A Guide to Understanding Your SAT/ACT Scores

Whether you decide to take the SAT, ACT, or both, the mere idea of test prep and college entrance exams can be intimidating. You might have tested the waters (pun intended) by taking an official test, a test administered by a test prep company, or a practice test on your own. Naturally, you want to analyze your results to determine next steps. However you took your test, your test scores and/or list of correct/incorrect questions can help you decide what test to take, what sections to focus on, and what areas of content to practice in order to improve your score.

Which Test Should I Pick?

Many students begin their test prep journey by taking a mock SAT AND a mock ACT to compare results and decide which test they like more. This is a great idea, especially since colleges accept the SAT or ACT without bias! Beyond a simple side-by-side comparison of SAT score and ACT score, you can determine which sections were the toughest, which question types gave you trouble, and what timing issues might point you towards one test or the other. If time is a major concern, you might favor the SAT over the ACT, since the last two sections of the ACT (Reading and Science) are administered at a breakneck pace. If Geometry isn’t your thing, then that’s a big gold star for the SAT, which has 5-6 geometry questions as opposed to 20+ on the ACT.

Which Section(s) Should I Start With?

Once you have decided on which test to take (or which test to begin with, if you are prepping for both), you will want to know which sections are your strongest and weakest. This analysis is fairly straightforward, and can be based simply on the difference in section scores. For example, if you received a score of 24 on ACT English and 28 on Math, it’s safe to say that your initial test prep should be focused on boosting that English score. If, on the other hand, all of the scores are roughly equivalent, then your test prep should be spread out more evenly across all four sections.

What Content Should I Focus On?

If you took an official SAT or ACT, you had the benefit of undergoing actual testing conditions with official test content. The downside to starting with an official test is that, unless you take an SAT or ACT during particular months that release the test booklet and list of missed questions, you will not know what specific question types you missed. For example, the initial ACT report will tell you whether you missed more Usage/Mechanics questions or Rhetorical Skills questions for the English section, but it won’t disclose how many Punctuation questions you got correct. Similarly, the SAT score report will give you sub-scores for Algebra and Data Analysis, but you won’t know if you improved with Percent Change questions specifically.

If you took a practice test on your own or with Applerouth, you would have access to the list of problems that you missed and, on your Applerouth score analysis, the question types that you most frequently had trouble with. For both the SAT and ACT, an Applerouth score analysis shows students all of the individual concepts that were tested on each section. If you miss more than one question from a particular category, that’s a sign that you should put energy into that type of question going forward. For example, you may do well with Specific Reading questions, but you may really struggle with general “Function of a Passage” questions. Similarly, someone could ace all of the ACT Geometry questions except for those that deal with Proportional Shapes. Sifting through these results is a great way to determine specific areas of struggle and question types to focus on.

How Can I Change My Process?

Every detailed score analysis, whether from Applerouth or the aforementioned official reports that you can request from ACT/College Board, provides an answer key with the correct choices along with a breakdown of which questions you got wrong and the answers you chose. The single most valuable role a score report then plays is that it gives you an opportunity to revisit every question from the test itself and work through those questions that you missed. These “teachable moments” are especially helpful for highly motivated students who take the time to go back through the tests they’ve taken to learn from their mistakes. Sometimes a missed question can be attributed to a careless error, or it can be a topic that a student needs a refresher on or never even learned in the first place.

Is Time an Issue?

A cluster of missed questions towards the end of a section usually indicates that a student was rushed or simply ran out of time. Timing issues can result from a variety of factors, but pacing and mental fatigue are two of the most common roadblocks that students encounter. Timing issues may mean you want to strategically skip certain questions or refine your test-taking process.

From the outset of your SAT/ACT experience, you want to make sure to take advantage of all the tools at your disposal. A detailed score analysis can go a long way to help you maximize your potential and fully understand what you are working with.

For more information on which SAT and ACT test dates release the test booklet to students who request it, please visit “How do I get a copy of my recent SAT/ACT test booklet?”.

For the ACT’s free practice test, or the College Board’s list of 7 practice SATs, click the respective links.

For information on signing up for an Applerouth practice test, please visit www.applerouth.com.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or info@applerouth.com.