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SAT Scoring: What You Need to Know

There are a lot of myths surrounding how the SAT is scored, especially when it comes to scoring one official test “differently” than another. Aside from those alleged differences, students also have confusion on what superscoring entails.

Today, during the week of the official October SAT, I thought it would be good to dispel some of the myths and explain some of the more common concerns that arise when it comes to SAT scoring.

Let’s talk about the basics that you should already know as well as the more technical aspects that you may think you know.

What is the SAT composite score?

The “composite score” for the SAT is the sum of the Reading, Writing, and Math section scores. Usually colleges will require students to get a specific composite score (or higher) for admissions benefits such as auto-admits, scholarships, or specific major placements.

The highest composite score for the SAT--i.e., a perfect score--is 1600. The highest section scores are 400 for Reading, 400 for Writing, and 800 for Math. Some colleges require that students get certain ELA and Math section scores, such as 600 for CR/WR and 600 for Math. Check admissions websites to see specific college requirements.

What is the SAT Essay score?

The Essay is an optional part of the SAT, which is administered after the Reading, Writing, and Math sections. Two readers grade the Essay, whose score includes three domains: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

Both graders score each domain 1-4. Each domain score is combined. A perfect score on the Essay is 8 in Reading, 8 in Analysis, and 8 in Writing. The Essay score has no effect on the composite score.

NOTE: The SAT Essay score must always be included with the composite SAT score. You cannot mix and match Essay scores with the composite scores of other official tests. For example, you cannot use the Essay score of an official October SAT with the composite score of an official March SAT.

What is a raw SAT score vs. a scaled SAT score?

Before we get into how College Board normalizes SAT scores across tests, let’s first remember how raw scores and scaled scores work on the SAT.

The raw score is simply how many questions you answered correctly out of the total in a section. For example, a perfect raw score in Reading is 52; in Writing, it's 44; in Math, it's 58. No matter which SAT you take, you can only get these raw scores:

  • Reading: 0-52

  • Writing: 0-44

  • Math: 0-58

A scaled score is derived from the raw score. A 52 raw score on Reading is a 400 scaled score; a 44 raw score on Writing is a 400 scaled score; a 58 raw score on Math is an 800 scaled score. The scaled score is the number that colleges use.

What is "equating" an SAT test vs. "curving" an SAT test?

Many people incorrectly state that College Board curves the SAT. People also wrongly state that the SAT can be “gamed” by taking it at a certain time of year. These statements are myths, and like any myth, they can be dispelled with the facts.

College Board doesn’t curve SAT scores, not in the way that curves normally operate. Test scores are not based on comparing student performances across a single test. Your score is simply your score, regardless of how other students perform.

Now, College Board does go through a process, one that is not entirely clear, which is called “equating.” This process is where the scaled scores come into play. Since no one test is made exactly like another, College Board needs a way to ensure that test scores from one test equal those from another. Since there may be more difficult questions on one test than on another, College Board "equates" each official SAT with those that have come before it.

Here is where the curving myth arises: since the equating process requires College Board to have received all of the test scores, students believe that College Board is using student performance as the benchmark for how it converts raw scores into scaled scores. While College Board has not expressly provided the ins and outs of its process, know that it wants the student scores to affirm what it has created.

In other words, College Board wants to know that hard questions are, in fact, hard and that easy ones are, in fact, easy. Otherwise, it will correct the raw-to-scaled score conversions, which should have been roughly determined even before the official student scores come back.

If you aren’t buying that this is how College Board handles different tests, then look at the scoring guides to the College Board Practice Test #1 and College Board Practice Test #8.

Notice that the raw scores in the Reading, Writing, and Math sections convert to different scaled scores.

The difference in the two scaled scores shows that College Board plans how the questions should be difficult (or not) before students take official exams.

The ambiguity, of course, still lies in what is a "hard" question vs. an "easy" one. A hard question on Test 1 may be an easy question for you, whereas an easy question on Test 8 may be more challenging to you.

Thus, you may feel that you are being unfairly treated if, for whatever reason, the "easy" questions on a particular test are actually hard for you to solve, thus making it seem like the equating is harsh when your score is lower than what you expected based on previous raw scores.

But you should know that there is no perfect way to predict the type of test you will take, and all you can do is know generally how you score on a range of tests. That's why consistent practice is so important.

What is SAT superscoring vs. SAT regular scoring?

Superscoring is a method that some colleges use when reviewing your SAT scores. Instead of simply accepting or considering your highest composite test score (i.e., the “regular scoring” process), colleges may consider the highest section scores across multiple official tests that you have taken. This is called “superscoring.”

For example, let’s say you have the following SAT scores:

June SAT

  • Reading: 400

  • Writing: 350

  • Math: 600

August SAT

  • Reading: 350

  • Writing: 300

  • Math: 800

October SAT

  • Reading: 300

  • Writing: 400

  • Math: 700

A college that superscores would consider your SAT score “perfect” because you got 400 Reading (June SAT), 400 Writing (October SAT), and 800 Math (August SAT).

How do you know which colleges superscore? See what the admissions sites say. Here is a sample of what some of the Ivy League colleges state:

  • Columbia: “If you take an exam more than once, you will be evaluated on the highest score you received in any individual section.”

  • MIT: “If you take the same test (SAT, ACT, or an SAT Subject Test) multiple times, we will consider the highest score achieved in each section.”

  • Stanford: “For the SAT, we will focus on the highest individual Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math scores from all test sittings.”

  • University of Chicago: “We superscore test scores, meaning that only your best testing results—your highest sub-scores and the best result of the two testing options, if you've taken both the SAT and ACT— will be considered in the review of your application.”

  • Yale: “When assessing SAT results, admissions officers will focus on the highest individual section scores from all test dates.”

As you can see, SAT scoring is not that complicated. However, what counts more than anything else when you take an official exam is just how prepared you are. And while going to school and doing well in your classes is an important first step to getting a good score, it often isn’t enough to do well. Good practice makes perfect.

Taking the SAT soon and would like to get in a last-minute cram? Planning ahead and want in-depth instruction? Get meaningful, structured guidance on the SAT, no matter where you’re at in your skills!

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