What is a Good SAT or ACT Score?

Guest blog post by J.K. Halsted

I’d like to propose an experiment. Bring a representative from each college to the Museum of Modern Art and sit them in front of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 (1950). Readers dabbling in art history might recognize Pollock as one of the premier abstract expressionists, and One: Number 31 as the quintessential example of how indecipherable modern art can be. Here’s an example of something you might find inside the MoMA:

what is a good sat score or act score

Yikes. Talk about abstract.

Georgetown might see a vicious battle between a darker evil and a heroic good. Yale might see a calligraphic choreography of droplets. Hofstra might see a synesthetic fantasia conducted inside a lollipop forest.

Much like looking at modern art, each college formulates a different interpretation of their applicants. These unique interpretations stem from the college’s needs, philosophies, and policies — but nowhere is this more apparent (and confusing) than with SAT and ACT test scores.

You might have heard the strange vocabulary: superscore, single highest sitting, Score Choice, and All Scores. This post seeks to break down these policies and help you figure out how colleges evaluate your test scores.

First, what is superscoring?
Superscoring is a college admissions policy that seeks to evaluate students more fairly. To speak in college admissions jargon, it’s sometimes called “highest combined sitting.” Either way, superscoring involves dividing your standardized exams into their constituent parts and, in order to evaluate you at your best, considering only the highest of those sections.

Here’s an example: suppose you score a composite 1240 on the March SAT. You earned a 630 in the reading and grammar sections (reported as the “ERW” score) and a 610 on the two math sections (the “M” score). You decide to retake the SAT in May and score a 1320, with a 670 ERW and a 650 M. Yay! If a college superscores, they will evaluate your application in the context of your 1320.

Another scenario: suppose you still score a composite 1320 on your May SAT, but this time, you earned a 610 ERW and a 710 M. With superscoring, colleges will evaluate the highest of each section (the 630 ERW from March and the 710 M from May) and recalculate your composite score using these parts. Therefore, in the eyes of most colleges, you’ll have earned a 1340!

In other words, the majority of colleges will ignore your lower score and consider only the higher, especially for the SAT. Policies vary from school to school, so be sure to check each school’s official policy, but the majority of colleges have adopted superscoring. All of the Ivy League schools, for instance, superscore the SAT. [i]

There are two caveats. It may seem tempting to game the superscore and take one exam where you only focus on English and reading and take a later exam only to focus on math. The idea is certainly clever, but unfortunately, there’s no “cleverness” score on the SAT (though maybe they should develop that). Schools superscore to get a more complete picture of a student’s true capabilities. They’ll likely doubt an exam if it’s apparent that a student has focused way too heavily on one section and neglected the other in an attempt to take advantage of the superscore.

Also, you’ll probably notice that this discussion of superscoring has only mentioned the SAT. Most schools are more reluctant to superscore the ACT. This disparity between the two exams may initially seem odd, but the different approaches come from the scaling system each exam uses. Unlike the SAT, the ACT calculates its composite as an average of its four constituent parts. And since the ACT’s scale is smaller (each ACT section is graded out of 36 as opposed to the SAT’s 800), even tiny increases can skew the overall average. That’s not to say no school superscores the ACT—some do, and most others have official “considerations” that seem like superscoring in all but name. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, superscore the ACT; five other Ivy League schools have “consideration” policies, where they consider a student’s ACT superscore but do not officially calculate it.[ii]

Okay, but what if my college asks for my single highest sitting?
Single highest sitting, also called “single highest test date,” is a policy similar to superscoring – but it doesn’t divide your test into parts. If a school follows a single highest sitting policy, it will evaluate your application in the context of the highest composite score you provide.

Suppose you earn a 1320 composite on the March SAT, with a 660 ERW and a 660 M. On the May SAT, you receive a 1340 composite, with a 600 ERW and a 740 M. Even though a traditional superscoring would mean you earned a 1500 (660 ERW and 740 M), a school that adheres to the single highest sitting policy will only consider your 1340 (600 ERW and 740 M), the highest composite score that you receive.

So, what does Score Choice mean?
If a school follows the Score Choice system, it means that you, the applicant, can choose which of your standardized test scores to send to that school. Typically, most students will use Score Choice when it comes to SAT IIs. Let’s say you received a 310 on the German SAT (one friend of mine actually did. How? He’s never taken a German class, and accidentally signed up for the wrong test). If you’ve done well on other SAT IIs—like earning a 670 on Bio M and a 720 on US History—then you can choose to disregard your lower scores and submit only the higher ones. Colleges, in turn, won’t see the scores you decide not to send.

