An Ultimate Guide to SAT Score Percentiles
SAT score percentiles are valuable indicators of where your score stands compared to other test-takers nationally and other applicants at the colleges you’re interested in.
Understanding your score percentile and knowing how to interpret SAT percentile charts can help you determine how strong your score is and whether you should consider re-taking the test.
What Are SAT Percentiles?
Percentiles are an indication of where you stand in comparison to other people. On the SAT, your score percentile tells you how your score compares to other student scores from the same test date. All percentiles are out of 99 and can be thought of as percentages. There is no such thing as a 100th percentile because you can never outscore the highest score (including if that highest score is yours, and even if you get a perfect score). As your percentile gets higher, it means you outscored more people. A score in the 99th percentile says you scored higher than 99% of people who took the test. A score in the 1st percentile means you did not score higher than anyone else who took the test.
It is important to note that percentiles are solely about understanding your score relative to other students. Percentiles alone are not an indication of how many questions you got correct on the test (a score in the 50th percentile does not mean you scored correctly on half of the questions). Percentiles simply allow you to compare your score to those of other students.
When researching SAT scores, you may frequently hear about 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile scores. As will be discussed later in the post, these are some of the most commonly reported SAT scores because they allow us to incorporate all types of scorers: low, high, and average. A 25th percentile score suggests both that you scored higher than 25% of test takers and that 75% of test takers scored higher than you. This means your raw score is lower than average. A 50th percentile score suggests you scored exactly average. Half of the test takers had a lower score than you, and half had a higher score. A 75th percentile score suggests that 75% of test takers had a lower score than you and 25% had a higher score. A score at this percentile is safely above average.
SAT Score Percentile Types
As you can see on the official sample score report below, when you receive your SAT score, you will see two percentiles for your score: the Nationally Representative Sample and the User Percentile. Understanding the difference in these percentiles gives you a better indication of how well you actually performed.
The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile
According to the CollegeBoard, the Nationally Representative Sample Percentile is “derived from a research study of U.S. students in grades 11 and 12 and are weighted to represent all U.S. students in grades 11 and 12.” These scores are then “weighted to represent all U.S. students in those grades, regardless of whether they typically take the SAT.” This percentile can be quite confusing, because your score isn’t compared to actual scores of test takers, it’s compared to what the CollegeBoard thinks every person in the 11th and 12th grade would score if they took the exam.
For that reason, you should be careful when interpreting this percentile. Not every person in the 11th and 12th grade actually takes the SAT. The students who do not take the SAT are likely to be low scorers had they actually taken the exam. They may not have taken the test because they didn’t prepare and didn’t feel confident, or they anticipated a low score for any other reason.
Therefore, by including hypothetical scores from students who were not likely to perform well on the test to begin with, the Nationally Representative Sample can drag down the averages and make your score seem relatively better than it actually is. You will likely notice that for any given particular score, the percentile for the Nationally Representative Sample is higher than the User Percentile.
The User Percentile
According to the CollegeBoard, the User Percentile is “based on the actual scores of students in the past three graduating classes who took the current SAT during high school.” What this means is your score is compared to the scores of students who actually took the test recently in order to determine your percentile ranking (whereas the Nationally Representative Sample includes hypothetical scores from students who haven’t taken the test). It’s also important to know that this percentile doesn’t compare you to students who actually took your specific test, but rather that it compares you to all students in the previous three graduating classes who took any recently administered version of the SAT.
The Importance of This Score
As many students know, the SAT is a valuable part of your college application. A high score can help you stand out among your peers, whereas a lower score can harm your application. However, very few people will score perfectly on the exam, and there is no such thing as a passing or cutoff score on the test. Therefore, without percentiles, it’s difficult for us to know what exactly a good score is relative to other students. Generally, you should aim to reach as high of a percentile as you can.
While many high achievers strive to reach a 1600, in reality any score above a 1500 typically falls within the 99th or 98th percentile. This means that if you’ve scored a 1500 on the SAT, it may not be in your best interest to retake the test when you could work on other parts of your application. There is no significant difference to most college admission officers among scores above a 1500.
