Professional & Continuing Studies

How much can I expect to improve my test score?

A key step in preparing for a standardized test is setting a realistic target score, preferably based on your performance on a pretest taken near the beginning of your preparations.

Every student is different, not to mention every test, but a rough rule-of-thumb is that students who begin a prep class with a score near the average for that test should expect to improve by one standard deviation. Students who start off with lower scores may achieve score improvements significantly greater than this.

It’s helpful to put this kind of improvement into perspective: if you start with an average score and improve by one standard deviation, you will pass more than one-third of all test takers, and move from a 50th percentile score to an 84th percentile score! Needless to say, this can make a big difference in your competitiveness as a candidate.

What does this mean for me in numbers?

Since each test uses a different scoring scale, there is no single answer that applies to all of them. So let’s look at a few examples.

  • ACT—
    • Scored on a scale of 1-36, the average ACT score is about 20 with a standard deviation of about 7, for each of four sections – English, math, science reasoning, and reading.
    • The total, or composite, score is the average of these four scores.
    • A student whose composite score is in the 17-23 range should expect to improve to the 24-30 range.
  • SAT—
    • Scored (in 10-point increments) on a scale of 200-800, with an average score of about 500 and a standard deviation of about 100, for each of three sections – writing, reading, and math.
    • Total score is the sum of these three sub-scores.
    • A student in the 1400-1600 range should expect to improve to the 1700-1900 range.

These kinds of improvements can have an especially large impact since they can affect not only which schools you are accepted to, but also the amount of financial aid you receive once you are accepted.

That sounds pretty good. But how does it happen?

High quality test preparation programs should be designed to target specific question types with specific skills. A key component to a high quality program is homework and additional practice to reinforce these skills.

  • Ask questions—Regardless of the test you are preparing for, the key is to remain engaged during your class sessions and ask plenty of questions.
  • Practice—But just as importantly, be sure to complete all assignments including any practice tests, and flag for review any question that you answer incorrectly. Thorough preparation may require two hours of study outside of class for every hour spent in class.
  • Focus on themes & strategies—While there are plenty of exceptions, if your test has a math component then you will probably realize your biggest score increase on that section. Tests with math sections do require you to be familiar with the relevant math facts (which are covered in class). However, standardized tests like the ACT and SAT generally seek to measure your problem-solving ability as much as, or more than, your aptitude in mathematics. Even though the math facts required by the ACT and SAT are relatively basic (mostly 10th-grade math or lower), the problems can be quite tricky. Familiarity with question themes, and a mastery of sound strategies for addressing them, will result in significant score gains.

You may be interested in University of Delaware test prep programs.