How many times should I take the ACT/SAT? Why can’t I just do it once and be done? How far apart should my test dates be spaced?
These are, by far, some of the most common questions I receive from concerned students and parents at the beginning of the test preparation process. And each question is valid and deserves a thoughtful response.
As a general rule, I recommend that any student test at least twice, for various reasons. The first and most obvious reason is simply that, statistically speaking, you are likely to score better on your second test; according to the ACT’s official guide on testing multiple times, over half of students taking the ACT twice will receive a higher score on the second administration. The College Board provides a similar statistic: 2 out of 3 students will perform better on a second exam. For the ACT, most colleges only consider your highest score, so there is no risk in trying again. For the SAT, students are in an even better position: most colleges will super-score the test, meaning that they will select your highest section scores from each test sitting and consider those for your admission decision.
Let’s analyze an example student who scored 1200 on two different test dates. On the first date, she scored 700 on her Verbal and 500 on her Math. On the second test date, she decided to focus on improving in Math; she therefore scored 550 on Verbal but brought Math to a 650. Most colleges will then take her 700 Verbal from her first date and the 650 Math from her second date for an overall score of 1350, a 150-point improvement. This does not happen organically, though. In order to benefit from super-scoring, you will need to submit all of your scores to colleges and then they will super-score your tests, not the College Board.
On the ACT, super-scoring is less consistent across colleges, though that will be changing in September of 2020. Currently, some schools super-score while others do not, so it is in students’ best interest to try to maximize their composite scores on a given test date, which is why testing more than once is also to your benefit on the ACT. By taking the ACT more than once, you are able to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses to better maximize your score on your next test and can use that data in conjunction with your tutor to target areas of weakness in each section, which leads to stronger composite scores.
However, there is a point of diminishing returns after three or so tests. Higher-scoring students have smaller margins of error for improvement, so students scoring in the upper ranges often do not benefit from testing more than two or three times. There is also the simple fact that test preparation is work, and at some point, students are better off focusing on other parts of their applications if they are hitting a plateau after multiple rounds of testing. Remember, it is not merely your test scores that determine whether you are granted admission to a given college. The application process is a holistic one: admissions officers also weigh your grades, extracurricular activities, and volunteering experience, and those should not be shunted to the side in favor of testing closer and closer to application time.
There is a balance to be struck, and I have found that it is generally between two and three test dates. This allows students to have lives outside of test preparation while maximizing scores and giving them the best chance of attending their college of choice.
So, testing multiple times is always to your benefit, but testing too many times is never worth sacrificing other aspects of your application. Aim for two or three attempts at the test, confident in the knowledge that you will almost certainly improve on each attempt, and then move on to the rest of your life. We know this is a stressful time, and our goal is to make it as painless as possible. So trust the process – it works.