It's important to aim high when taking any type of test — but is there such thing as too high when taking the SAT or ACT? While the answer may not be as straightforward as you or I would like, it's safe to say that not every student needs to aim for that perfect 1600 SAT score when test day rolls around, for example. In 2018, the average SAT score was just below 1070, and yet those students are still going to college and on to successful future careers. Similarly, the highest possible score on the ACT is a 36, but the national average is just above 23. So how can you determine what a "good" test score is for you? Here's a guide to help you out.
Compare Against the National Average
The national average won't necessarily be as relevant to you as the specific average of the schools you're applying to (I'll get to that in a minute), but it can be a good place to start if you're unsure of which schools to target. If your scores fall close to the national average, you'll have a solid shot at getting into a good number of schools. Do note, though, that a school's selectivity will play a role here, so the higher your score compared to that average will give you a better chance of admission at a more selective school.
Check Averages at Your Target Schools
Rather than setting yourself up for the (pretty high) expectation of a perfect score, it's important to get an idea of what colleges have accepted in the past. You can do that by checking out the average scores of students who have been admitted to your target schools in the past. This information can be found in most college guidebooks, but you can also use our college search function to see the middle 50 percent range of test scores at almost any school you're considering.
A good score is the one that gets you into the college of your choice, so doing this research can help tell you what you need to be aiming for. If your scores in the past have fallen on the lower end of that middle 50 percent range, consider some test prep and retake the test. With proper preparation, you can almost always improve your test score. However, consider where your time is going to be best spent. If you're comfortably within a school's score threshold, you might want to focus on other parts of your application.
Find Your Benchmark
Of course, in order to make any sort of comparison, you need to know your own average — that is, the score that you're likely to get if you take the test tomorrow. If you haven't already taken the test, I suggest signing up for a free practice test to get an idea of where you stand now. From there, you can see where you measure up against both the national average and the average at your target schools. Once you know your score, you can identify your strengths and weaknesses and put together a test prep plan. Our books Cracking the SAT and ACT Prep also come with multiple practice tests and tons of strategies to help you up increase your score by shoring up any areas that could use improvement.
Above all, keep in mind that while your SAT or ACT scores are, of course, important, they are not the crux of your college application. Admissions officers look at more than just those numbers — your overall high school GPA and transcript, college application essays, and even college interviews will all play a role in gaining acceptance to your dream school — but anything you can do to give yourself an extra edge is worth the effort.