How To Use That Disappointing SAT/ACT Score To Your Advantage

Everyone has bad test days. Maybe that extra hour of cramming instead of sleeping didn’t help. Or maybe the SAT or ACT just seemed extra hard that day. Who knows.

In any case, don’t fret! A positive outcome of your test day experience is that you now know what to expect and you have a score report from an official SAT or ACT. You can use this information to create a plan of action to improve your score. Here’s a helpful step-by-step guide on how to use a disappointing SAT or ACT score to your advantage.


No need to be nervous about the essay portion of your SAT/ACT—review the basics with the BibMe grammar guides. These free guides cover the basics, including conjunctions, common nouns, prepositional phrases, and a plagiarism definition.


Step 1: Give yourself a break

This first step might seem counterintuitive, but it’s important to give yourself permission to decompress. It’s tempting to rush into test prep when in fact, it’s more beneficial to take a short break. Taking a breather is important because you need a mental break from the exhaustive process that is prepping for the SAT or the ACT.

Take one week off from thinking about standardized testing. It’s better to rest now so you feel rejuvenated and motivated to get back into test prep. Don’t rush into resuming prep, as you might potentially burnout from studying too much.

Step 2: Reflect on your test day experience

After taking a week off, think about what happened on test day. Try to recall the factors that might have impacted your performance. Did you not get enough sleep? Did you eat a bigger breakfast than normal? Was the clock in your classroom not working? By seeing how these factors might have influenced your performance, you can come up with solutions for the next time you take the SAT or the ACT.

For example, let’s say your classroom had a clock that was located behind you. You might have felt awkward turning around to check the time, thus negatively impacting your pacing. A solution to this problem is to get used to wearing a watch. That way, the next time you take the test, you can use your watch in case the classroom clock isn’t accessible.

Step 3: Look at your score report

Ugh. This step might be the hardest, as you’ll have to see those disappointing numbers again, but you need to do it in order to make a strategic game plan. One way to make this step easier is to remember that you now have the information you need to figure out how to get those numbers to go up. The answer to improving your score is right in the report!

You might be thinking, “I have no issues looking at my score report—I just don’t know how to read it!” Navigating your score report can be challenging, so let’s move on to…

Step 4: Identify where you can improve

Let’s figure out how you can read your score report. Get a sheet of paper so you can answer the questions below. Scroll down to the test you took for a guide on how to interpret your score report.

How to read your SAT score report

  1. What is your total score? This ranges from 400-1600.
  2. What is your Evidenced-Based Reading and Writing section score? This ranges from 200-800.
    1. What is your Reading test score? This ranges from 10-40.
    2. What is your Writing & Language test score? This ranges from 10-40.
      1. What is your Expression of Ideas subscore? This ranges from 1-15.
      2. What is your Standard English Conventions subscore? This ranges from 1-15.
  3. What is your Math section score? This ranges from 200-800.
    1. What is your Heart of Algebra subscore? This ranges from 1-15.
    2. What is your Problem Solving and Data Analysis subscore? This ranges from 1-15.
    3. What is your Passport to Advanced Math subscore? This ranges from 1-15.
  4. If relevant: what are your Reading, Analysis, and Writing scores for the SAT Essay? These range from 2-8.

Now that you have all these numbers, ask yourself the following questions to identify where you can improve the most:

  1. Which is lower: my Evidenced-Based Reading and Writing score or my Math score?
  2. Which is lower: my Reading test score or my Writing & Language test score?
  3. Which is lower: my Expression of Ideas subscore or my Standard English Conventions subscore?
  4. How do my Math subscores rank from least to greatest?

By identifying your lowest scores, you now know that you can focus on these areas when you resume test prep.

For example, let’s say you identify that your Standard English Conventions subscore is lower than your Expression of Ideas subscore. This means that spending time reviewing grammar rules will be more effective than learning new strategies for Expression of Ideas questions.

How to read your ACT score report

  1. What is your composite score? This ranges from 1-36.
  2. What is your Math score? This ranges from 1-36.
    • What is your percentage for Number & Quantity?
    • What is your percentage for Algebra?
    • What is your percentage for Functions?
    • What is your percentage for Geometry?
    • What is your percentage for Statistics & Probability?
  3. What is your Science score? This ranges from 1-36.
  4. What is your English score? This ranges from 1-36.
    • What is your percentage for Production of Writing?
    • What is your percentage for Knowledge of Language?
    • What is your percentage for Conventions of Standard English?
  5. What is your Reading score? This ranges from 1-36.
  6. If relevant: what is your Writing score? This ranges from 1-8.

Now that you have all these numbers, ask yourself the following questions to identify where you can improve the most:

  1. How do my Math, Science, English, and Reading scores rank from least to greatest?
  2. For Math, how do my percentages rank from least to greatest?
  3. For English, how do my percentages rank from least to greatest?

By identifying your lowest scores, you now know that you can focus on these areas when you resume test prep.

Let’s say you identify Geometry as your lowest percentage for math. Be sure to spend some time doing extra Geometry problems so you feel confident when you encounter this question type on your next ACT.

Step 5: Re-calibrate your test prep strategy

Now that you’ve figured out which areas have the most potential for improvement, decide when you’ll retake the SAT or the ACT. Figure out how much time you have to prep. From there, you can figure out if you want to take a class, hire a private tutor, or prep on your own. Use this time to also set new score goals for your SAT or ACT retake.

Take advantage of this additional test prep time to try out new strategies. It might be tempting to do what was comfortable before, but to get new, improved scores, it’s essential to try different approaches. Remember, it’s okay to fail when trying new tactics—use this time to experiment until you find the right combination of strategies to help you feel confident on test day.

You got this!


You conquered your SAT/ACT, now what? Use the guides and tools at BibMe.org to prepare for your first college English courses, of course! Review how to put together an annotated bibliography, and practice your APA, MLA, and Chicago citation styles.