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Think of ACT / SAT Scores Like Another Class Rank

April ACT scores were released yesterday. I got a lot of emails and texts from students. Some were thrilled to share the good news; others wanted to make plans to improve when they retake the exam in June.

I also got a lot of messages from parents wanting to know “is this score good enough?” One analogy I’ve used recently seems to help—think about ACT or SAT scores the way you think about class rank.

Standardized test scores can be confusing. Is a 26 a good score? How does a 1080 on the new SAT compare to the old SAT? What score is good enough? Unless you have spent considerable time reading and researching current admissions trends for standardized tests, the numbers can seem overwhelming.

Avoid Score Generalizations

Most parents and students (and even high school educators) fall back on gross generalizations rather than trying to fully understand the role of ACT and SAT scores. These generalizations can be found in statements like

  • “That’s a good score.” Or the opposite “My score is terrible.”
  • “A 28 is a good score; I don’t need to take the test again.”
  • “As long as I get a 1300 I’m ok.”

Oversimplification leads people to think of scores as either good or bad. Typically students aren’t defining “good” based on their academic strengths and weaknesses, test taking experience, and the averages at the colleges they are considering. Instead, there is some mythical “good score” which seems to be a one size fits none number.

How to Measure Success

I always tell students there are two things you must consider to determine if your scores are “good.”:

  • The average scores at the colleges on your list
  • The improvement from where you started

A 680 on SAT math (out of a maximum of 800 points) is an above average score. In fact, a 680 would put me in the top 10% of test takers nation-wide. But I can’t declare victory (or defeat) just yet. I need to personalize my analysis.

Get the Facts

The first measure, how my scores compare to the colleges I’m considering, is a fact-based question. A little research can help you find answers.

How does my 680 in SAT math compare at the colleges on my list?

I used the college search feature on the College Board website to get some quick numbers. Colleges report the range for the “middle 50%” which means 25% of admitted students scored higher and 25% scored lower. This just gives me an idea if I’m close to the range for each school.

I found the middle half of admitted students had the following scores:

  • Rice University (TX) 750-780
  • Harvard College (MA) 750-800
  • NYU (NY) 650-780
  • UCLA (CA) 600-760
  • Auburn (AL) 560-660
  • Queens University (NC) 510-590
  • West Texas A&M (TX) 470-560

Here’s what I learned:

  1. My 680 (a top 10% score) is still going to place me in the bottom quarter of admitted scores at Rice and Harvard. This doesn’t mean I should cross these schools off my list, but I need to either retake the test or understand the odds are not in my favor.
  2. My 680 puts me in the middle 50% at NYU and UCLA. I may want to re-test to see if I can get a few more points, but I know my scores are in the “realistic possibility” range here.
  3. My 680 starts feeling like a good score when I look at Auburn, Queens, and West Texas A&M. A 680 is in the top quarter, but that doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed admission because colleges still need to see my transcript, activities, essays, etc. I know my scores are good for these schools.

As you do this type of quick analysis, keep in mind that ACT and SAT scores are only one part of the admissions puzzle.

Acknowledge Your Testing Potential

The second component in measuring scores is how a particular number compares to your potential and past experience.

Personally, I’m a closet math geek. I was the captain of the high school math team and earned a 5 on the AP Calculus exam my senior year. I’m also a great test taker. So a 680 on the SAT math section wouldn’t meet my personal expectations for “good.” It would be lower than I had scored on the PSAT.

But I’ve been working with a young lady this spring who would simply LOVE a 680 on the SAT math. Her March score was a 560. A 680 would be a huge improvement and a personal best for her.

This is why one score can be disappointing for one student and incredibly high for another. But too often we aren’t making realistic comparisons.

Better Means of Comparison

To help my clients better understand the concept of realistic comparison, I’ve started talking about ACT and SAT scores in terms of class rank.

Without going on a class rank rant, I will tell you that most of my students attend competitive high schools. The private schools in my area don’t rank, but the large public schools do. Getting into the top 10% at most of these schools is brutal. Students need A’s (maybe a B or two) and a schedule full of advanced (AP) courses.

