How to Understand Percentiles

Standardized tests are quite common. If you are a student, then you must have encountered them one way or another.  Some examples include an aptitude test, an intelligence test, the SAT, or GRE. Once you’ve taken these, you will be sent a report about your scores for each section of the test. These standardized tests are not usually the pass-or-fail type of tests. They show you how your skills and knowledge rank among other people who have taken the same test. The results are presented in a different way, which is called percentile rank scores.

Knowing your percentile ranking will allow you to compare your performance with the other people who have also taken the test. For this article, I will explain percentile ranks in terms of SAT scores.

Percentile Rank Scores

Let us say that you are eyeing a school that is quite popular and known for having high academic standards. You are about to take the SAT and decided to research some information about admitted applicants last year. Here is an example of how percentile rank scores might be presented:

SAT Score: 1400

Percentile Rank: 30th percentile

Meaning: 70% of admitted applicants had a score of above 1400; 30% of admitted applicants had a score of 1400 and below

SAT Score: 1570

Percentile Rank: 70th percentile

Meaning: 30% of admitted applicants had a score of above 1570; 70% of admitted applicants had a score of 1570 or below

To summarize, 30% of admitted applicants had SAT scores of 1570 and above, while the rest of the admitted applicants scored 1400 or above. If your SAT score is anywhere between 1400 and 1570, you have a good chance of getting into this school.

Interpreting Results

Aptitude tests usually have several components. Aside from reporting the standard score for each component, the results will also tell you the percentile ranking of your score. For example:

Verbal Reasoning: 30th percentile

Numerical Reasoning: 80th percentile

Mechanical Reasoning: 90th percentile

What do these scores mean in layman’s terms?

Verbal reasoning: this area needs improvement. Your score is higher than only 30% of people who took the test.

Numerical Reasoning: this area is okay. Your score is higher than 80% of people who took the test.

Mechanical Reasoning: you did well in this area. Your score is higher than 90% of people who took the test.

Purpose and Significance

In the context of SAT scores and college applications, percentile rankings are important because they will give you an idea of whether your SAT score is enough to be considered by the college or university of your choice. However, your percentile score is only one part of the admissions requirements for college. Make sure to prepare for the other requirements that may include but are not limited to the following: interview, transcript of records from your high school, and recommendation letters.

Final Thoughts

It is important to note that while the percentile rank scores are designed so that you can gauge how well you did compare to everyone else who took the exam. The result depends on the number of people who took the test and how well they performed.

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