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What Is a Good SAT Score?

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Last Friday's release of SAT scores marked the end of the 2012-13 test prep season. For thousands of students and families, however, it marks the advent of some worry.

Will the SAT or ACT score cut it? Will it translate into college acceptance letter or rejection? The answer is as frustrating as it is true: it depends.

Obviously, a higher score beats a lower score, but the absolutes are fuzzy. Each score needs context -- the context of each student, and the context of each school. "It depends" is a frustrating answer, but it offers the best chance for each child.

Naturally, the tests do yield some basic absolute answers. On the SAT Reasoning Test, a 1490 (out of 2400) places a student at the median of college-bound seniors. Fifty percent score 1490 and above; 50 percent score below. Fifteen percent score above 1850; 7 percent score above 2000; only 2 percent score 2200 and above. And a mere 384 students secure perfect 2400s.

On the ACT, the median score is approximately 20 points (out of 36). Only five percent score above 30 points, and a score of 33 puts a student in the top percentile. Unfortunately, however, these are broad and general numbers. Truly understanding a score requires a closer look.

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An SAT or ACT score is more than the sum of its parts. Those parts matter, too, and how they matter depends on the student scoring them, and the school looking at them. A lower Reading or Writing score matters less if a student is pursuing an engineering degree, and more on an application to a school of journalism.

Similarly, changes in scores depend on the test-taker. The National Association for College Admission Counseling notes that "even small [SAT] test score increases [in the 10-20 point range] may increase a student's chances of admission at selective institutions." That holds true for "higher" scores, but a student with a score near the median might look for a hundred-plus point SAT gain. For that student, an 1800 (up from 1550) might be an exceptional accomplishment, a score well beyond "good."

Some may wonder, "What score works for the Ivy League?" At Harvard, approximately 75 percent of students scored above a 31 ACT/2080 SAT; twenty-five percent scored above a 35/2380. Even that strict answer leaves a lot of room in the middle, and a lot of room on either side. In fact, Ivy League schools consistently reject even perfect scorers. A good score does not hurt, but it is no panacea for poor grades or low levels of involvement.

Ultimately, the SAT and ACT are not ends in themselves. They are a means to communicate to colleges. As such, they are part of a larger communication process that involves a complete look at each applicant. And in the end, of course, this discussion is academic. What score should a student seek? Now, that has a simple answer: The best one he or she can get.