I work with a lot of smart students who are not in the top 10% or even the top 25% of their graduating classes. These students tend to have A’s and B’s. They excel in some classes, but not all. Some struggle with standardized tests and have suffered grade setbacks as a result. These students will be successful in college (and life) but they understand how competitive it is to have a ultra-high class rank. And the result is a realistic comparison on the issue of high school grades.

So if we can take that same understanding and apply it to the ACT or SAT, students and parents would have a more realistic understanding of test scores.

Rank               SAT                        ACT

Top 10%         680R/680M               28

Top 25%         620R/610M                24

Top 50%         540R/530M                20

Top 75%         470R/470M                16

Bottom 10%   400R/400M                13


Realistic Goals

When all the facts are taken together, you should have a more realistic way to set score goals.

Remember the SAT and ACT are hard tests. They are designed to make sure a majority of students score in the middle. (How would Harvard know who to let in if all students had top scores!) These are not simple tests of content. They are timed exams with challenging material requiring critical thinking and college-based analysis.

A student who has done all he can and ranks in the second quarter of his class, should be satisfied. No, he’s not going to be valedictorian, but he has solid grades and has done his best. If he takes the ACT and scores a 24 after weeks of studying, should he be disappointed? If he has put honest effort into preparation and the 24 is a personal best, I’d remind him that his score puts him in the top quarter of test takers—not a bad place to be.

Test scores need to be evaluated in a broader content. Consider all the factors: academic strengths & weaknesses, test taking skills, focus, preparation, learning differences, test day circumstances, and prior experiences.

I want to see all students reach their potential when taking the ACT or SAT. I hate to see the frustration that results from unrealistic goals.

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How to Plan for Junior Year Tests (PSAT, ACT & SAT)

Hi Megan,

Your newsletter is helpful as always! I had questions about your test prep schedule.

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year? Or a different time?
  • Is August too early for a junior?
  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes?

I guess I’m just trying to figure out what is an ideal class and exam schedule and how to work it all in around marching band. I don’t want my daughter to be overloaded but I don’t want her to be behind either.


Great questions!

A lot of sophomores and their families need to work through this same ideas before school starts next year. Here’s a quick visual of the decisions you need to make: (Click here to see full size image.)


The PSAT Is the Deciding Factor

Why? The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. (That’s why all the paperwork has NMSQT on it!) Only juniors can qualify for National Merit recognition and it is worth the time and effort to prepare if your student can score high enough.

For more information on National Merit read “Frequently Asked Questions About the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships.”


For National Merit Contenders

Those high scoring sophomores who might score well enough to earn National Merit recognition as juniors NEED to prepare before the October PSAT.

The PSAT is only given once a year. Students only have one chance to qualify which is why I offer some advice that often sounds backwards. Students preparing for the PSAT should plan to take the August or October SAT. (August 27 is a new test date added in 2017!)

Yes, you heard me right. Students should take the SAT to prepare for the PSAT. The SAT can be taken multiple times and colleges look at a student’s best scores, so this first test is more of a dress rehearsal for the PSAT. Even before scores are released, the student will know how he or she did with pacing and what, if anything, he or she needs to study before the PSAT.

Just a note: In general students should not take the SAT (or ACT) without preparation. This can have some serious implications (read here). But when I tell my PSAT students to take the SAT a few weeks before they take the SAT, I know a few things:

  • The student has already been studying for the exam (the SAT and PSAT are almost identical)
  • The student has proven test taking skills
  • The student will take the SAT seriously and try for a top score

Following this “practice” SAT dress rehearsal, students may alter some aspects of their study plan to be 100% prepared for the PSAT in mid-October. PSAT scores won’t be back for months, so after the PSAT, it is wise to finish with college admissions testing. (Don’t wait on PSAT scores.)

Most of my PSAT clients like to retake the SAT. These are often kids who are just a few points away from their next goal—a perfect score, a 750, or a 700. One more crack at the test is often enough to make these small (but important) score improvements.

