How to Set a (Realistic) Target ACT or SAT Score

SAT Prep | ACT Prep

When we teach courses,Target-1 we hand out a student profile which asks students about their testing experience and expectations. One of the questions prompts them to list their target score. So many of the responses are the same: 25 on the ACT and 1200 on the SAT. When we ask why they want these scores, their answer is simple: “Because that’s a good score.”

True, an 1800 is a good score based on national SAT percentiles. Only about 20% of test takers get a 25 or higher on the ACT and a 1800 or higher on the SAT. But are these “good” scores for every college-bound student? They're not likely to get the high achievers into Harvard and they might actually cause more stress than they're worth for students aiming for the local city college. A good score is relative to your test history and your future application; mainly, it depends on your prior test scores, the schools to which you are applying, and to the scholarships you want.

So let’s set a realistic target score for the the tests. Here’s how:

1. Find the average tests scores of your prospective colleges.
While a target score is more about your ability to reach it, it is still important to look at what prospective colleges want from you. Using the College Board’s BigFuture, you can search for any college and view the average ACT and SAT and ACT scores of accepted students. To begin, type in the name of a college into the search bar. Once the college page is returned, click on “Applying” in the menu on the left, which is next to the cover picture. Scroll down to the six tabs in the middle of the new page and select the tab labeled “SAT & ACT Scores.” Here you will see an average range of scores for both tests. For example, admitted students at the University of Georgia had a Math mid-range of 600-700. So the average Math score is about a 650[(600+ 700)/2 = 650]. Once you determine the averages of all sections, you can add them together to find a composite. In the case of UGA, it’s about 1300. The ACT section of Big Future does not list individual section ranges, but does have a composite range.

Because these scores are averages, you would be wise to score 50 to 100 points higher than the average SAT score and 1 to 2 points higher on the ACT. But it’s not enough to say "I need a 29 on the ACT or a 1350 on the SAT” to go to Georgia. There are other factors—the most important of which is your ability to reach that high—that need to be considered before setting a target score. To start, though, simply list the average scores at your top college choices.

2. Consider score requirements for scholarships.
If there are scholarships you are pursuing—whether from local organizations, specific colleges, or national associations—research them to see if there are ACT or  SAT score requirements or averages of previous recipients. As with the average score range of prospective colleges, note these scores add a few extra points.

3. List your most recent test score.
Now for the really important part: listing your most recent test score. It doesn’t matter if it’s from an official test administrations or from a timed practice test. If you haven’t taken an ACT or SAT yet, take a practice test under timed conditions (you can find real tests in our Free Help Area).
4. Study the data and determine a target score.
Start with your previous test score and consider what a realistic score increase would be. A 25 is an admirable ACT goal and it’s attainable if you’re starting at a 23. But if your initial test score is a 18, a 7-point score increase is not very realistic. Sure, it can be done, but the average student does not have 40-hours a week to invest in test prep for months at a time. And that’s likely what it would take to make such a drastic increase.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what a realistic increase is, look at the number of questions you missed in each section. For example, say you missed 30 questions in Math. On this particular test, that equates to a Math score of 21. If you can improve enough to only miss 23 questions, your Math score would increase to 25. Answer 7 more questions correctly in EACH section and you’re looking at significant improvement! We believe—as does PowerScore—that any student who puts in quality study time several hours a week for the two months prior to the test can raise their score and meet realistic expectations. It's why we offer score increase guarantees in our courses!

Once you determine a realistic score increase, tack on an extra 20 to 30 points on the SAT and an additional point on the ACT. These are “reach for the stars” points. We often meet our own expectations, so it’s important to challenge ourselves to attain even more. As test prep instructors, we often purposely set the bar too high for our students. Sometimes they surprise themselves and reach our goals. But if they don’t, we are never disappointed and neither are they, because they still reach higher than they themselves expected.

Now look at the average scores of your prospective colleges and potential scholarships. Is your target score the same as or higher than the scores of admitted and awarded students? If your target score is much lower than a school’s average, you need to be honest with yourself about your chances of attending that college. Of course you can still apply, but you need to consider the school a “reach” and apply at some other “sure things.” You might relieve some stress, too, if you eliminate that college and concentrate on others that are within your target score range.

Setting a target score isn’t difficult, and you can certainly do so without any help. You might, however, want to include your parents in the discussion. In our experience, parents often have unrealistic expectations for their teenagers, and including them in this process will help them understand what better to expect. This will relieve any extra pressure they might otherwise add to the already-stressful testing experience.

Photo: On Target, courtest of