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A “Good Score,” Defined

Our answer to the perennial question, “What’s a good score on the SAT?”

According to “The True Abraham Lincoln” by William Eleroy Curtis, our 16th President was once asked how long a man’s legs should be.  His response: “Long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

This exchange brings up several important questions.

First, what kind of weirdo goes around asking important world leaders questions likes this?  Hey George Washington, are my ears too big?  Excuse me, General Eisenhower, does this shirt make me look fat?  Miss Joan of Arc, before I light this stake will you tell me if this looks benign to you?

Second, what does this have to do with the SAT and ACT?

Let’s tackle the SAT/ACT part first.  Whenever we talk to high school students and their parents about college admissions, one of the first questions that always comes up is “What’s a good SAT or ACT score?” 

We can’t fault you for asking.  Students have limited time and resources, and they need to know what sort of score they should be aiming for and by how much they need to improve.

Our answer, much like President Lincoln’s, can sound abstract at first.  Our standard response is, “A good score is one that will make you a viable candidate for the colleges you’re targeting.”

“Thanks,” you’re probably thinking.  “And I bet my ideal foot size is whatever fits into my new sneakers.”

Fair enough.  But when it comes to SAT and ACT scores, we have a simple guideline that we use to give students a sense of how competitive they are for admission to a given school.

Our Rule of Thumb

We recommend that students aim for an SAT or ACT score that is at least as high as the 50th percentile of scores for students admitted to the colleges they’re targeting.  

How can you find the SAT and ACT scores for students who got into a particular college?

It may take some Googling, but you can typically find the information online.  Most universities report their incoming class’s standardized test scores in three tiers, with a score for the bottom quarter of admitted students (the 25th percentile), a score for the average of admitted students (the 50th percentile), and a score for the top quarter of admitted students (the 75th percentile).  What does all of this mean in practice?  Let’s look at a few examples.

Average SAT Verbal Score (50th percentile)Average SAT Verbal Score (50th percentile)
Penn State640620580580700660

So that means that if you’re targeting Northwestern, you’ll want to aim for a combined math and verbal score of 1490 or higher; for UCLA, a combined score of 1400 or higher; and for Penn State, a combined score of 1260 or higher.  As for Hogwarts, don’t waste the stamp if you’re a Muggle.

With scores like these, how does anybody even get into college?

Again, these scores represent the 50th percentile of last year’s class.  That means that half of the applicants had lower scores and still got in.  So why do we say you need to be at least as high as the 50th percentile?  Why can’t you be just a little bit below the average?  Or in the ballpark?  And what ever happened to the stuff about Abraham Lincoln and legs?

Well, the reality of college admissions is that many students have a leg up (excuse the pun). Athletes, children of alumni, and other highly sought-after students are often admitted under different criteria than students lumped into the general admissions pool.  As Princeton University sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade, Chang Y. Chung, and Joan L. Walling report in their research paper “Admissions Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities”:

“Being a recruited athlete significantly improves one’s chances of being admitted to an elite university.  The odds of acceptance for athletes are four times as large as those for nonathletes.  The athletic advantage is roughly comparable to having SAT scores in the 1400s instead of the 1200s. Legacy applicants also receive preferential treatment in admissions.  Children or close relatives of alumni have nearly three times the likelihood of being accepted as non-legacies.”

What this means is that when you look at the average score for students admitted to a particular university, you’re really looking at a number that has been lowered by applicants given special consideration.  If colleges excluded the SAT and ACT scores of students given preferential treatment (children of alumni, for example) and only based their score data on students from the general admissions pool, their average SAT and ACT scores would be higher, perhaps significantly so.  Hence our recommendation to aim for an SAT or ACT score that’s at least the average, ideally at or above the 75th percentile for admitted students.  

Maintaining Perspective

Of course, college admissions is about far more than just test scores.  Grades, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and leadership are all taken into account by colleges—as such factors should be.  Depending on your resume, a school may look past underwhelming test scores and give greater weight to your accomplishments in music or art or robotics or whatever makes your candidacy compelling and unique.   

Another thing to keep in mind is that your scores can be presented several different ways.  Most colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, so if you take both exams, you’ll have the option of sending whichever score is stronger.  Also, many colleges permit “super-scoring,” a policy that permits applicants to mix and match scores from different test dates, enabling students to combine their best math and verbal scores into the highest possible overall score. 

Finally, remember that a test score is simply a snapshot of how you performed on one specific test on one specific day.  Very few students hit their goal score the first time around, and so it’s totally natural (and expected by admissions officers) for students to take the SAT or ACT a few times to maximize their potential.  We know it’s hard, but try to think of this fact as a positive.  You can’t lift your GPA overnight or become a star athlete or a student leader, but with the right preparation, you can greatly increase your SAT or ACT score, and, consequently, the chances that you’ll get into the college of your dreams.

And if you’re still wondering how long your legs should be, the answer is that as long as your jeans fit, you’ll be fine.