However, for relatively lower scorers, increasing your score by even 50 points can mean a big boost in your performance relative to other students. For example, in 2021 a score of 1200 was in the 74th SAT User Percentile, whereas a score of 1250 was in the 81st SAT User Percentile. The lower your score is, the more meaningful any jump will be, as you are more likely to outpace your peers. This jump in percentile will flatten out as you reach the upper test scores. For example, you will not see your percentile jump 6 points when going from 1500 to 1550.
SAT Percentiles Chart
The CollegeBoard regularly publishes the percentiles for any given SAT score, for both the subsection scores and composite score. This data can be valuable both for understanding your own score and how well your goal score ranks compared to others. Here is the percentile data for the SAT Reading and Writing section and Math section for 2021:
|Evidence- Based Reading and Writing||Math|
|Total Section Score||Nationally Representative Sample||SAT User||Nationally Representative Sample||SAT User|
Old vs New SAT Score Ranges
In 2016, the CollegeBoard redesigned the SAT into a new version that continues to be used today. While there are many changes between the old and new versions of the SAT, one of the biggest changes is the old SAT test had three separate sections out of 800 points, meaning the total test score was out of 2400. Today’s SAT is graded in two sections out of 800, meaning the highest possible score a test taker can obtain is a 1600. Because the new SAT is out of less points than the previous test, it is difficult to compare scores from SATs before and after 2016. For example, a 1500 on today’s test would be in the 98th percentile, whereas on the old version of the exam it would have been around the 50th percentile. Therefore, be careful when researching old SAT percentiles and scores.
What are Good SAT Score Percentiles?
Many students will want to know where their score stands in comparison to the average test taker. According to the CollegeBoard , the average SAT score for the class of 2021 was a 1060. While the pandemic has affected SAT participation, the average SAT has fallen around a 1060 for many years. Because this is the average score, it is also the 50th percentile score. If a student in the class of 2021 scored lower than a 1060, their score would be under the 50th percentile and lower than average (similarly, if they scored higher than a 1060 their score would be above the 50th percentile and considered above average).
If you are thinking of a particular school where the typical admitted student has a high SAT score, simply knowing they are above the 50th percentile may not be that useful. While the Nationally Representative Sample and the User Percentile are the two official percentiles on a score report, there are many other percentiles that can give students a sense of how good their score is. For example, you may want to know what their score percentile is within test takers in their specific high school (this type of information can usually be found through a guidance or college counselor) or what the score percentiles are at your dream college.
How to Find Average SAT Percentile Scores for Your College
There is no perfect SAT score that will gain you admittance to your dream school. Colleges are much more likely to focus on whether your score fits into the range of test scores they normally accept. For this reason, it’s important to know where you stand compared to the accepted students at your dream school.
University websites will often report the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile SAT scores for admitted students. This information is indispensable for prospective students. While few colleges are likely to reject or admit a student solely on the basis of their SAT score, the higher a student sores above the 50th percentile score at a particular school the more it is likely to help their admission chances (and similarly, the lower a score is below the 50th percentile the more likely it is to hurt the student’s application.
For example, let’s take a look at the Yale admissions page:
Yale openly admits that no individual score will prevent you from being considered entirely. However, we can also see that the average student admitted to Yale typically has a very high SAT score. Based on this information, the 25th percentile SAT score at Yale is a 1460, meaning three quarters of admitted students scored higher than a 1460. For comparison, a score of 1460 typically falls around the 95th percentile nationally. We can also see that the 75th percentile score at Yale is a 1580, meaning only one quarter of students will score above a 1580. To have a good shot at Yale, you likely want your score to be closer to a 1580 than a 1460, but we also know a sizable minority of accepted students have scores around a 1460.
If you are dreaming of a particular school, it is well worth your time to investigate whether that school reports their 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile SAT scores. Colleges typically will publish this information on their admissions pages. Remember that college admissions are becoming increasingly competitive, so you should seek the average scores for the most recently admitted class of students if possible.
