Until recently, many credit card issuers considered a traditional FICO score higher than 720 an "excellent" credit score. However, with lenders making more conservative decisions about borrower risk, you might not qualify for your bank's best rewards credit card unless your score tops 780. If your bank refers to FICO's "Next Gen" scoring model, an excellent score falls closer to the system's 950 maximum.

Excellent credit scores depend on the source of the score and the algorithm that company uses to calculate the score. Banks can get scores from a variety of sources, including dedicated credit scoring services and scoring programs offered directly from one of the three main credit bureaus. Common credit scores include:

  • FICO Score, from myFICO.com, the originator of the modern credit score
  • BEACON, from credit reporting agency Equifax
  • Experian/Fair Issac Risk Model,
  • EMPIRICA, from credit reporting agency TransUnion

Most scoring systems use three-digit results that remind you a little of the SATs, with similar results. Traditional FICO scores range from 300 (the score you get for proving that you actually exist) and 850. Some editions of VantageScore use a numeric range between 501-990, although you might see this expressed on your report as a letter grade.

However, you might not expect to hear lenders refer to your score plainly as "excellent" or "good" for much longer. That's because most banks now combine information from your credit report with records from proprietary databases. This extra insight can lift a "fair" credit score into "good" territory if a bank considers verified income from your company's payroll service or estimates your likelihood of default based on the characteristics of your neighborhood. Likewise, your "excellent" credit score under one model can drift down to "very good" if a bank senses risk from spending patterns or even driving habits.

Credit scores can still give us a quick gut check of how likely we are to qualify for today's best credit card deals, mortgage rates, or insurance quotes. However, it's far more important to check your credit report for accuracy and eliminate errors that can skew a bank's risk management system against you.

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