And take a look at the numbers: the median SAT score for students admitted to Skidmore lies around 1300 to 1320. That means that students with an SAT score in the mid to high-1200s and a strong overall application would gain serious consideration. Those numbers are much more reasonable than the numbers listed for Harvard or even NYU. There’s a terrific education and college experience awaiting those willing to consider outstanding but less-recognized liberal arts schools such as Skidmore, Oberlin (with an SAT middle 50% range of 1260-1450), Emerson (about 1150-1350), and many others.
For those setting their sights on the University of California, be sure to check out those score ranges, too. The tops is UC Berkeley, with a range of about 1310-1550. UCLA ranks second with a range of 1260-1530.
Remember, when you pick a few schools that you’re interested in, don’t just settle for the minimum score—aim to be at least in the middle of these ranges, and strive for the very top if you can. And when you pick the schools you’ll apply to, be sure to look beyond the names atop the annual Princeton Review rankings. There’s a world of ideas, experiences, relationships, and successes teeming beneath that shiny surface.
*These and most of the numbers that follow are estimates that adjust for the new SAT’s 1600-point scale, as Harvard and most other schools do not yet have data on their 2017 admissions.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.