But what about All Scores?
If a school follows a “Send All Scores” policy, then you must provide that school with all of your standardized exam results. This might seem unfair, but don’t fret. Colleges recognize that we’re all human, and that we all make mistakes. A poor test score will not obliterate your chances. In fact, challenging yourself with a higher-level exam might even demonstrate your curiosity and willingness to take intellectual risks.

So, what now?
Now that you know the lingo, you can start making sense of confusing admissions presentations. In 2015, the Collegeboard published a comprehensive list of the policies that each participating school follows.[iii] Obviously, schools will continuously update their requirements, so be sure to check with each school about their policies. You’ll typically find that information on the Admissions Department’s website.

As always, remember that your test scores do not define your worth. Scores do not become “good” when they bend closer to the asymptote of perfection; scores are worthwhile and meaningful if they challenge you. I offer zero apologies for my art metaphors, but painting your self-portrait as an applicant involves more hues, tints, and overall nuance than just your test results. Take that, Pollock.


[i] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

[ii] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

[iii] https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/professionals/sat-score-use-practices-participating-institutions.pdf

Does Retaking the SAT or ACT Look Bad to Colleges?

Guest blog post by J.K. Halsted

It’s a feeling that every high school student dreads: opening the results of your SAT or ACT and not seeing the perfect score you wanted. Whether that goal was a 1500 or a 1250, there’s an inevitable swell of disappointment, insecurity, and worry. Your mind somehow conjures up the harrowing image of your college dreams washing away.

Don’t worry. Silence your neural inquisitor. You will be okay.

Taking standardized exams is almost never like slaying Dracula: one stake through the heart isn’t enough to stop the vampire. Hardly anyone achieves his or her dream score in a single attempt. Most students, no matter their initial level of satisfaction with their first score, end up retaking the SAT or ACT at least once.[i]

But retaking an exam comes fraught with uncertainty. Many parents and students fret about the extra preparation, doing worse on a retake than on the original, and how schools might potentially penalize them. This post seeks to soothe some of those worries, debunk the gold standard set by the one-and-done testing triumph, and answer that oft-asked question: does retaking the SAT or ACT look bad to colleges?

The short answer is no. Retaking the SAT or ACT does not look bad to colleges; it may actually demonstrate your perseverance and improve your score.

Chances are, you’ll do better on the retake than on your first try. Most students do. In a 2015 study, the ACT found that high school seniors who first took the test in their sophomore year achieved a final score that averaged 2.7 points higher than their first score. The SAT hasn’t published comparable statistics recently, but a 2014 study (completed when SAT scores were calculated out of 2400) showed that students retaking the SAT raised their score by 90 points on average.

So… that’s it! The numbers say that you’ll do better if you retake the exam. Fork over that Nobel Prize, Einstein!

Well, not exactly. You’re more likely to see an improvement in your scores because you’ll figure out what topics to spend more study time on, and you’ll know what taking a standardized exam is actually like.

Actually sitting for a standardized exam is the best form of test preparation that you can get. Once you’ve been through the trenches — crunched in a tiny desk, surrounded by dozens of peers, hammered by the persistent hum of a fan — and still powered through an exam, you’ll be able to accurately say what you can achieve under those circumstances. You’ll also find out what exactly you do (and do not) understand. Suppose you flew through rational functions while studying but floundered when it came time to do them on the exam. That’s an indication that you probably cut a few corners in your studying, and you should practice more rational functions in preparation for your retake.

Furthermore, the first time anyone sits for a standardized exam, they’re bound to be nervous. First-time frights are real. Retaking the exam will let you approach the test with more confidence than you had in your first attempt.

Typically, these two advantages — more thorough preparation and increased confidence — are why some SAT consultants may recommend taking your first SAT in March and another SAT in May. After you reevaluate the way you prepare for the exam, your score will likely increase.

Most colleges won’t even consider your original scores. Colleges get it. They understand that we’re human, that we all have rough days, and that one number does not reflect our overall ability. Many colleges, therefore, have adopted a practice called “superscoring.” Superscoring involves dividing your standardized exams into their constituent parts and, in order to evaluate you at your best, considering only the highest of those sections.

