How many times should you take the SAT?

As summer rolls around, giving you plenty of time to start applying to colleges or studying for exams, you may be wondering how many times you should take the SAT (or any other college readiness exam). Although you can take the SAT an unlimited number of times since the College Board imposes no limit, there’s a great difference between can and should. What’s the fine line between diligent test taker and overkill? Most sources seem to recommend taking the exam two times, once in junior year spring and another in senior year fall. This is a good idea, giving you a gauging point and then some time over the summer to reflect and then try again. However, this plan doesn’t work for everyone, which is fine. I personally took the SAT three times (two in the old version; one in the new). Each student has their own method for success, and although there’s no standard formula for determining the amount of times you should take the SAT, here are some factors and tips worth considering.

Take the PSAT if you can.

Earlier, when I said that junior year spring is the initial gauging point for SAT performance, I lied. The Preliminary SAT, or the PSAT, is an opportunity to experience the SAT at a low cost since it’s cheaper and schools never require that you report the score. Never take the real SAT just to get a feel for it. There’s more information on the PSAT in my other post, “What is the PSAT and is it worth taking?”

Will you be taking other exams?

Taking the SAT an unlimited amount of times sounds great until you remember that you may also be taking the ACT, SAT subject tests, and AP exams, all on top of your regular schoolwork. You may want to take the ACT or subject tests a couple times to get those scores higher or you may not take it all. Whatever you decide, be sure not to take on too much at once and balance out the exams accordingly. Also note that SAT subject tests are administered on the same dates as the regular SAT and can’t be taken jointly, so plan accordingly. (See my other post “What are SAT subject tests and are they really necessary?” for more info about that). Consider the other responsibilities you may have as you decide whether to take the SAT again.

The SATs are expensive.

There are lots of opportunities to get fee waivers for the SAT. However, if you can’t, the exam (with the essay) costs $60 to take and $12 to send the score report to schools after the first four reports. That’s a lot.

Does your college allow Score Choice and do they superscore?

Score Choice is the ability to choose which SAT scores you want to send to schools and which you want to omit. If a school doesn’t allow score choice then you must report all scores regardless of how you performed. Most schools (including Harvard) allow score choice, which is great and provides incentive to take the test multiple times. But if even one of your top schools doesn’t, then you shouldn’t retake the SAT unless you’ve really studied and you’re confident you’ll do better. (I didn’t study between my first and second attempt and acted surprised when I got literally the exact same score. Don’t do that.) If you don’t prepare adequately, schools may see the low score or see that you took the exam multiple times with no improvement, which can suggest poor study habits.

Superscoring refers to taking the highest scores from each SAT section across different trials and combining them to form the highest composite score. This is something the schools do during their admission process, so you don’t have to do anything. But it’s helpful to know whether or not your school superscores so that you can decide whether it’s worth retaking the test in the hopes of improving a single section’s score. For example, if you scored 800 on two sections and scored 500 on the last and your schools superscore, you may want to take the test again after honing the weaker section.

Here is a comprehensive list of schools and their SAT/ACT score choice and superscore policies:

Is your score up to par with your college’s or scholarship’s standards?

I think one of the biggest mistakes students make when it comes to interpreting their SAT scores is adopting a one-size-fits-all outlook. Just like one SAT strategy may not work for you, different schools have different SAT standards. What one school expects may vary from another. Look up your top schools’ test score averages and determine where your score falls. If it’s far below the average (25th percentile or less), I would definitely consider retaking the exam. Likewise, if your score is well above, you might want to shift your focus to other parts of the application instead. Of course, schools take a more holistic approach when evaluating applicants and there’s rarely ever a strict cutoff, but it’s important to know what they’re expecting.

There are also many merit scholarships that consider SAT scores, among other factors. Unlike most college applications though, they may have strict GPA/SAT cutoffs, which they’ll disclose. So if you’re planning to apply for some academic scholarships, check their standards as well.

Are you actively studying in between exams?

This is, without a doubt, the most important factor. Are you actually studying between exams or are you just hoping for the best? By studying, I don’t mean skimming the prep book the night before, but really learning the material over a length of time (preferably two weeks or more). The SAT, unlike other tests, has little to do with what you actually know. What’s more crucial is adopting effective test-taking strategies and getting to know the types of questions they ask.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you prepare for the SAT: Khan Academy, prep books (which can be checked out at most libraries), friends who have done it before, YouTube videos, and more. Although there are downsides to overdoing the SAT, it doesn’t hurt to take multiple practice tests in the comfort of your own home or school. These may be even more helpful than the actual exam since you’ll have access to the correct answers with explanations. If you find that after independent study, your score still hasn’t improved over a few tries, consider getting professional help. They may have tips for you to improve your performance. No matter what resources you use, just make sure you’re effectively studying for a long enough period before exams.

That was a lot, I know. And you still may be like “Okay, so what’s the number?” The short answer is somewhere around 2. It really depends. The biggest takeaway from all of this should be to start early. I know it’s the most clichéd advice in the book, but it’s true. Plans change, and schools are always getting more competitive, so give yourself enough time to organize around unexpected results. If you wait until the last chance to take the SAT, a minor inconvenience like a headache or running late could make a difference in your college admissions.

If you’re already short on time, don’t fear; you can still do well. The second biggest takeaway should be that the amount you study is really the determining factor. The student who takes the test once after effectively studying can do better than the one who took it four times without studying. If you prepare, there’s nothing stopping you from scoring your ideal score on the first try.

Good luck!

This blog post was written by Mariam Diallo

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