Superscoring, Score Choice, and the SAT

Most teens who choose to take the SAT may end up sitting for the exam more than once, but colleges deal with multiple SAT scores in different ways. Most colleges perform “superscoring,” which involves combining SAT scores from a student’s different tests into one score, but some schools choose not to do this. On top of this, students can also use “score choice” to decide which colleges see specific test scores, although some schools do not allow students to withhold scores. Because superscoring and score choice can be confusing topics, we wrote this article to address some common questions, including:

• What is superscoring? • What is score choice? • How is superscoring different from score choice? • Which colleges use superscoring? • Why do colleges use superscoring? • Which colleges DON’T use superscoring? • How can students best use score choice and superscoring when they apply? • How can students prepare to retake the SAT?

We hope that this article clears up some of the confusion around these topics. Once students understand the choices that they can make with their SAT scores, the college process should be a little bit easier.

What is Superscoring? What is Score Choice?

Superscoring and score choice both refer to SAT scores and how colleges use them in the application process. The most important distinction is that superscoring is a college’s decision, and score choice is a student’s decision. As you probably know from our earlier SAT blog post, the SAT has several sections—mathematics, reading, and writing. Each of these sections is worth a specific number of points (800 points each, until the new SAT format comes out in 2016). “Superscoring” refers to a decision made by each college’s admissions office: if that college “superscores,” it means that the school looks at the top scores for each section of a student’s SAT results, then combines these scores into a superscore.

This method combines scores from multiple SAT tests, which means that students can end up with higher composite scores than they received on any of their individual SATs. For example, a student could take two different SAT exams. On the first, perhaps he or she achieves a 600 in math, 700 in reading, and 650 in writing, for a total score of 1950. After retaking the test, perhaps that same student gets a 650 in math, 700 in reading, and 600 in writing, for a total score of 1950—that seems like no improvement at first glance. But this isn’t correct! Even though both tests had the same total score, under the superscoring method a college would look at the top scores in each category. That means they’d pick the 650 in math, the 700 in reading, and the 650 for writing, all for a total score of 2000! Without performing better overall on the second exam, this student gets a score of 2000 instead of 1950 for the college admissions workers, and that’s good news.

Score choice is a decision that’s up to students, instead of colleges. It used to be the case that colleges always saw a student’s SAT score each time the student took the SAT, but that’s no longer the case. Now, students can choose which scores to send to colleges, and this gives students the freedom to decide which test scores they want to provide. For example, let’s consider a student who takes the SAT three times: he or she gets a 1980, then a 1980 again, and then a 2100. By using score choice, the student could send the score of 2100, or the 1980 and then the 2100 to demonstrate improvement to his or her colleges—it’s up to the student! This doesn’t just go for all schools—students could send one score to one college, then two scores to a second school, all three to a third, etc.

Score choice is an optional service, so if students do not select score choice, then their colleges will receive test scores from every exam taken. It’s usually a smart idea to use score choice if there are any scores lower than expected or if a student knows that a college expects applicants to achieve at least a 2000, or similar situations. For students who perform well on the SAT on their first try, score choice may not be so useful—it is only helpful for students who retake the exam and want to figure out which scores to share.

The key is remembering that students make a decision about score choice, but colleges decide whether or not to use superscoring.

Which Colleges Use Superscoring? Which Don’t?

The good news is that almost every college in the US uses superscoring! Originally only a few schools used the superscoring method, but now it’s common for colleges to look at the top scores of each section and combine them. Out of all the colleges in the US, only around 120 of the schools do not superscore: these colleges mainly include large state schools, but a full list can be found here. However, it’s still a good decision to check each college’s admissions page to make sure that the superscoring policy has not changed.

Why Do Colleges Use Superscoring?

It’s easy to think that colleges might want to use superscoring in order to reduce pressure on students, or to make it more reasonable for students to take the SAT multiple times. That’s not entirely true. As you might have seen in the Examiner article above, it’s important to remember that colleges get ranked multiple times a year, and a lot of different information goes into these rankings. US News and Forbes both publish college lists, along with other lesser-known papers and magazines. These rankings take into account GPA, graduation rate, transfers…and SAT scores of incoming students. By using superscoring on high school applicants, colleges can report higher SAT scores when it’s time to do the rankings. In our example before about superscoring, the college could report a score of 2000 instead of 1950, which would contribute more highly to the average SAT score of applicants than the original score.

