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David Recine

SAT Score Percentiles

As you prepare for the SAT, you’re probably thinking a lot about your target SAT score. This is certainly important, but there’s another number you may want to think about as well, your percentile. This number is usually not quite as important as your actual score, but percentiles still do measure your performance in a significant way and they can impact your academic prospects, in some cases.



What Percentiles Are

Your SAT percentile is the percentage group that your score falls into, compared other students. The SAT calculates percentiles annually. Your actual percentile measures the percentage of test-takers who got a lower score than you did. This means that percentile numbers, much like score numbers, indicate better test performance when they’re higher. If you’re in the 91st percentile, for example, it means that only 9% of all other SAT scores are higher than yours. In contrast, at a percentile such as the 30th, 30% of all other test takers would have lower scores than you… meaning that roughly 70% of the SAT scores were higher than yours. This would place you solidly in the bottom half of the year’s test-takers, in terms of performance.


Percentiles and College Admissions

It’s very rare for a school to set a specific percentile requirement for its applicants. Instead, what you’ll need to aim for on the exam is a school’s specific score requirement. However, in highly competitive top schools, meeting and even exceeding the minimum required SAT score does not absolutely guarantee acceptance.

When a university has an overabundance of applicants with qualifying SAT scores, they will need to weigh other factors to decide who they should admit. This is where percentiles often come in to play. The higher your percentile, the more likely you are to get accepted, and the lower your percentile, the less likely you are to get accepted. Many schools actually publish their stats on SAT percentiles and acceptance. You can see examples of acceptance rates at the 25th and 75th percentile benchmarks for two top University of California schools here and here.


Percentiles and Scholarships

Percentiles are used very commonly in higher education scholarships. Government scholarship foundations such as the West Virginia Board of Governors may weigh SAT percentile as one of several factors in granting awards. In other cases, a scholarship-granting organization may treat a minimum SAT percentile as a deciding factor for scholarship eligibility, as seen in Iowa State’s Floyd Andre Scholarship.


Knowing your Percentile

It’s likely that you may be asked for your SAT percentile at some point during your admissions process or academic career. Since percentiles are based on annual score averages for all test-takers, the relationship between score and percentile can fluctuate a bit from year to year. Fortunately, SAT keeps regularly updated data on percentiles and other stats related to test-taker performance. Your percentile will also be listed on your SAT score report. So be sure to keep an eye out for this metric of your comparative exam performance.


P.S. Ready to get your highest SAT score? Start here.
About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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