For the purpose of retaking an exam, the majority of colleges will ignore your lower score and consider only the higher, especially for the SAT. Policies vary from school to school, so be sure to check each school’s official policy, but the majority of colleges have adopted some form of superscoring. Each of the Ivy League schools, for instance, superscores the SAT. [ii]

The ACT is a little different — schools are more reluctant to superscore the ACT because of its smaller score range and its composite average score — but that’s not to say no school superscores the ACT. Some do, and most others have official “considerations” that seem like superscoring in all but name. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, superscore the ACT; five other Ivy League schools have “consideration” policies, where they consider a student’s ACT superscore but do not officially calculate it.[iii]

But continually retaking exams might not be the best idea. If retaking an exam typically increases scores, some students might want to sign up for every SAT or ACT administration that they can. But if you’ve been preparing effectively, retaking an exam for the fourth of fifth time is unlikely to make any substantial difference.

For one, it’s expensive. Although the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers, exams cost around $50 each per sitting, and costs can rack up quick. But more importantly, scores tend to taper out over time.

So, should you keep retaking the SAT or ACT to improve your score?

Probably not. To borrow some mathematical language, standardized exam scores follow a logarithmic trend (if you already understood that, keep slaying those math sections). In other words, there are major score increases in the beginning, but these dwindle as time goes on. The Collegeboard reports that students see the highest score increase when they take the SAT for the second time — but, after the second testing, a student’s increase in score between exams becomes smaller and smaller. You’re unlikely to see your score jump up 200 points after you’ve prepared and sat for the SAT three times already.

It’s also crucial to weigh the psychological toils of taking another exam. With each exam you take, you’ll have to restudy and give up more time that could be used composing college applications, leading extracurriculars, or working outside of school. Your well-being is more important than any score on an exam.

Have the myths been busted? Retaking an exam will certainly not hinder your college chances. With adequate preparation, your score will typically increase — and that will make you even more competitive in the admissions process. And with superscoring, colleges probably won’t even consider your lower scores.

One-and-done is done. Perhaps we should rewrite Dracula. It’s about time that we slay the vampire not with the single wooden stake, but instead with perseverance highlighted by long-term persistence and practice.

On second thought, that would be pretty bloody.


[i] https://www.collegeraptor.com/getting-in/articles/act-sat/interesting-statistics-student-retaking-actsat/

[ii] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

[iii] https://blog.prepscholar.com/what-do-ivy-league-schools-think-of-the-act

The SAT Adversity Score

The CollegeBoard is rolling out an ‘Adversity Score,’ which is part of a larger rating system called the Environmental Context Dashboard that the CollegeBoard will include in test results it reports to schools. It has already been piloted by 50 colleges and universities, including Yale. The new score will be rolled out to 150 schools this year and then more widely in 2020. The goal is to contextualize a student’s score based on various environmental factors without looking at race.

How it works: the average score is 50. Higher scores indicate that the student may have encountered more disadvantages based on the quality of the student’s high school, the town’s crime rate, and the poverty level of the nearby area. The Adversity Score is separate from the SAT score.

Some people have concerns that the Adversity Score will diminish students’ chances at acceptance who come from safer neighborhoods and affluent backgrounds. Others take offense to the name “adversity score” as it may artificially label students in a way that might be found offensive.

Our takeaways:

When trying to understand the impact of this score, it’s good to understand why the SAT is offering the adversity score. Some high-profile colleges and universities are currently facing lawsuits that criticize the legality of their acceptance criteria as it relates to diversity. The importance being placed on SAT scores is also under similar scrutiny. The CollegeBoard’s Environmental Context Dashboard shows they are listening to these concerns. It is their way of offering a solution to help colleges while also keeping their tests relevant and an important factor in the admissions process.

“This score will be used to compare students to their peers,” says Curvebreakers Test Prep Owner Nick LaPoma, “making it all the more important that students prepare to be at the high end of scores from their local community.”

The bottom line is this: regardless of standardized test scores and environmental factors, every student has to demonstrate to colleges the same few things:

1) what makes the student unique
2) what makes the student a valuable addition to the school
3) why the student wants to go to that particular school.

