Explaining SAT Results: What do SAT scores mean?

Can you tell me what Ryan’s score is based on the following:

• Math       710
• Writing    660
• (Mulitple Choice 67)
• (Essay 8)

I’ve been told you don’t count writing, I’m confused.

I received this email last week and realized how confusing SAT score reports can be.  It is not as simple as looking at one score and comparing it to the national average or the average scores at a particular college.  Let’s take a look at what SAT scores mean.

Average SAT Scores

It helps to know that each portion of the SAT is designed to yield a bell curve distribution of grades with a majority of students in the middle and few on the highest and lowest ends. Most students will score between 400 and 600 per section and the national average is right around 500.

So all of Ryan’s scores are above the national average.  But he probably wants to compare his results to the average scores at the colleges on his list.  If Ryan is interested in attending Wake Forest University, he would find the middle half of accepted students scored between 620 and 700 in SAT reading and 630 and 710 in math.  So his math score is close to the top 25% of admitted students and his reading score is below what 75% of admitted students scored.  These results alone don’t tell us if Ryan will or won’t be admitted to Wake Forest.  But they do provide some important information and hopefully some motivation for Ryan to study more vocabulary and work to improve his reading scores.

SAT Writing (And All the Sub-Scores)

Writing was added to the SAT in March of 2005.  Some colleges use writing for admissions; others don’t.  Some schools use the writing score itself and others will look at the actual essay from the SAT.  I wish I could offer a solid guideline to follow for whether SAT writing “counts”, but you will have to research this on a school by school and program by program basis.

So what about the three different writing scores? What do those mean?  The “official” score is the one between 200 and 800, in Ryan’s case a 660.  The other scores are sub-scores indicating performance on the multiple choice and essay components.  I can honestly say I don’t know any college or scholarship program that utilizes sub-scores.

Here’s how writing sub-scores can help.  A multiple choice of 67 is generally equal to a 670.  In Ryan’s case his actual writing score was a 660, meaning he was very close to his multiple-choice scores, so his essay didn’t change his results.  Someone with a multiple choice score of a 67 and an overall score of 590 would have an essay score that lowered his overall results.  I use sub-scores to see if there is a particular aspect of the writing section a student needs to develop.

1600 or 2400 Scale

Many colleges and scholarship programs still use the old 1600 point scale where only SAT reading and math count.  (1600 is a perfect score of 800 on both.)  Other schools are using all three sections where the maximum score is 2400. Ryan has a 1270 out of 1600 and a 1930 out of 2400.

You need to know how scores are calculated for each application you intend to submit.  If the scholarship program asks for students to have a minimum of 1300 on the SAT, you can assume it is on the 1600 scale because the national average would be 1500 out of 2400 and a scholarship program wouldn’t set a standard below the average.  In Ryan’s case, he is close to the 1300 requirement with a 1270, but still needs 30 more points.  (More motivation to study and retake the test.)

Using the SAT Score Report

The scores provided by the College Board should be seen as a breakdown of all the components you need.  The challenge is determining what pieces you need to add together for each college, scholarship, honors program, and special opportunity to which your student may apply.  If after doing a little reading and research, you still can’t understand what scores a particular institution will use, feel free to pick up the phone and ask.

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