No matter what how the current SAT or ACT is scored, its score scale is arbitrary. Understanding the difference between a 200-800 SAT score and a 1-36 ACT score can drive a person crazy. That’s why percentiles matter so much.
Every SAT and ACT section score is based off a raw score which is then converted to a scaled score based on a larger testing cohort. Any score report will include both scaled scores and percentile ranks. And, really, the only way to understand the value of the former is to consider the latter.
For any given score, your percentile or percentile rank describes what percentage of the testing population you scored higher than. For example, a score in the 70th percentile is higher than 70% of all the scores for that population. When it comes to test scores, the higher the percentile, the better you are doing!
Students prepping for the SAT and ACT can use percentiles in two advanced ways:
1. TO DETERMINE BEST TEST
Since we typically prep students for both the SAT and ACT at the same time, we rely heavily on percentiles to determine whether a student has a statistically significant advantage on one test over the other. If a student earns an 80th percentile SAT score and a 70th percentile ACT score, then we’ll most likely want to capitalize on that more impressive ranking and focus on the SAT. Complicating factors abound of course; all things being equal, though, you play the hot hand and double down on your higher percentile test.
2. TO TRACK PROGRESS
We’re used to tracking SAT progress in tens or even hundreds of points, which can really bolster an impression of success. But understanding the statistical impact of a 2-point ACT increase becomes difficult, and often disappointing, unless percentiles enter the picture.
Believe it or not, a whopping 1,845,787 students in the high school graduating class of 2014 took the ACT. Using this cohort as a benchmark, we can ascribe a value to each percentile point increase in a given test score: 1% of 1,845,787 is 18,457.87.
Now we can evaluate scores using the National Ranks for Test Scores and Composite Score, which are based on ACT-tested high school graduates from 2012, 2013, and 2014.
- Start with a Composite of 20, which is 49th percentile.
- Increasing just 2 Composite points produces a 22, which is 62nd percentile… that 2-point increase elevates the scorer above 221,496 students.
- Increasing 2 more points produces a Composite of 24, which is 74th percentile. These 12 more percentile points places the scorer ahead of another 221,496 students.
- Thus, a 20-percentile point jump advances a scorer ahead of nearly 445,000 students who were previously scoring ahead of him.
Imagine how much your college admissions prospects would improve if your test scores helped you jump over almost a half million of the students likely applying to the same schools you are!
All in all, percentiles offer valuable insight into both where we begin and where we rank against others. Remember that the only way to improve your percentiles is to improve your raw and scaled scores: increase the percentage of points you pick up if you want to be happy with your percentiles.