How Many Times Should I Take the
SAT or ACT?
Parents and students ask us all the time: how many times should I take the SAT or ACT? Do colleges see or care how many tries it took to get the best score? I’m exhausted at the prospect of sitting for another test– do I have to?
By NOELLE COMPTON
In case you missed our video on the importance of academic index, let me offer you a summary: Grades? Those are important. Test scores? Often, equally so.
Before asking how many times to take the test, it’s important to have a goal score in mind. In order to determine a goal score, a student should have a rough college list, or at least a list of reach schools he or she is hoping to apply to.
Once the student has formed a college list, it’s time to consult the trusty Common Data Set. This time, we’ll be looking at section C-9, which will show us details on test scores. For this example, I will show you a ‘mid-tier’ school and a ‘reach school’.
First, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. US News and World Report has ranked Lehigh #51, tied with Purdue, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Villanova. It has an acceptance rate of 46%.
According to these numbers, the middle 50% of students who were admitted to Lehigh scored between a 1340 and 1460 on the SAT or between 30 and 34 on the ACT. The bottom of these numbers is the one you should be looking at. We recommend that a student aim for a score that is at least in the 25th percentile. If a student’s score falls below this range, they should assess whether the school is worth applying to.
You might be wondering, how important is the test score in the holistic admissions assessment? For this, we can look at section C-7.
Lehigh says that standardized test scores, to them, are “important”. Not as important as grades and class selection, but basically on par with essays, recommendations, extracurriculars, etc. If a student falls just below the 25th percentile but believes they can make up for it with truly outstanding grades (the average GPA for admitted students at Lehigh is 3.85) or activities, then it could be worth applying.
Now, let’s look at a ‘reach’ school like Rice University in Houston, Texas. Rice is ranked #15, tied with Washington University in St. Louis, sandwiched between Vanderbilt and Brown at #13, Cornell at #17, and Columbia at #18 (I’m mentioning these other schools to give you an idea of what other schools hope to see, index-wise). It has an acceptance rate of 9% and an average GPA of 4.12.
The middle 50% of students admitted to Rice have an SAT score between 1490 and 1570 or an ACT score between 34 and 35. Therefore, students who are serious about applying to Rice should aim for a minimum score of 1490 or 34.
Meanwhile, Rice considers standardizes tests to be ‘very important’.
So onto the question at hand: how many times should you take the SAT or ACT? We believe that you should take the test as many times as you can until you receive the score that you want.
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“How often do most students take the SAT or ACT?”
Very few students get their goal score the first time they sit for the test (although it does happen among the highest performers). For most students the second test is much better because they have an idea of what to expect. Test anxiety is a real thing, but exposure therapy works. The more times you undergo the process, the more you’ll be able to focus on the questions rather than the hard chair, the loud clock, the scratchy pencil, the stressful drive over, or the myriad other distractions that might be clouding your mind.
Most of the students we’ve worked with have been able to achieve their goal scores in three or four sittings, with adequate and sustained preparation efforts.
“What if I’ve taken the SAT/ACT a few times but my score has stopped improving?”
If you have taken the test repeatedly without improvement, I suggest evaluating your preparation strategy. For example, if you haven’t been working with a test-prep coach or tutor, I would recommend looking into one (or some of the bountiful free test prep services out there on the internet). If you have been working with a tutor, maybe consider working with a different one to fill in your knowledge gaps. In the event that you are aiming for a very prestigious score and are attempting to get into the 34 or 1500 range, there are tutoring services that guarantee a certain score, such as The Princeton Review, which offers classes for 1400+ or tutoring for 1500+. These services can be pricey, but they can make a huge difference in the admissions process.
“Do colleges care how many times I take the SAT or ACT?”
Most colleges ask students to self-report their scores on the Common Application. They ask you to input your highest scores for each section and in the spring, if you’re admitted, they ask you to send in your official score report to make sure you were telling the truth. A school is likely to allow you to superscore, meaning that you can report the highest score you’ve received for each section and thus recombine your numbers into a higher composite score– more on that below.
Here’s what the reporting system looks like:
This reporting format allows colleges to take the data they want. If they care about the complete composite score, it’s there for them, and if they want to recalculate a superscore, that’s possible too. But based on how this data is available, it’s possible only to extrapolate the number of times a student has taken the test. Above, you can see that I “wish” to report two tests, and all of my scores are from one of the two test dates. There’s no way from the above data to see that I actually took it five times.
So, do colleges care how many times you take the SAT or ACT? We think not. And even if you do take it many times, they can’t see every single score. Some colleges do “recommend” that you report every test score, but there is no way for them to guarantee that you do, or penalize you if you don’t.
“What’s this again about superscores?”
As I mentioned, a superscore is a re-calculated composite score made up of the highest scores in each section. To get a superscore, a student must necessarily take the test more than once. To take the test only once can be very limiting in this sense.
If you’ve already geared up for the test by studying, why not sign up for the next sitting or two to attempt a higher score, even if it’s marginally better, and even if it’s only in one section? Even if your second composite score is lower, a higher score in any section will help your superscore. From where we’re sitting, there’s nothing to lose by attempting the test again.
Using the above examples, here’s Lehigh’s superscore policy: The highest section scores across test dates, whether a superscored SAT or superscored ACT, submitted to Lehigh will be considered. Here is Rice’s superscore policy: When reviewing SAT and ACT scores, we use the highest score from each section across all administrations.
“I’m so tired of taking the test. Will it really make such a difference?”
Honestly, it can. If you aren’t at your target score for a school you love, a higher test score could make the difference for you. However, only you can know whether it’s worth the emotional exhaustion, the extra studying, or another early Saturday morning at a test site. Our recommendation will almost always be to give it one more shot.