SAT Separate Scores vs. Total Scores

By Nick Robinson
Colleges may value sub-scores more than total scores on the SAT.
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A good SAT score can make the difference between admission and rejection to a top-tier college and can mean thousands of dollars in scholarship money. What some students don't realize, however, is that their SAT score is actually three different tests: a critical reading test, a math test and a writing test. The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, adds scores from these three tests together to form the total score.

Separate Scores by Section

The College Board scores each section of the SAT separately on a scale using 10-point intervals from 200 to 800 points. A 200 is the worst possible score on each section, while an 800 is the best possible score. The average score on each section is roughly 500 points, but that varies from test to test and year to year. In the 2010-11 testing year, for example, the average writing score was 489 while the average math score was 514.

Raw Scores vs. Scaled Scores

The SAT is a standardized test, meaning that calculating the official SAT score is more complicated than simply counting up correct answers for each section. Instead, the College Board gives one point for every correct answer and subtracts one-quarter of a point for each wrong answer to calculate the raw score for each section. The problem is that raw scores aren't very good at comparing students to previous test-takers. If a particular version of the SAT was unusually easy, students who took that test would have an unfairly high score. To combat this problem, the College Board converts raw scores into scaled scores from 200 to 800 points. If one version of the test was unusually hard, it's possible to miss a question or two and still score a perfect 800.

Total Score

The College Board calculates a student's total score by adding together their scaled scores from each section. Thus, a student who scored a 550 on the critical reading section, 600 on math and 520 on writing would earn a total score of 1670. Since every student receives three subscores between 200 and 800 points, the worst possible total score is 600 and the best possible total score is 2400.

How Colleges Interpret Scores

Many colleges care much more about sub-scores than total scores. Many colleges think the writing section of the test is unfair and subjective, for example, so they only evaluate students' critical reading and mathematics scores. Schools that focus on science and mathematics tend to emphasize the math sub-score over the writing and reading scores since math skills are more important to their students' success. When designing a study plan for the SAT, students should consider which scores their target colleges will appreciate most.