How to Choose a Goal Score for the SAT/ACT

There are several ways to choose a goal score on the ACT/SAT, but most students defer to beating their older siblings or their friends instead of knowing which score will actually make a real difference for their future.

What we’re ultimately after isn’t one number but two: a minimum and a maximum. We should treat the minimum as exactly that – the minimum you’ll aim for if prep doesn’t go as well as planned but you can still feel good about. The maximum is the number you’ll prep for that if you reach it, you can stop.

1. To find either of these numbers, you’ll need a basic college list in an Excel or Google Sheets list. I prefer Google Sheets as it is not only free, but also easily shared with tutors, counselors, and family members. Aim for a list of around 10 schools (not including repeats of UCs or CSUs), knowing you may not apply to half of them. The goal is to get an exhaustive preliminary idea of the schools, not a perfect list of where to apply to.

2. Once you have created the list, create a column for your rank – where you would like to go most is #1, and every number on down until every school has a rank. Don’t spend too long doing this, as it’s almost guaranteed that your preferences will change as you learn more about each of these schools.

3. What are the 25th-75th percentile scores for these schools? You can find these on College Board’s Big Future (link included). Create a column for the 25th number and the 75th number. I’ve included an example below:

School Name Your Rank 25th 75th
USC 2 29 33
UCLA 3 25 33
Stanford 1 31 34
Cal Poly SLO 4
CSU San Marcos 10 17 23
Pitzer College 5
Chapman 7
LMU 6  25  30


Now that we have a list, we can really dig into how to choose our max and min.

Options include:

1. There’s the obvious choice: take the highest set of scores (average) and the lowest set of scores (25th %). In this example, Stanford would result in a max score of  32.5 = 33, and CSU San Marcos lowest score is a 17. Those are your min and max. Quite a big spread.

2. There’s a sort of qualified version of these scores: maybe you had a look at Stanford and kissed your dreams of Stanford goodbye. But you’d be equally happy at USC or UCLA. This can be your new maximum. And maybe you looked at the scores for CSU San Marcos and figured it wasn’t a very valuable minimum, that you’d likely hit those numbers anyway, so you may as well set your sights a little higher. For your new min, choose the school you’d still be happy going to. Maybe this is LMU. The 25th percentile number can be your new minimum.

3. Another option is also available: research large state schools that are lower down on your list but easier to get into. It’s highly likely that at least one of these schools has a documented scholarship program with a minimum ACT score. Find out what this number is and set this as your minimum. If you can’t find a number like that on the web (or by calling the admissions office), assume that it above the 75th percentile, two points to be safe (there are always variations from year to year). If Cal State San Marcos is of interest, your new minimum would be a 25.

And remember, your SAT or ACT is only one piece of the puzzle. Your essay and your GPA are both arguably more important than your score, as they provide a much more complete picture of who you are as a student. However, the ACT/SAT do serve as the only national measure of students, so they do serve as an integral piece in the process.

Leave A Comment