Then these students are D.O.N.E! They don’t need the ACT. They don’t need to spend all year chasing a perfect score. They need to reach a point where scores are “good enough” so they can get back to the important work of school, sports, extracurriculars, community service, family, etc.


Not a National Merit Candidate?

Great news: you have a lot of flexibility. Unlike the National Merit crowd, you get to make the decisions for your testing plan.

I strongly advise students to finish all SAT and ACT testing by the end of their junior years. Yes, it is possible to re-test as a senior. SAT and ACT are even making that easier by adding earlier test dates; SAT added a late August test starting in 2017 and ACT is adding a July test in 2018. But seniors need to focus on applications and that is so much easier when the SAT and ACT are out of the picture.


ACT or SAT? How can we decide?

I could write a series of articles on this topic. You can start by reading this one.

The short answer is to take the official SAT and official ACT practice tests at home and compare scores. (Just a quick reminder to NEVER take the real test for practice. Here’s the link from above and an episode of my podcast explaining the risks.)

Compare scores using the ACT / SAT concordance table here.

Which one did your student like better? Are the scores clearly higher on one test? Are there any other factors to consider (extended time for learning differences, strengths or weaknesses, schedule conflicts for one exam)?


Fall or Spring? When is the best time?

The best time is a personal decision. There is very little a student might learn at school that would improve his or her results on the SAT or ACT—with one exception.

When the SAT changed in March 2016, they began testing concepts that are found pretty far into the Algebra II curriculum. This means juniors who are taking Algebra II should wait until the spring semester to take the SAT. Or, better yet, give serious consideration to the ACT.

There are two factors I consider when planning the best time to test:

  1. When will a student have the most time to prepare?
  2. When will he or she be most motivated?

To answer the original question above, a student involved in marching band may not have any extra time to prepare for fall exams. Once she finishes practice and does her school work, she may not have any time or energy left. Additionally, I’ve heard of many uncompromising band directors who prohibit students from taking the ACT or SAT on certain Saturdays in the fall because of conflicts with a major performance. And it is not a good idea to stay out with the band until midnight because of a high school football game and expect to be thinking and processing at your best by 8:00 am the next morning.

A lot of my clients begin by eliminating their busy season for sports, activities, competition, performances, etc. Then they pick an exam date where they will have a better chance of studying and getting to the test day before they burn out from exhaustion.


My Two Cents

I was a fan of the SAT for decades. I preferred it to the ACT and found it more interesting and coachable. I do not like the new SAT.

It is a necessary evil for the ultra-high test takers who seek National Merit Scholarships. But they are already great at test taking basics and know the content backwards and forwards, so when I work with these students we are just perfecting their understanding of the questions, trying to master the three to eight questions that stand between them and a perfect score.

Regular and struggling test takers aren’t so lucky. The new SAT often “feels” easier to these students. It doesn’t help that the scores on the new SAT are inflated. Most students need to score 100 points higher on the new test (you need a 1200 now to be like a 1100 before.) To me this is sales trickery—like the high-end boutique selling dresses with a smaller size on the label just so I can flatter myself because I got a “better number” when I purchased that dress than the one down the road with a bigger size on the tag.

In the past 12 months, I’ve found that most test takers can get better improvement if they study for the ACT. The format of the test is less exhausting. And most students do better on math when they are allowed to use a calculator. (That no-calculator section of the SAT / PSAT is not good for the typical test taker.) So I’ve been teaching more ACT classes and encouraging more of my private clients to consider the ACT.



There is no simple answer to the question about when a student should take the SAT or ACT. So to give a brief response to the original questions:

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year or a different time? It depends. I will start classes in August. If your daughter needs to take the PSAT, I’ll see her then. If not, you might wait until early spring when band season is over.
  • Is August too early for a junior? Absolutely not! Each year I have dozens of students who are 100% done with testing in the early fall (September, October, November.) There is no better feeling than crossing this off your college to-do list.