While colleges will never publicly declare that they have a specific cutoff score that they expect to see for admitted students, there are often cutoffs for scholarship programs. If you are hoping to be accepted into a honors program or receive a merit scholarship at a particular school, make sure to research these numbers as well, as the test scores for these types of programs will likely be higher than the average test score for an admitted student.
Instead of thinking of your score as good or bad, think of it in comparison to the main three percentile scores at your dream school. If your score is above the 50th percentile at the schools you are interested in, it can be considered relatively good, whereas if your score is under the 50th percentile, you might want to consider re-taking the test or whether other aspects of your application would make up for a score below the average. Also consider whether your score is just missing a percentile, or is far off. A score that is just below the 50th percentile at your dream score likely won’t be a problem at all on your application, whereas a score that is well below the 25th percentile can be a detriment.
It is also important to remember that colleges, especially very selective schools like Harvard and Stanford, are very unlikely to admit a student solely on the basis of their SAT score. While investing in test prep and having a score above the 75th percentile at your dream school will certainly help your chances, it does not mean you will be guaranteed acceptance. It’s important to focus on other aspects of your college application as well.
Browse on the Internet
Many websites aggregate the average SAT scores for schools across the country. This can help students decide whether a set of schools are safeties, targets, or reaches. For example, here are the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile scores at some of the most well known schools in the country:
|School||25th Percentile Score||75th Percentile Score|
|George Washington University||1270||1450|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||1510||1580|
|New York University||1350||1530|
|University of Miami||1250||1420|
|University of Michigan- Ann Arbor||1400||1540|
|University of Texas at Austin||1210||1470|
Change in SAT Percentiles by Year
Generally, SAT percentiles tend not to change much across the years. This is because the CollegeBoard wants SAT scores to have the same significance across the years (i.e. if a 1500 is a top score today, it should also be a top score in 5 years).
There is slight variation across the years. As mentioned earlier, the 50th percentile score in 2021 was a 1060. In 2020, the 50th percentile score was 1051. This 9 point difference is quite negligible. Generally, you can expect percentiles to correspond with an approximately same score over time.
Improve Your SAT Percentile With SoFlo Tutors
Having an ACT or SAT score that ranks in a high percentile can significantly help your chances at your dream school. If you’re not happy with how you score ranks, check out SoFlo’s private tutoring services. SoFlo’s tutors are experienced test-takers who have all obtained scores in the highest possible percentiles. Our tutors can work with you to achieve your goal score on test day!
Why do Percentiles Matter — The Bottom Line
SAT percentiles are valuable indicators of your performance on the exam. Students should strive to obtain a goal in the highest percentile possible, as it indicates they performed better on the exam relative to other students.
Students should also be aware of what the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile scores are at their prospective colleges. Having a score above the 50th percentile for admitted students at your dream school can help your college application and increase your admissions chances, whereas having a score under the 50th percentile may be a detriment to your application and can suggest you may want to consider re-taking the exam.
More SAT Strategies and Resources
- How to Master the SAT Reading Section | SAT Reading Tips and Tricks: https://soflotutors.com/blog/sat-reading-prep/
- How to Prepare for the SAT Writing Section: https://soflotutors.com/blog/sat-writing-strategies/
- SAT Crash Courses | How to Cram for the SAT: https://soflotutors.com/blog/sat-crash-course/
- How to Get a Perfect 1600 Score on the SAT 2021 | Your Comprehensive Guide: https://soflotutors.com/blog/how-to-get-a-perfect-1600-score-on-the-sat-2021-your-comprehensive-guide/
- Essential SAT Tips and Tricks 2021 | Best Hacks and Tips for SATs: https://soflotutors.com/blog/essential-sat-tips-and-tricks-2021/
About the Author
Ava Levine is a junior from New York majoring in International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. When she’s not in class studying various international issues, she enjoys learning about government policy and working with local nonprofits. She scored a 1570 on her SATs, is an avid Crocs-wearer, and loves to craft in her free time!