How many times should you take the SAT/ACT?

By Rajkamal Rao


If you ask a parent a simple question: "How many times would you have your children take the SAT/ACT?", you can be sure of getting different responses.

Twice is the most popular, although three times is not uncommon. Some parents may even say four times.

But you rarely hear "just once." And this has baffled us.

Why not just once?

There are very few things that children do in school that they repeat. You don't retake the STAAR or your end-of-term assessments. You rarely take an AP or IB exam again. But why do we seem to make an exception for the SAT/ACT?

One reason is the way that these tests are marketed.  Both the College Board and ACT pry on families' anxieties by intensely promoting the SAT and ACT as tests in which students can improve their grades if they take the test multiple times. They throw in dubious research which supports their claim that students taking tests a second time often score 100+ points more on the SAT and 3-4 points more on the ACT. While this may be true in many cases, we don't know how students would perform the first time if they're told that there's no option to retake the test to improve their score.

They also talk about superscoring - a practice used by colleges wherein a student's best scores across multiple test administrations are considered - as a way to close their pitch. If you get a 700 on Math the first time you take the test and a 760 the second time, colleges which superscore will take your second test administration for your Math score. If you got a 720 on Reading the first time but a 680 the second time, colleges would take your Reading score on the first test. With colleges being this generous, why shouldn't you take the test multiple times?

There are several problems with taking the test multiple times. First, not all colleges superscore and colleges that do superscore do it differently. Read the College Board's blog on the topic. Even they concede that superscoring is a super confusing idea. 
Second, the idea of taking the SAT the first time more as a dry run should be insulting to most smart students - we have the PSAT for that very reason! 
Third, the Khan Academy, the College Board's official partner for the SAT, has upwards of 2,200 official test questions to practice on, in the comfort of home.
Fourth, the College Board's own inventory of 8 official tests - previously administered - gives students the chance to take the SAT 8 times at home before going to the test center. Click here for our post on how best to prepare for the SAT/ACT for free.
The College Board knows all of the above well - which is why they offer Score Choice which allows students to select which scores or sets of scores they want to send to a college. With Score Choice, students can control which score reports, by test date, will be sent to each college. Our point is if that the College Board lets you junk certain scores, why should you even take a test when you're not that well prepared?
There are several advantages to taking the tests just once. Prepare well - really well - and go take the test. If you feel you're not prepared enough, postpone the test date to the next available date and prepare in the interim. But go with the mindset that you are only allowed to take the test once, and that your career depends upon it.

Sure, this elevates your stress level a bit but there are lots of circumstances in high school where you're not permitted a do-over. Your all important National Merit Scholarship Test depends only upon your PSAT-11 test, which is given only once. When you apply to colleges and you're invited to an interview - like for job interviews throughout your career - you can only do this once. Life rarely gives you second chances for the same opportunity, so let's start tuning our minds to this grim fact.

Think about the stress levels after you complete the SAT/ACT knowing that you have done well. You never have to worry about taking them again - which frees up time to focus on grades and extracurricular activities.

Our takeaway

Take the SAT or ACT just once and hit a home run. The collateral benefits of so doing are numerous.

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