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High SAT Scores: What You Need to Know to about SAT Testing

By Howard and Matthew Greene updated on Thursday, March 27, 2014

The SAT is one of the two most common and important standardized tests that college applicants need to consider. Most juniors will take the SAT for the first time in March or May. Others will wait until the fall of their senior year. You should be preparing for the SAT, using resources like Peterson's own free online SAT practice test, for a while before you actually take the test.

If you are considering some of the more selective colleges and universities, you may need to take SAT Subject Tests as well, in October, November, and/or a date or two in the spring. Some colleges require two or three SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT for admission.

Nearly as many students nationwide now take the ACT as well.

Make a date for SAT testing

We recommend that juniors give serious thought to taking the SAT at least once in the spring. We don’t suggest that sophomores attempt it, or that juniors should feel rushed to take the test in the fall or winter.

Every time you take the SAT or an SAT Subject Test, the score will appear on your score report that gets sent to colleges during the fall of senior year. You need not, and probably should not, send your SAT scores anywhere during junior spring. Unless you cancel the scores from a test you have taken by the Wednesday following the exam, the score will be part of your permanent record.

What admission officers are looking for from SAT testing

We anticipate that most of the selective colleges that previously required or strongly recommended the old SAT II Writing test (which has been discontinued) will interpret the Writing section of the SAT in much the same way, as the tests are very similar.

Colleges now have the option to view a scanned version of your essay on the Internet, if they choose to do so. They can then compare this to your application essays and English grades when trying to interpret your overall profile and presentation.

Without the analogies, the Critical Reading test puts more emphasis on short and long paragraph interpretation and vocabulary in context. Doing well on this section will help colleges assess your ability to handle college-level reading and analytic requirements.

On the Math section, you will need to show mastery of math through Algebra II. If you are taking Algebra II as a junior, you might want to delay your first run at SAT testing until June.

A new benchmark for SAT scores

Since the test is still relatively new, you may be wondering how your scores will be interpreted. As schools consider their entire applicant pool, they may notice patterns in average scores, and if they seem lower the colleges might begin to establish new score goals and benchmarks for themselves. No one will know for certain until results from several administrations begin to produce a pattern, and that pattern is then compared to past averages and score ranges.

Students pursuing an enriched college preparatory curriculum with strong courses in reading, writing, and advanced math will benefit from the format. We fear that students without this curriculum and without access to strong SAT prep -- and other SAT help -- will see further inconsistencies between their scores, their grades, and the scores of those students in schools with more resources.

How to interpret your SAT scores

There are two key ways to interpret your test results: in terms of your own expectations and abilities and in comparison to reported college averages and score ranges.

On the first count, if you have been doing a reasonable amount of SAT test prep, you should have a sense of a realistic score range to expect for yourself. Then evaluate how you perform on the actual SAT:

  • If you exceed that practice range, then you probably don’t need to retake the test.
  • If you are substantially below the range, then you probably should try to take the SAT again, preferably after taking additional SAT prep.
  • If you hit somewhere in the middle of what you hoped for, then take a break from the test and consider retaking it, after continued review shows you that you have a reasonable expectation of bringing up your scores about 30 to 40 points in one or more sections.

Colleges will generally look at your highest score in a section, even from different test administrations.

As you look at your SAT scores compared to reported college scores, consider the middle-50-percent range as the most reliable indicator of what most students entering the college score on the SAT. If you are well below the range, this college is likely a stretch for you. Personal scores well above the range can indicate a high probability of admission.

Colleges usually post a detailed “freshman class profile” of last year’s class on their Web site. This can help you assess score ranges, GPA, class rank, and other factors in more depth.

About the Author

Howard and Matthew Greene have been the hosts of two PBS college planning programs and are the co-authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning and other books. They've spent years working as counselors and have conducted in-depth research with students, college presidents, deans of faculty, and other administrators.

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