Your opportunity to show colleges these things is through your application essays, GPA, extra curricular activities, and leadership roles. Remember, scores are only one aspect of acceptance. To help put it into perspective, you can check out our other blog, “The College Application – It’s not only about GPA & Test Scores.”

If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at (516) 728-1561 or chat with us online.

SAT Scaling: What to do when your SAT score doesn’t make sense

First, what is scaling? Scaling is a form of grading that is not based strictly on the percentage of correct answers (the way a typical school exam is graded). It is a process in which a raw score, or the number of questions a student answers correctly, is converted into a numerical value, for the SAT a number between 200-800. The SAT also uses a system of “equating” to ensure that scores from exam to exam are as “even” as they can be. That means that for tests they consider to be easier, a more challenging scale will be used and vice versa.

It is generally understood that the scales on the SAT are going to change minimally from exam to exam. This means that with the same number of correct answers, students can see minor fluctuations in each section score and differences in their total score of roughly 30 points. This is fairly normal. What is not normal are major deviations from the typical point benchmarks, which is what students have been experiencing on several of the recent SATs.

Concerned about your or your child’s SAT score? You don’t have to go it alone. We’re here to answer your questions and can recommend a course of action. Reach out to us at (516) 728-1561.

You may remember a public outcry after June 2018 scores were released, when several students ended up with higher raw scores and lower SAT scores! We have noticed a very similar trend with the past two SATs, and most dramatically with the December SAT exam. Students are answering several more questions correctly (upwards of 15 questions) and seeing minimal/no increases in score or even decreases in their score.

So what can we do? It seems that the biggest issues in scaling occur on the exams that do not get officially released by the SAT. Because the SAT repeats questions/passages, they do not release all of their exams. Of the 7-8 SATs administered yearly, 3 are released and offer a QAS (Question and Answer Service) report. For these exams, students can actually receive a copy of their test and review exactly which questions they answered incorrectly. These exams have the most consistent (and arguably the fairest) scales, which means these are the exams to take! They may be slightly more challenging exams, but there will be a significantly lower chance of getting thrown a curveball once scores are released.

The exams that the SAT is planning to release with QAS reports this year are March 9th, 2019 and May 4th, 2019.

If you took the December 2018 SAT exam and are not happy with your score, you can plan to take the March 2019 or May 2019 SAT exam. Not only do we expect to see reasonable scales that don’t deviate so drastically from the norm, but students will also be able to review their specific mistakes with the QAS report (an incredibly useful tool when prepping for a future exam).

For a personalized review of your child’s test score, contact our office at 516-728-1561 to make an appointment.

Related Posts
How Much Does your SAT/ACT Score Matter?
6 Differences Between the ACT and SAT
Why Taking Practice Tests Will Increase Your Score

How much does your SAT/ACT score matter?

A lot has changed in the last 20 years when it comes to applying for colleges: SAT/ACT tests continue to evolve; teacher recommendations aren’t the differentiator they once were; and now more than ever, we accept that a student’s abilities can’t be measured solely through GPA and SAT/ACT scores. So, where does that leave college-bound students in 2018?

To help parents understand these changes and how they affect the college application process, Curvebreakers presents this first installment in our 3-part College Application Series:

How much does your SAT/ACT score matter?

One big piece of this process continues to be the standardized SAT and ACT exams. Of all the factors impacting a school’s acceptance, we believe these test scores make up approximately 30% of the overall decision. However, they are extremely important for being awarded scholarship money.

Baylor University, for example, has an online calculator to demonstrate how much scholarship money you may be offered based on your SAT/ACT score. Going from a 28 to 33 on the ACT can increase your scholarship money by $14,000 over the course of a four-year degree.

Check out this chart at Colorado State University. For non-resident, incoming freshman, it shows how SAT/ACT scores correlate to their different scholarship tiers:

If a student does not submit SAT/ACT score(s), logically, the remaining parts of the application must be very strong to separate the student from other applicants. Because SAT/ACT scores are not always parallel with academic performance, it is possible for a student with an average GPA to do well on the SAT/ACT. The decision to take either test shouldn’t be overlooked just because of GPA.

The bottom line: the goal with the college application is for the student to stand out as much as possible. Not properly preparing for or not taking the SAT/ACT is a lost opportunity to receive as much scholarship money as possible and help you stand out from the crowd.

Part 2: How does high school GPA influence colleges’ acceptance decisions?