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

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