How to Understand SAT Scores in College Admissions Data

An Explanation of 25th / 75th Percentile SAT Scores Found in College Profiles

SAT scores are often an important part of the college admissions equation.
SAT scores are often an important part of the college admissions equation. Caiaimage/Sam Edwards / Getty Images

Much of the SAT data on this site and elsewhere on the web show SAT scores for the 25th and 75th percentile of matriculated students. But what exactly do these numbers mean, and why don't colleges present SAT data for the full range of scores?

Key Takeaways: SAT Percentiles

  • The 25th and 75th percentiles mark the boundaries for the middle 50% of admitted students. Half of students scored either above or below these numbers.
  • Having a score above the 75th percentile does not guarantee admission. Grades, essays, and other factors are important parts of the equation.
  • Having a score below the 25th percentile does not mean you should not apply. Just be sure you consider the school a reach.

How to Interpret 25th and 75th Percentile SAT Score Data

Consider a college profile that presents the following SAT scores for the 25th and 75th percentiles:

  • SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW): 500 / 610
  • SAT Math: 520 / 620

The lower number is for the 25th percentile of students who enrolled in (not just applied to) the college. For the school above, 25% of enrolled students received a math score of 520 or lower, and 25% had an ERW score of 500 or lower.

The upper number is for the 75th percentile of students who enrolled in the college. For the above example, 75% of enrolled students got a math score of 620 or lower (looked at another way, 25% of students got a 620 or higher). Similarly, 75% of admitted students had an ERW score of 610 or lower, while 25% had a 610 or higher.

For the school above, if you have an SAT math score of 640, you would be in the top 25% of applicants for that one measure. If you have a math score of 500, you are in the bottom 25% of applicants for that measure. Being in the bottom 25% is obviously not ideal, and your admissions chances will be lessened, but you still have a chance of getting in.

Assuming the school has holistic admissions, factors such as strong letters of recommendation, a winning application essay, and meaningful extracurricular activities can all help compensate for less-than-ideal SAT scores. Most important of all is a strong academic record. Numerous studies have shown that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores.

What the SAT Numbers Mean for You

Understanding these numbers is important when you plan how many colleges to apply to, and when you figure out which schools are a reach, a match, or a safety. If your scores are below the 25th percentile numbers, you should consider the school a reach even if other parts of your application are strong. Note that this does not mean you won't get in—remember that 25% of students who enroll have a score that is at or below that lower number. However, when your scores are on the low end for admitted students, you'll have an uphill fight to win admission.

Because SAT scores still play a significant role in the admissions process for the majority of selective colleges and universities, you'll want to do all you can to get the best scores possible. This may mean taking the SAT more than once, often at the end of junior year and again at the beginning of senior year. If your junior year scores aren't what you had hoped for, you can use the summer to take practice tests and learn test-taking strategies.

As more and more schools move to test-optional admissions, you can also use a school's SAT data to determine if you should report your scores or not (assuming the schools gives you the option of reporting scores). If you are near or above the 75% number for both math and ERW, you should definitely report your scores. If your scores are on the lower end of the scale and other parts of your application are strong, you'd do best to withhold your scores.

SAT Score Comparison Tables

If you're interested in seeing what the 25th and 75th percentile scores are for some of the country's most prestigious and selective colleges, check out these articles that have tables comparing SAT data among peer colleges and universities:

Ivy League | top universities | top liberal arts | top engineering | top public universities | top public liberal arts colleges | University of California campuses | Cal State campuses | SUNY campuses | more SAT tables

Keep in mind that many of these tables focus on the country's most selective schools, so you'll see a lot of schools for which SAT scores up in the 700s are the norm. Realize that these schools are the exceptions, not the rule. If your scores are in the 400 or 500 range, you'll still find plenty of good college choices.

Options for Students with Low SAT Scores

If your SAT scores aren't what you'd like, be sure to explore some of these excellent colleges where the SAT doesn't carry much weight:

Hundreds of colleges have joined the test-optional movement. If you have good grades but simply don't perform well on the SAT, you still have lots of excellent options for college. Even at some top schools like Bowdoin College, College of the Holy Cross, and Wake Forest University, you'll be able to apply without submitting SAT scores.

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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "How to Understand SAT Scores in College Admissions Data." ThoughtCo, Jul. 26, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, July 26). How to Understand SAT Scores in College Admissions Data. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "How to Understand SAT Scores in College Admissions Data." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).

Watch Now: What Are SAT Percentiles?