What do ACT and SAT scores mean?

You’ve studied and completed prep courses, you’ve taken your SAT or ACT test, and you’ve received your score in the mail or seen it online. But it’s a struggle interpreting SAT scores and ACT scores. How do you know if the score you got means you did well – by your own standards and by those of the colleges you’re applying to?

How the SAT and ACT Are Scored

Before you begin interpreting SAT scores and ACT scores, understand that the scoring systems are quite different. The SAT has two sections (Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math), each of which are worth up to 800 points, so a perfect score is 1600.

The ACT has four sections (English, math, reading comprehension and science, with an optional essay section). The scores are averaged after they’re tabulated, so a perfect ACT score is 36.

Interpreting SAT and ACT Scores: What is a Perfect Score?

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get a perfect score! Only about one in every 10,000 students achieves an SAT score of 1600, while about one in 4,000 test-takers gets a 36 ACT score.

Most top American colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, etc.) are looking for scores above the 90th percentile, or the top 10% of all that year’s test-takers. For the SAT, that generally means 1350 or above. The 90th percentile for ACT scores is about a 28 or above.

While a less-than-perfect score doesn’t mean you won’t get into the top colleges and universities in America, a perfect score doesn’t mean you will. The admissions committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has actually wait-listed or deferred a few applicants who have gotten perfect test scores, and it’s likely that other schools have as well.

Interpreting a High SAT or ACT Score

The general standard for a “good” SAT score is 600 or above in each section. Depending on your academic transcript and extracurricular activities, an 1200 or higher should gain you admittance into many highly regarded American colleges, such as New York University or the University of Michigan.

When interpreting SAT scores, realize that the average score of all SAT test-takers in 2018 was 1050. Broken down into sections, that works out to 520 in math, 530 in reading and writing.

The average ACT score falls between 21 and 22. There are plenty of good colleges for students with average scores. After all, fully half of students taking the test scored below average. And, depending on the rest of your academic transcript is, an average score won’t keep you out of a good school.

Interpreting SAT and ACT Scores: What’s the Worst Score?

The low end for the SAT is a 400, and the lowest possible ACT score is 1.

You have to work pretty hard to get a score that bad. Even if you don’t answer a single question, the companies that administer the tests are more likely to throw out your test, assuming an error was made, than to actually send it to any colleges.

The question has been asked many times whether merely entering your name gets you the minimum SAT and ACT scores, and there seems to be no definitive answer.