SAT scores and success in life: does everything depend on a high score?

SAT scores and success in life: does everything depend on a high score?

    Very high SAT scores correlate with high earnings later in life.

    Colleges with mid-range average SAT scores still provide very decent salaries 3 years after graduation.

    We list the best colleges for your SAT range.

    So you just got your SAT score, and you’re a little disappointed. You studied hard and you didn’t do as well as you expected. Sometimes, it can seem like one bad exam can derail your life plans, which depend on getting into a super competitive college.

    But don’t despair! While it is true that high SAT scores correlate with higher earnings later in life, there are plenty of universities accepting mid-range SAT scores that offer excellent educational investment value. And some top-notch institutions don’t even consider standardized tests at all!

    To rank the best colleges in the US, we rank them by economic value, not just by subjective factors like “prestige”. Our metrics show that even if you can’t get into a top university, there are still plenty of paths to financial stability.

    How we compare value

    We determine which university type offers the best investment to students using 2 metrics:

    • Payback compares university cost to student earnings once they enter the workforce, measured in years and months.
    • EarningsPlus considers average salaries of people who went to a school 3 years after graduation as compared to a benchmark.

    Payback and earnings data combine into one economic score (ES); the lower the score, the better. The median economic score for the colleges we evaluated is 3.73. Schools with a score of 1.44 are in the top 5 percentile, while colleges with an ES of 8.17 are in the bottom 5 percentile.

    We also tailor this specifically to lower-income student demographics with an Economic Mobility Score (EMS). For more detailed information, please visit our methodology page.

    In this article, we look at the economic outcomes of universities with various average SAT scores to determine how much a high SAT score matters for economic success later in life. We also provide information on the best colleges in each SAT-score bracket.

    Do SAT scores really matter in college admissions?

    The SAT, or standard achievement test, tests high schoolers on their knowledge of math, reading, and writing. It is an important element of college admissions, and many elite schools only accept applicants with a high score.

    Many students stress out about the SAT. But as you apply for college, remember that the SAT is just one component of a multifaceted application. If your SAT score was a little lower than you expected, a high GPA, solid recommendations, or a mike-drop essay could pull you through.

    What is a good SAT score?

    If you score higher than a 1500, congratulations, you’re in the top 1-2% of test takers. Only 17 schools have a student body with average results in this range. They include world-renowned institutions like Harvard and MIT.

    Meanwhile, the average (median) SAT score is 1077: that means that roughly 50% of test takers score above, and 50% score below it. The chart below provides a comprehensive overview of SAT scores and their 2022 percentile rankings for all test takers. According to this chart, if you got a 1450 on your SAT, you did better than 90%-98% of all your peers.

    SAT score (ACT equivalent) Percentile
    1500-1600 (33-36) 98%-99+%
    1360-1500 (29-33) 90%-98%
    1240-1360 (26-33) 80%-90%
    1160-1240 (24-26) 70%-80%
    1100-1160 (22-24) 60%-70%
    1040-1100 (20-22) 50%-60%
    980-1040 (19-20 40%-50%
    980 and below (19 and below) Bottom 40%

    In the end, what defines a “good” SAT score depends on the colleges you’re applying for – and whom you’re comparing yourself with. If you have a specific university in mind, search our college database to find information on their student bodies’ average SAT scores to figure out if that school is a good match for you.

    The link between SAT scores and income

    Besides being an important part of the college application process, high SAT scores are positively correlated with high earnings after graduation. In other words, colleges whose students earned higher SAT scores tend to produce higher-earning graduates. Students with high SAT scores are also more likely to graduate, indicating that there is a correlation between SAT scores and success in college too.

    This is especially evident for students with very high or very low scores. Thus, universities with students who have SAT scores in the top 10 percentile (meaning they got a better score than 90% of all those who took the SAT), have alumni who earn an average of $76,156 just 3 years after graduating. In contrast, graduates of colleges with SAT scores in the bottom 50 percentile go on to earn $45,370 on average. That is an earnings difference of 68%, or $30,786 per year.

    So do good SAT scores offer a sure path to financial security by helping you get into a more competitive school? In reality, things aren’t so simple.


    Graduates of colleges with high SAT scores tend to earn higher salaries 3 years after graduation.

    Why you shouldn’t panic about your SAT scores

    It is true that many selective schools require very good SATs; however, college acceptance rates aren’t always a good predictor of a university’s economic value. Likewise, although universities requiring SAT scores in the top 1-2 percentile tend to be a very good deal, for colleges nearer the middle of the bell curve, the correlation between SATs and educational investment value is less clear.

    Why is this? The nation’s most elite universities generally have large endowments, allowing them to be generous with financial aid. And their graduates do go on to earn high salaries. But for mid-range colleges, slightly higher average SATs also correlate to slightly more expensive tuition; this makes their slightly better earnings less consequential.

    In addition, students with higher SAT scores tend to come from wealthier families in the first place – so it could be that their higher earnings have more to do with socioeconomic privilege than their choice of college.

