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How many times should you take the ACT or SAT?

ACT and SAT Test Prep, ACT Prep, ACT SAT Registration, College Admissions, SAT Prep, Tutoring

How many times should you take the SAT or ACT?  Ask this question to a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen different answers.  Here are my thoughts on this, based on my tutoring experience, personal experience, and from reading all the blogs I could find on the topic. 

The Quick answerIf you take the ACT and SAT 3 times each, you really don’t have anything to worry about.  Taking it more times than this could start to look a bit desperate, and taking it fewer times than this may not allow for the best performance.  Also, statistics from ACT and SAT indicate that test scores tend to plateau after 2 tests.  But what you should do really depends on your personal situation.  So, let’s break down some things for you to consider when deciding how many times to take the ACT or SAT.  

First, here are some things everyone should do:

1. Determine the score use policy from the college.  You can use this document from the College Board to find out more:  http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/sat-score-use-practices-list.pdf. Also, you can call the college directly or check on their website. Why should you check SAT and ACT score use policy?  If all the colleges to which you are applying will take the best overall score, then take the SAT or ACT as many times as you want!  If some of the colleges require all sets of past test scores¸ you may have to watch out that you don’t appear too desperate by taking it 5-6 times.  Many of the more selective schools do require that you send in all your past scores, and less selective schools generally do not require this.  (I have never come across a college that averages all past SAT or ACT test scores, so don’t be concerned about that).  Check with the individual colleges to be sure on their requirements. 

2. Practice before you take the SAT or ACT so your scores will look good.  There is no reason you can’t at least familiarize yourself with the ACT and SAT before you take them.  If you are on this website, you are already part way there!  You want to do this if for no other reason than you don’t want ACT or SAT to think that you may have cheated if you have substantially improved scores the next time (this happened to a student of mine once).  For links to free practice materials, please go here:

ACT Practice Materials

SAT Practice Materials

3. Take a look at my Recommended ACT and SAT Test-taking Schedule.  I’ve given my recommendations as to when you should take the ACT, SAT and (if applicable) SAT Subject Tests:

SAT ACT Recommended Test Taking Schedule

 

Now, let’s investigate the pros and cons of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times so you can make a decision for yourself:

Pros of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times:

1.       Most colleges superscore the SAT, and some do for the ACT.  Superscoring is taking the best score from each section of the test from multiple test dates, arriving at one “superscore”.  By taking the ACT or SAT multiple times, you can have an increased superscore even if your composite score does not improve.  Check with individual colleges on whether they superscore. 

2.       You have the opportunity for more scholarship money.  Although your score may be fine to get you into a particular college, you open yourself up to many more scholarship opportunities by having a higher score. 

3.       I can’t find any college that averages the SAT scores.  You don’t have to worry about a bad test date bringing down your overall score.  I’ve looked and looked, and I can’t find any college that treats test scores in this way. 

4.       Score Choice for the SAT, only one set of scores for the ACT.  When you register for the SAT, you can select the “Score Choice” option that will make it so that you only send in scores from the test date you wish.  There are some colleges that will require all test scores from any date, but these are more selective institutions.  (See above for the link to the College Board Document with details on this).  The ACT only sends in one set of scores from a test date.  So, you can pick and choose what you want them to see, unless they require all test scores. 


5.       Can simply leave the score BLANK on the application – it is not lying.  If you are applying to a school where they do not require all test scores, there is nothing wrong with omitting a bad score on your college application.  If the ACT went much better for you than the SAT, only put the ACT score down on the application.  

6.       It is unlikely that the person making your admissions decisions will bother to go through all your test records.  Admission officers have to read thousands of college applications.  They will likely take any measures they can to make their jobs easier.  Often, they will simply look at only the highest scores to make the decision after a secretary has entered the scores in a form for them.   

7.       You’ll know you won’t have any regrets.  If you go ahead and give the ACT or SAT another try, you’ll at least know at the end of your senior year that you did all you could to get into the college of your choice.  

8.       Your brain continues to change and you continue to learn in school, even without test prep.  The human brain continues to develop and change all the way up through age 25.  Even if you have done no test prep, giving the ACT or SAT another try after some time has passed may result in improvement because of your biological changes, and also because of your general academic progress. 

9.       Cultural hostility towards doing it multiple times due to how it’s done elsewhere.  Don’t let a cultural bias prevent you from taking the SAT or ACT again.  In many countries, like China for example, there is only one opportunity to take the college entrance exam.  Students expect that they should be absolutely flawless in their preparation before giving the test a try.  That is simply not the case with the American University system.  There are many, many opportunities to give it a try. 

Cons of taking the SAT or ACT more than 3 times:

1.       Will you look Desperate?  Colleges don’t want to have “grade-grubbing” desperate students – they want talented, curious, and level-headed ones.  Will your repeated test-taking attempts make it look like you have massive insecurities and that you won’t have much room for intellectual growth at the university level? 

2.       Despite score choice, some colleges will require all scores anyway.  As discussed above, if you are applying to highly selective schools, they may require all scores, so you want to be sure that what they see puts you in the best possible light. 

3.       Does your High School Transcript record the test scores?  Check with your guidance office to see if they will automatically send in your scores as part of your transcript.  Many high schools do, and despite all your score choice and planning, colleges may receive all your scores no matter what.  If your school does do this, consider omitting your high school code when you take the ACT or SAT and you may avoid having it show up in your school transcript. 

4.       Waste of time and money, lots of frustration.  It is true that students tend to plateau after a couple of tests.  It does cost a decent amount of money and takes a huge chunk of time to do the ACT and SAT, so make sure it is worth the time and money to do it. 

 

For most people, the pros of taking the ACT or SAT more than 3 times seem to outweigh the cons.  Think about your personal situation and figure out what makes the most sense for you. 

A final word:  Are there any people who shouldn’t worry at all about taking it a bunch of times?  Absolutely!  Here are some potential situations:

  1. Athletes looking for a score for admission.  If you are being recruited by a school and they have told you will get in with a certain score, take it until you have what you need!  I can think of no downside to this. 
  2. Someone already in to a school looking for a magic number for a scholarship.  I have had students in my classes who have already graduated from high school, but who can earn far more in scholarship money be attaining a certain score.  I have even had students who only focused on what part of the test, like the SAT Critical Reading, when they took it because the other scores were fine for a scholarship.  Take it until you get what you need!
  3. You’re taking it as a seventh or eighth grader.  No need for concern about a college later rejecting you based on your talent search score.  Go ahead and give it a try to see if you are eligible for summer programs. 
  4. You’re ONLY applying to schools that take the best score.  If you’ve done your research and you know for a fact that you are in this unusual situation, go ahead and take the ACT or SAT until you are all set.   

If you have further thoughts or questions on this issue, please email me at brian@freetestprep.com or tweet me at @free_test_prep.  Thanks!

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