Which Colleges Accept Score Choice? Which Don’t?

Just like superscoring, nearly all colleges allow students to use score choice when sending in SAT results. As you recall, superscoring is a college’s choice, but score choice is up to the student. However, some colleges expect students to send all SAT scores, instead of using score choice to select scores for certain schools. Thankfully, only a handful of colleges do not accept the use of score choice—Yale, Georgetown, Tufts, and a few others that you can read about here. This policy is not ideal for students, because it means that they need to show all scores to a college, instead of just picking the best score or the ones that show the most improvement. Again, make sure to check the college’s admissions page to see if their score choice policy has changed before starting to apply.

How Can Students Benefit From Score Choice/Superscoring?

Now that you know what score choice and superscoring are, it’s time to figure out just how students are supposed to use these two policies to their advantage. It might seem like the best strategy is to keep taking the SAT until a student reaches his or her ideal score, but this isn’t always the right decision.

The first step is to find out whether each school being applied to accepts score choice and uses superscoring. If there are exceptions, keep track of them! Then, after doing plenty of studying, students who plan to take the SAT should sit for the exam. Once a student sees his or her test score, it’s time to decide whether or not a retake is worth it, and what colleges might think about seeing a second score. For schools that accept score choice and use superscoring, this is an easy decision—if a student feels like he or she can improve the total score or a section score with some studying, it’s best to redo the exam in the hopes of getting a higher composite score or at least getting a higher score in one section. Then students can use score choice to decide if they want to send both scores or just the higher one.

The decision gets trickier when colleges do not use superscoring or do not accept score choice. If a student applies to a college that does not use superscoring, it will be important to think carefully before retaking the SAT. Since only a higher composite score matters, students will have to study all the sections to make sure that they improve or stay the same in all areas of the exam. By retaking the SAT until a student gets his or her target score, a student can show colleges a higher composite score, while perhaps using score choice to only send the highest score instead of all the test results.

For students applying to schools without score choice, they need to make a similar decision. Anyone who bombs the exam might want to retake the SAT, even though both scores will be sent to the school—showing improvement with a large score increase will go a lot farther than sending in one bad score and never retaking the exam. With some extra studying, hopefully a student can improve each section until he or she reaches a better score. It’s also important to think about what a retake would actually show: moving from 2290 to 2390 is far less impressive than going from an 1800 to a 1900. Since not as many students score so highly on the SAT, getting closer to a good score is more important that moving from a very good score to an excellent one.

How Can Students Prepare to Retake the SAT?

First of all, students should figure out if they like their score and if they think it’s going to be necessary to retake the exam. Some of our earlier resources can help students decide if they want to retake the SAT, if they’re satisfied with their test score, and how they might want to study for the exam a second (or third) time.

Once a teen figures out if he or she wants to retake the exam, it’s crucial to figure out what the goal is. For colleges that accept superscoring, this goal could be improving one section and ignoring the others. For example, a student might ace the reading and writing sections with 800s, but completely bomb math and get a 400. As long as that student can improve his or her math section, colleges that superscore will automatically look at a higher composite score when it’s time to evaluate the application. On the other hand, if a certain college doesn’t superscore, that student might want to brush up on all sections just to maintain those 800s.

This is where tutoring might come in handy—the student in our example only needs to improve in math, which could take the form of a few sessions before the next exam to review key strategies and concepts. This can be much easier to schedule than full-on SAT prep, so it can be easier for students to fit into their busy days. Working through practice books can also be helpful, especially because there are books devoted to specific skills and sections on the SAT. Students can pick and choose what is most helpful to study based on the areas that they need to improve.

When students need to achieve a higher composite score and improve in all sections, especially because of schools that don’t accept score choice or use superscoring, teens might want to go through more rigorous test prep. This can be especially helpful for students who performed worse than they expected on the first exam. Whether this takes the form of tutoring, group classes, or serious self-study is up to the student in question, but the more practice they can get, the better they will do on test day.