1. Visit the orthodontist. 2. Watch PBS. 3. Go an entire week without rolling their eyes at their parents. 4. Watch C-SPAN. 5. Retake their AP Chem final. 6. Intern at a local CPA’s office. 7. Turn off their cell phone. 8. Mop the kitchen. 9. Clean their bathroom. 10. Renounce social media. 11. Write a 10-page history paper. 12. Get a bunch of allergy shots. 13. Wait in line at the post office. 14. Watch the Weather Channel. 15. Be abducted by aliens. 16. Attend a clarinet recital. 17. Tour a Soviet-era nuclear plant. 18. Eat a healthy and nutritious dinner. 19. Do calisthenics. 20. Bake snickerdoodle cookies for that guy who’s always loitering by his van. 21. Watch a black-and-white foreign film without subtitles. 22. Clean out the rain gutters. 23. Pretend they’re 42 and recently divorced. 24. Listen to NPR’s Weekend Edition. 25. Read a newspaper. 26. Visit the DMV. 27. Eat crispy fried tarantulas (considered a delicacy in Cambodia). 28. Serve as a “breath odor evaluator” for a toothpaste company. (Yes, this job actually exists.) 29. Go on a double date with their parents. 30. Undergo dental surgery. 31. Babysit their annoying stepbrother. 32. Empty Mr. Whisker’s litter box. 33. Take out the trash. 34. Clean the rain gutters. 35. Tell their parents they’d like to sit down to discuss the Birds n’ the Bees. 36. Stare at a blank television screen for several hours. 37. Be fitted for orthodontic headgear. 38. Organize their closet. 39. Vacuum their entire house. 40. Eat that substance their school cafeteria claims is Sloppy Joe. 41. Kiss Tucker Carlson. 42. Make origami turtles for the residents of a local nursing home. 43. Do a few hundred burpees. 44. Try Uncle Morris’s beef stew. 45. Watch Hillbilly Handfishin’ on Animal Planet. 46. Eat “bird’s nest” soup, which sounds kind of scrumptious unless you know the broth is made from bird SALIVA. 47. Set up an Facebook account for Grandma. 48. Start a backyard garden. 49. Dust home furnishings. 50. Do an exercise known as the “Bulgarian Split Squat.” 51. Help Dad trim his back hair. 52. Hunt for spare change between the sofa cushions. 53. Hunt for leftover Cheez-Its between the sofa cushions. 54. Mow the lawn. 55. Learn how to knit. 56. Research Wikipedia’s entry on the history of Q- tips. 57. Count how many times they can blink in one hour. 58. Compose a haiku. 59. Do one of the American Dental Association’s oral disease-themed jigsaw puzzles. 60. Watch televised bowling. 61. Give Grandpa a foot massage. 62. Give Grandma a foot massage. 63. Play tea party with their six-year-old stepsister. 64. Read The Red Badge of Courage. 65. Browse Burlington Coat Factory’s fall collection. 66. Floss. 67. Listen to The Scarlett Letter on audiobook. 68. Watch televised bowling. 69. Lie really, really still and pretend they’re deceased. 70. Join their twelve-year-old sister and all of her friends for a dance party!!! 71. Wash their parents’ minivan. 72. Journal about their feelings. 72. Give themselves a haircut. 73. Make homemade kombucha. 74. Learn to crochet. 75. Get a head start on their LinkedIn profile. 76. Watch a black- and-white movie marathon. 77. Visit the library. 78. Run a relay race. 79. Eat slimy san-nakji, which is considered a delicacy in Korea. 80. Eat khash, a traditional dish in Southeastern Europe that is so disgusting you’re just going to have to Google it to find out what it’s made of. 81. Eat the Swedish delicacy blodpättar, which kind of sounds like what it is. 81. Eat bat soup, a traditional dish in Micronesia. 82. Eat harkarl, rotten shark meat that is considered a delicacy in Iceland. 83. Eat the Scottish dish known as haggis. 84. Eat escamol, a Mexican dish that kind of looks like it’s made of rice but definitely isn’t. 85. Eat “Rocky Mountain Oysters,” which, despite the name, may not be from the Rocky Mountains and definitely are not oysters. 86. Wrestle an alligator. 87. Be a “professional apologizer,” a person whose actual full-time job is to apologize on behalf of other people. 88. Be an ostrich babysitter, which is apparently something people do in South Africa. 89. Ponder what life would have been like if they had been born in Kazakhstan. 90. Take a transatlantic flight on Biman Bangladesh Airlines, widely considered the worst airline in the entire world. 91. Eat fugu, a potentially lethal blowfish. 92. Do a form of running exercise known as “laps of misery.” 93. Walk the neighbor’s dog. 94. Clean their room. 95. Frolic naked through the mall. 96. Do a handstand on two fingers. 97. Do one-armed chin-ups. 98. Do a form of exercise known as a “flying human flag abdominal crunch.” 99. Watch the 2011 movie Tree of Life. (Trust us, it’s booooring.) 100. Use sock puppets to practice their future networking skills.