    The moral of the story is that unless you’re aiming for an Ivy League, you shouldn’t panic about your SATs. Going to a school with a slightly lower SAT profile doesn’t doom your career. In fact, there could even be good reasons to go to a college with lower SAT scores. At the end of the day, factors like educational ROI, financial aid, and the programs the school offers should be more important.


    Many colleges with mid-range SAT scores offer good value for money.

    Test-blind colleges and test-optional colleges

    If standardized testing gives you crippling anxiety, or you feel that your SAT score does not reflect your true academic capabilities, applying for a test-optional or test-blind college could be a good idea. Test-optional colleges don’t require you to submit your standardized test scores (though it may be recommended), while test-blind colleges don’t consider them at all. You may be surprised to learn that some of the country’s most famous universities, like Berkeley and Cornell, are test blind.

    » Read more: The best test-optional colleges in the country

    The best colleges with your SAT score

    Now that we’ve discussed the links between SAT scores and earnings, we have some good news: there are excellent value colleges for students across the SAT-score spectrum that cost relatively little and lead to high earnings.

    Below, we ranked the best colleges for various SAT tiers and provided their economic score, which reflects their return on investment.

    The best colleges with an SAT score of 1600-1500

    Only 17 schools have students with average SAT scores above 1500. They have an average economic score of 1.2.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rates
    $101,494 (or $16,484 for low-income students) $88,795 7%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. Princeton University 0.45
    2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 0.46
    3. Harvard University 0.66
    4. Yale University 0.71
    5. California Institute of Technology 0.79

    The best colleges with an SAT score of 1500 to 1360

    A total of 64 colleges have average SAT scores in this range. Their average economic score is 1.6.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rates
    $93,642 $74,319 26%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. University of Florida 0.51
    2. Stanford University 0.59
    3. University of California-Berkeley 0.94
    4. Georgia Institute of Technology 0.95
    5. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 1.01

    Best colleges with an SAT score of 1360 to 1240

    There are 121 colleges with average SAT scores in this bracket. These have an average economic score of 2.3.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rates
    $90,589 $62,036 63%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College 0.24
    2. CUNY Hunter College 0.33
    3. University of California-Irvine 1.10
    4. University of Washington, Seattle 1.14
    5. Missouri University of Science and Technology 1.14

    Best colleges with an SAT score of 1240 to 1160

    In total, 188 colleges have a student body who earned between 1160 and 1240 on their SATs. They have an average economic score of 3.0.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rates
    $85,238 $53,938 77%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. CUNY City College 0.45
    2. Florida International University 0.76
    3. University of the Sciences 1.7
    4. University of California-Riverside 1.72
    5. The University of West Florida 1.74

    Best colleges with an SAT score of 1160 to 1100

    155 schools have a student body with an average SAT score between 1100 and 1160. Their average economic score is 3.2.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rate
    $77,354 $50,230 80%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. CUNY Queens College 0.58
    2. Massachusetts Maritime Academy 1.23
    3. SUNY Maritime College 1.25
    4. California State University-Long Beach 1.49
    5. University of North Florida 1.5

    Best colleges with an SAT score of 1100 to 1040

    278 schools fall in this range and their average economic score is 3.6.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rate
    $74,343 $46,697 80%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice 0.45
    2. CUNY Brooklyn College 0.49
    3. Colorado State University-Global Campus 0.92
    4. Farmingdale State College 1.04
    5. California State University-Fullerton 1.29

    Best colleges with an SAT score of 1040 to 980

    There are 140 schools whose students earned average SAT scores within this range. They have an average economic score of 3.7.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rate
    $70,424 $47,270 78%
    Top 5 schools Economic score
    1. CUNY Lehman College 0.44
    2. Texas A & M International University 1.01
    3. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley 1.04
    4. California State University-Fresno 1.22
    5. California State University-Northridge 1.52

    Best colleges with an SAT score of 980 or lower

    A total of 65 colleges have students with average SAT scores of 980 or below. These have an average economic score of 5.8.

    Cost Earnings Acceptance rates
    $69,813 $41,018 73%
    Top 5 schools Economic school
    1. California State University-Los Angeles 0.66
    2. CUNY York College 0.85
    3. Holy Family University 1.80
    4. Governors State University 1.91
    5. Elizabeth City State University 1.93

    Final thoughts

    We don’t choose the cards we’re dealt, and sometimes life circumstances can make a perfect SAT score seem unachievable. Maybe you don’t have the resources to pay for test prep and tutoring, or maybe you just don’t do well at standardized tests. Fortunately, the SAT is just one of the many factors that colleges consider during the application process.

    While it’s wise to prepare for the SAT by taking practice tests, reviewing vocabulary, and honing your math skills, you can only retake the SAT so many times before you eventually need to submit your scores to colleges.

    What you can do is research which colleges you could realistically get into that also offer the strongest return on your educational investment. Our college ranking system can help you find these schools, and you might find you have more options than you think.

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