Understanding Your SAT Score

Individuals preparing to pursue education after the completion of high school often find themselves taking the SAT as a prerequisite to entering college. Although understanding the scores that one receives back after taking the exam can seem difficult or even impossible, grasping the data is really simple once you understand how the scores are graded. Once you understand the scoring system, you will be able to accurately read your score report and fully understand what your score is.

First introduced in 1926, the SAT has seen a lot of changes. The most recent edition, introduced in 2005, takes about four and a half hours to finish, with three hours and forty-five minutes of actual test-taking time.  This article describes how SAT scoring works.

As many testing experts know, SAT scores are gauged on a scale ranging from 200-800. Additionally, there are subscores for the essay which range from 2-12. There are also subscores for multiple choice writing questions, which range from 20-80. Your SAT score will inform college admissions personnel how you performed in comparison to other students. If you scored close to the average-by making around 500 on the critical reading section and 500 on the mathematics section-the staff will note that you scored about as well as half the students who took the test.

To understand how to read your SAT score when you receive your report, you should first grasp how they are calculated. First, the individuals responsible for calculating your raw score do so based on the number of questions answered correctly, incorrectly, or omitted. You earn one point for SAT Scorequestions answered correctly and 1/4 of a point is subtracted for an incorrect 5-choice question, 1/3 is subtracted for an incorrect 4-choice question, and 1/2 a point is subtracted for an incorrect 3-choice question.

(If you take an SAT Subject Test, this score is also calculated on a scale ranging from 200-800. Subscores are gauged on a scale which ranges from 20 to 80. Listening and reading subscores are reported for each Language Test that incorporates Listening. Additionally, a usage subscore is calculated for the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese tests.)


The modern SAT has three sections, each worth 800 points. There are three subsections in each of the main sections, plus an ‘experimental’ section that can go in any of the main sections and doesn’t count toward your actual score.

The Mathematics section, which is sometimes referred to as the Quantitative or Calculation section, has three sections, two lasting 25 minutes and one lasting just 20 minutes. Most questions are multiple choice, but one of the longer sections also contains some grid-in questions, in which the taker must bubble in a numerical answer on a grid.

The Critical Reading portion also consists of two 25-minute and one 20-minute section, and the questions here are either sentence completions or questions about reading passages. The passages are primarily excerpts from sciences, the humanities, or personal narratives.

The writing section consists of multiple choice grammar questions, which amount for a full 70 per cent of the section’s score, and a brief essay. A brief prompt is given for the essay, and 25 minutes are available to answer it. It is graded on a scale from 1-6 by two graders, whose grades are then added for a total score of 2-12.

Calculating the Score

SAT scoring looks complicated at first, but it’s actually not that bad. The total score is calculated by adding up the score of each question, plus an additional number for your essay score. Each question is weighted equally regardless of difficulty.

The raw score is calculated first, and it consists of adding one point for each correct answer and deducting 1/4 point for each incorrect answer. Skipped questions are counted at zero, as are incorrect grid-in answers in the math section. The purpose of this grading system is to make sure that wild guesses are not rewarded. Each multiple choice question has five possible answers, so a random guess will be correct one out of five times. That means that you would get one point added for the correct answer and one point deducted for the four incorrect answers, for a grand total of zero.

While wild guessing is a bad strategy, educated guesses are rewarded by the SAT scoring system. If you can eliminate one bad answer, you have a 25 per cent shot of getting the right answer, which would give you approximately 1/16 points per question. Eliminating two wrong answers gives you a 33.3 per cent chance, or 1/6 points per question, and getting rid of three bad answers gives a 50 per cent chance, or 3/8 points per question. It’s not as good as actually knowing the right answer, but it’s a lot better than the zero points you’ll get for skipping the question.

After the raw score is calculated by adding all the questions, it is then converted into a scaled SAT score between 600 and 2400, with an average around 1500. The conversion process is called equating and has the goal of making sure that a score of, say, 1500 on one test measures the same performance as a score of 1500 on another test. This allows takers of different tests to be compared accurately by colleges. The exact scale used varies depending on the test, but each test undergoes strict statistical analysis to make sure that it is an accurate representation of the skills of the takers.

SAT Score Percentiles

Another aspect of your score report will be percentiles. Percentiles are designed to compare and contrast your scores to those made by other students to whom the test was administered. For example, if your reading score was 500 and the state percentile for this score is 47, this indicates that you scored better than 47% of the college-bound seniors in the state. To calculate percentages, the most recent scores from students in the previous year’s class are used. When you receive your score report, you will see the percentiles both for the total test-taking population and those of your state. Your percentile will change based on the group within which your score is calculated. Since the total test-taking group is more diverse and substantially larger than state groups, your state and total percentiles will likely differ.

To score the 25-minute essay, two readers score your work on a scale from 1-6. Their combined scores will constitute your total score. Thus if each reader gave your essay a five, your total score would be a 10. (If you do not structure your essay around the topic assigned, or if your work is illegible, you will receive a 0 on the writing portion.) In the event that the scoring provided by the two readers differs by more than a point, another reader will score it.

Once you understand how the multiple choice and writing portion of your SAT is scored, grasping the results you find on your score report is easy. Remember that the multiple choice writing section counts 70% of the total score. The essay, on the other hand, counts for 30% of the total score. These scores are used to calculate your SAT score, which will range from 200-800.

SAT Scoring Conclusion

The SAT is possibly the most important test you’ll take in your life. Most colleges in the United States require it for admission, so the results will have a big impact on your life. Knowing how the SAT is scored can help you to make the most of this opportunity.