  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes? I’m offering one PSAT class because only the super-high scoring students need to take that class (top 5% by scores) and that isn’t a majority of the test prep market. I’m offering more ACT classes through the year because I like it better, see better results, and think it is the more coachable test. I’m also finding demand for ACT classes outpaces demand for SAT review.



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How Do Colleges View Multiple Attempts at the ACT/SAT?

Standardized tests can be a key factor in college admission and scholarship awards.  As a result, students often take the SAT or ACT more than once, attempting to earn the highest scores possible. Understanding how colleges view multiple attempts at these tests can help you decide if you should take one again

Multiple Attempts Are Common

If you are considering taking the ACT or SAT for a second or third time, you are not alone.  Nationwide, most students will take their choice of test two or three times.  However, simply retaking these exams will not improve your scores.  Before retaking either the SAT or ACT, many students find it beneficial to review content, calm their nerves, or learn how to employ different test-taking strategies.

Colleges Use Your Best Scores

Colleges and universities understand that students will take entrance exams multiple times, and will use your best score. Don’t worry that admissions officers will see multiple attempts at the test; this is the norm. But don’t think colleges will be impressed with your effort. They want to see results and don’t care that you’ve been diligent in retaking the SAT or ACT.

There is no limit on the number of times a student can take the SAT or ACT. I like to use common sense as a guide—more than three attempts is unlikely to result in better scores unless a student has devoted considerable time and effort to improvement. Colleges do not penalize students for multiple attempts. Unlike with some graduate school exams, colleges do not average ACT/SAT scores.  They will determine students’ best scores using one of two methods:  “superscoring” or single highest results.

Some Schools Superscore

Superscoring refers to the practice of compiling a student’s highest scores, even if they come from different test dates. The practice of superscoring started with the SAT. Let’s consider this example:

                    Reading/Writing          Math               Total

Oct SAT         560                             700                 1260

Jan SAT         610                             660                 1270

Superscore    610 (Jan)                   700 (Oct)           1310

This student clearly benefits from the practice of superscoring where he/she has a total of 1310—a real plus if a program requires a minimum SAT score of 1300.

Some colleges have started to superscore the ACT, but that practice is less common. It is also common for a school to superscore the SAT, but not the ACT, so be sure to ask if you are focusing on the ACT.

Superscoring allows students to focus on improving one graded section at a time without having to worry about their results on the other portion. It can also save you from an additional attempt at the test if a college is willing to superscore. But make sure to check with every school on your list to learn their policies.

Some Schools Use Single-Highest Results

Other colleges and universities prefer to use a student’s best scores from a single test date.  For a student who has taken the SAT multiple times, the college would look at the total of both sections and use the results from the test date on which the student earned the highest total score. From the example above, the total from the January test (1270) is the student’s highest total, so would be the score used. For the ACT, colleges would look for the best composite score.

If you plan to retake the ACT / SAT and send your scores to colleges using this calculation method, you have to pay attention to all areas of the exam in order to improve your total score.

Colleges Tell Applicants What They Want

Students should look at all the colleges on their list and determine how each school evaluates standardized scores.  Most colleges and universities are forthcoming with their policies, often posting them on their websites.  Regardless of how a school calculates your best scores, they may request that you send results from all test dates. If a particular school does not request all scores, you can use score choice options to send only your best results.

In this day of highly competitive college admissions, you need for colleges to see your best ACT & SAT results.  Understanding how colleges view multiple attempts at these tests can help you plan your own test-taking and college admissions strategies.

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Free Tool to Help Decide if Your ACT / SAT Scores Are Good Enough

“Are my ACT (or SAT) scores good enough?”

This is a popular question that follows many high school juniors and their families. Along with other questions: Should I retake the test? Try taking the other exam? Will these scores be enough? Am I competitive for XYZ University?

There is no absolute answer. In many cases test scores are just one of many factors colleges evaluate when making admissions decisions. But there is a way to see if your scores measure up compared to other students who were admitted to the schools you are considering.

In this video, I’ll show you how to use the College Search feature on the College Board website to evaluate your test scores.