What do SAT and ACT Scores Really Mean?


From the desk of Kris Mathis, Academic Counselor for Boarding Students

Recently Mrs. Tucker and I attended a workshop put on by a representative for the ACT.  We found it very enlightening and wanted to share with you what we learned.  There has always seemed to be a bit of a cloud of mystery over what an SAT/ACT score really means.  So, I hope what follows will answer some of your questions and take away some of the stress and anxiety that is often related to those tests and the part of the college admissions process they represent.

For starters you need to have a little background as to what makes the test different.  The SAT was a test developed by Harvard University to award scholarships in the early 1930’s.  As such it is being used for a purpose today for which it was never originally intended.  By contrast the ACT was developed as an assessment of college readiness and a predictor of student success in college.  Its questions are developed based on what colleges say incoming freshman need to know to be successful and are field tested on college students before they are placed on the actual exam given to high school students. Students prepared for these exams using resources like preparatory books or online preparatory courses reviewed on ExamGenius. Preparation is key to getting decent grades.

According to the years of data and research conducted by the ACT company in order to be deemed college ready which they define as having a 50 % chance of making at least a B and at least a 75% chance of making a C in the course students should have the following minimum scores: English (18), Math (22), Reading (22), and science (23).  This would be a composite score of 21.  However, the standard error of measurement on the individual tests is +/- 2 so to be safe and assure college readiness the following scores would be preferable: English (20), Math (24), Reading (24), and Science (25).  This would be a composite of 23.

It is also important to note that these standards are the bare minimum to be deemed college ready and not the minimum knowledge that a student should display to be college ready for all majors. In recent years you may have heard a lot about something called STEM majors.  This is an acronym which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  As you might expect by the very nature of these majors a higher that basic understanding of math and science are required for students to be prepared to be successful.

For stem majors the minimum score in English and reading remain the same (18 and 22 respectively), but to be deemed college ready the math score increases to 27 and the science score increases to 25 which would result in a composite of 23.  When you once again factor in the two additional points to account for standard error in measurement the score are as follows: English (20), Math (29), Reading (24), and Science (27).  This is a composite of 25.

If you are curious what these and any other scores would equate to on the SAT there is a conversion chart you can find at http://www.act.org/solutions/college-career-readiness/compare-act .  Just to give you a frame of reference the three scores discussed above are predicted to produce the following SAT scores (math and verbal sections only included in the following scores):

ACT Score SAT Score Range (No Writing) Average SAT Score (No Writing)
21 980-110 990
23 1050-1080 1070
25 1130-1160 1150


But, remember the ACT and SAT are simply predictors of academic success and you should never let any given score convince you that you are not prepared academically for any particular college or college in general.  These tests cannot take into account work ethic.  There are many students who may have scores just below the identified readiness level or average score of admitted freshman who, thanks to their work ethic, have no trouble navigating college and earning their degree.  On the opposite extreme I have seen more than a few students who tested well in my career that were unable to stay in school because they did not have the self-discipline and work ethic that college requires.

It is our hope that seeing these numbers will relieve some of the pressure students put on themselves to shoot for scores that they may not need because they think their current score will not be high enough for the institutions to which they are applying.

Of course very selective universities that get far more applicants than they have room for in a freshman class may require higher scores on either the ACT or SAT, so you should always visit the websites or contact the admissions office to see what their expectations are as far as test scores go to guarantee admissions as well as what the average score of their prior years freshman class was.  But, it is always important to remember they will give you an average and it should not be taken as the minimum required to apply.

For instance, if someone tells you their average freshman SAT score is 1230 that means that is someone got in with a 1400, then someone got in with a 1060.  Similarly if a school tells you their Average ACT score was a 30 if someone was admitted with a 34 someone was admitted with a 26.  Additionally, in closing it is important to point out that while we have spent a great deal of time talking about test scores from an admissions standpoint, for students wishing to receive academic scholarships that are tied to their ACT/SAT scores an even higher test score may still be required since there are more students applying to college now in the United States than ever before in history making the competitions for these scholarships are fierce.