Why you need a target score—and how to find yours!

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Okay cool, you’ve figured out whether you’re taking the SAT or the ACT, you know what your diagnostic score is, and you have a rough idea about which colleges you'll be applying to. You should just start studying, right?


Before you begin what will likely be a marathon of test prep, you need a firm understanding of your end game. Specifically, you need a “finish line” so you know when the end is near—and when you’re done and can move onto other things (SAT 2 Subjects Tests? College essays? uh…coursework?).

So what kind of “finish line” applies in test prep? It’s not just test day! You need something you can actually AIM for, and something that gives you the ability to pace yourself. You need something clear and concrete—something objective. In short…you need a target score!

So what will a target score do for your SAT or ACT prep?

Many students, parents and other test prep companies subscribe to the idea that “more” and “higher” is always better. But a perfect score does NOT guarantee a letter of acceptance! Hundreds, if not thousands, of perfect 1600’s and 36’s get rejected from top schools. In contrast, I’ve helped students get early admittance to Ivies with ACT scores of only 28/29! (In rare circumstances, it can happen...and it has!)

As someone who values efficiency and making the best use of your time and mine, I think that there’s a happy medium. In fact, you don’t need to be PERFECT in order to get into your dream school. You need to get past a certain threshold that’s acceptable to your college list—basically, a score that opens the door to admissions, so that the rest of your application and WHO you are can do the “talking” and get you IN. This “threshold” is what we call our target score!


Furthermore, you need this target score to make your junior and senior years manageable! Test prep can be grueling. But you know what’s even MORE grueling? Making yourself crazy with goals that are too high (i.e. “perfect,” which is the secret target score of everyone who doesn’t actually have one), and you subconsciously know you’ll never reach them, so why even try? That’s a lose-lose situation. By figuring out an appropriate target SAT or ACT score for you to aim for, you may discover that you’re MUCH closer than you think to your dream school! That’s a sure-fire motivator. And if you ARE farther away than you’d hoped? That’s the information you need to create a plan and put in the work to get there.

“So that’s great, Kristina. I know I need a target score. But how the heck do I figure out what mine should be?” I thought you’d never ask!

Here’s my foolproof method to find YOUR SAT or ACT target score.

  1. Create a list of all the colleges and universities you’re planning on applying to senior year.

  2. Do your research! Go to CollegeBoard.com, the schools’ own websites, or use a guide like the Fiske Guide to colleges. Look for information that says “median SAT scores” or “median ACT scores” or “mid-range test scores” or “25 - 75 percentile test scores.”

  3. Write down all the ranges of scores you got. These typically are meant to be the middle 50% of students who matriculated into the college’s freshman class. This means that a fourth (25%) of the students scored below that range, and a fourth (25%) scored higher than that range.

  4. Your goal is to be WITHIN range, if not on the higher end of—or above!—all the ranges in your college list. What is the lowest score you could achieve and be within range or above range for ALL your schools? THIS IS YOUR TARGET SCORE!

Once you’ve located your target score, rejoice! This should make studying infinitely easier, as you know exactly how far you need to improve. The best part? Once you get this score, you can turn a deaf ear on all the crazy “suggestions” you may hear from well-meaning peers at school (and their parents!) about taking it AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN for “just one more point.” When you’re done, you can confidently rejoice—and cancel any further test dates you have in the calendar!

As always, if you need help finding your target score, this is one of the EXACT things I do in an Ace the Test: Game Plan. When you book yours, I’ll set your target score FOR you, based on your unique needs and profile, than map out your path to hitting it…and getting into that dream school!