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 70th percentile SAT score and a 80th percentile ACT score, then we’ll most likely want to capitalize on that more impressive ranking and focus on the ACT. 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 test progress by total score, which can be confusing if you don’t know the benchmarks. Understanding the statistical impact of a 2-point ACT or 50-point SAT increase becomes difficult–and often disappointing–until percentiles enter the picture.
Believe it or not, a whopping 1.5 million students in the high school graduating class of 2021 took the SAT, down quite a bit from pre-pandemic levels). Using this cohort as a benchmark, we can ascribe a value to each percentile point increase in a given test score: 1% of 1,500,00 is 15,000.
Now we can evaluate scores using the 2021 SAT Suite Annual Report, which are based on 2021 high school graduates who took the current SAT during high school.
- Start with a Composite of 1050, which is 50th percentile.
- Increasing just 160 points across Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing produces a 1210, which is 75th percentile… that 160-point increase elevates the scorer above 375,000 students.
- Adding about 90 more points produces a Composite of 1300, which is roughly 90th percentile. These 15 additional percentile points place the scorer ahead of another 225,000 students.
Imagine how much your college admissions prospects would improve if your test scores helped you jump over more than 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.