*Updated January 27, 2020
The SAT is a long exam with a Math Section, a Reading and Writing Section, and an optional Essay. For many students, it is the most dreaded part of the college application process.
Most colleges require scores from either the SAT or the ACT test as part of your college application, and many students choose to take both. Think of these tests as standardized entrance exams that colleges use to gauge your ability and understanding in key subjects, with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants.
In total, the SAT takes 3 hours, or 3½ hours including the optional essay, to complete. Unlike the ACT, the SAT does not include a science section. The SAT and ACT exams each have their own unique challenges, and students may be more suited to one over the other. I recommend taking a full-length timed practice test to decide which option is best for you. The Princeton Review offers free practice tests and an online quiz that you can take to see which test you are more suited for.
Taking the SAT and sending out your scores can be a stressful process, but it can be made easier by understanding exactly how the process works.
Here’s everything you need to know about SAT scores:
1. When do you take the SAT?
The SAT is given 7 times per year, in March, May, June, July, August, September, November and December. You may take the SAT at any time in your high school career, but most students choose to take it during their junior year, at the point in time when they are beginning the college application process. Some choose to start preparing for the SAT as early as their sophomore year of high school.
I recommend starting early. This way you can develop a strong familiarity with the material the test will cover and hone your test-taking strategies and skills. At the very least, you should devote the fall of your junior year to preparing for the SAT, whether by taking a prep class or by taking practice tests and studying on your own time, and then take your first official SAT in the spring of junior year.
Free SAT test prep is available through Khan Academy, which has teamed up with the College Board — the owner, developer, publisher and grader of the SAT — for this purpose.
If you didn’t reach your target score on the first go-around, or you would like a chance to improve your score even further, you can always take the SAT again.
There is no limit on how many times you can take the SAT, so you can always try again if you can afford it — the SAT costs $49.50 and the SAT with Essay costs $64.50 for the 2019-2020 academic year. Keep in mind, however, that only your 6 most recent scores will stay on file at the same time, and you may have to share your bad scores, depending on the school that you are applying to. For this reason, I don’t recommend taking the SAT more than 3 or 4 times during the college application process. You may also be satisfied with your first score, in which case, don’t sweat taking another exam. Save yourself the time, stress and money, and move on to the next step of your application.
2. How is the SAT scored?
The SAT underwent a major change in its grading scale recently, moving from a 2400-point scale to a 1600-point scale. This means that the maximum score you can now get is 1600, and the minimum is 400.
The test is graded in two separate sections: (1) evidence-based Reading and Writing, and (2) Math, which consists of a single test with a no-calculator portion and a calculator-allowed portion. Each section is worth 800 points with a minimum possible score of 200 points. Your total score is the composite of these two scores.
The College Board creates a raw score for your test, which is then converted to a scaled score (the score which you see on your report). This is done to account for any differences in difficulty between different versions of the test, so no advantage is given to students taking the test on a particular day.
Your raw score is created based on the following guidelines:
- 1 point is added for each correct answer.
- A fraction of a point is subtracted for wrong answers. This fraction varies based on the type of question. For example, ¼ point is subtracted for five-choice questions, ⅓ point is subtracted for four-choice questions, ½ point is subtracted for three-choice questions.
- No points are added or subtracted for unanswered questions.
- If the final score comes out to a fraction, the score is rounded up or down to the nearest whole number.
Then there is the Essay Section. Once a mandatory part of the exam that was graded as its own section and included in a total composite score out of 2400, under the recently redesigned SAT structure, the essay is optional and graded separately from your composite score.
The essay scores are shown separately on your report and graded on a different scale than the other sections. Essays are graded on three separate measures: reading, analysis and writing. Two different readers will read and score your essay based on these metrics and award you a score between 1 and 4 points. These two scores are then added together to create your official essay score. Therefore, you can receive a score between 2 and 8 in each of these categories, for a maximum score of 24 and a minimum score of 6.
While the essay is optional, some schools do ask that you take the SAT with Essay, so be sure to check the requirements of the schools you are applying to before you choose to skip it.
When you receive your score, you will also be given a full score breakdown that shows where you did well and what you can improve upon.
3. What is considered a good SAT score?
Your target SAT score should depend on your own abilities and the admissions standards for the colleges that you are planning on applying to. For example, if you are hoping to go to the University of Delaware, you might shoot for a score between 1200 and 1350, whereas if you are applying to Harvard University or another Ivy League school, you’ll need to have at the very least a score of about 1450.
Each student’s own standards should vary based on his or her own personal standards and the level of competition at the schools that he or she is applying to.
That said, it’s good to keep in mind the nationwide averages as well. The average SAT score for the Class of 2019 was 1069. Everything above that mark is considered above-average and everything below is considered below-average. A 1240 would put you in the top 20% of test-takers, making it a strong score for most applicants. If you score below the national average, you will likely want to take the test again.
See here for a complete breakdown of SAT scores in 2019.
4. When do you receive your scores?
When you will receive your score depends on the date that you took your SAT, though typically you will get your scores within a month of taking your test. If you took the optional essay, you will receive your multiple-choice grades a few days before your essay grade. See here for score release dates for each exam.
When your score does become available, you can access it easily by going to your online score report, which will show you both your multiple choice and your essay scores.
If you don’t have access to the internet, do not have an active College Board online account, and registered for the SAT by mail, you will receive a paper score report in the mail. You can also receive your SAT score by phone beginning on the day they are released, but you will be charged an extra fee.
5. Can you verify your scores?
If you would like to double-check your SAT score to make sure that you were scored correctly, the College Board offers score verification services that allow you to do so. You can order a verification service when you register for the SAT or up to 5 months after you take your exam.
You have the option of choosing between the Question-And-Answer Service and the Student Answer Service.
The Question-And-Answer Service will show you a copy of the SAT questions and a report showing your answers, the correct answers and scoring instructions, and information about the type and difficulty of test questions.
The Student Answer Service will show you a report showing how you answered questions and information about the type and difficulty of the test questions.
In order to access these reports, you will be charged a score verification fee, which will be refunded only in the case when your scores are changed as a result of the verification.
See here for more information about score verification.
6. How are your scores sent to schools?
After you’ve taken your test and received your scores, you will need to send your scores to the colleges that you choose to apply to. Most colleges will require that you send them official score reports directly from the College Board, which you can do here.
If you ask for your scores to be sent out before you take the exam, the College Board will send 4 free score reports to colleges every time you take the SAT. Doing so saves you the cost of score delivery and also may give you a leg up on the competition by getting your scores in early. You can also get 4 free scores delivered to colleges if you ask the College Board to send your scores up to 9 days after the test. If you miss this deadline, you will be charged a fee for sending score reports.
7. What is the SAT Score Choice?
When sending out your scores, the College Board also offers an option called Score Choice. This tool allows you to compile individual section scores from different test dates.
Say, for example, that you performed very well on the Reading and Writing section on the test you took in March but your Math score was well below the one from June. Score Choice allows you to choose the scores you would like to submit and even compile your best section scores to put your best foot forward when applying.
However, different colleges have different policies regarding SAT score submission. Some require that you send all scores, while others allow you to compile your best individual scores. Make sure to check with your college when sending out your application to make sure you understand their policy. Also see here for a list of 360 of the most popular colleges and their policies regarding score choice.
The SAT — and the college application process in general — can be a huge source of stress for students, parents and teachers. But it doesn’t need to be! If you plan in advance and prepare properly, it can be a smooth process. Remember, it’s best not to put anything off until the last minute and to get your scores in early.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.