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  • Jason Flurry, CFP

How many times should you take the SAT and ACT?

Answering your questions about how much is too much and how to know if you’ve done enough

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the SAT and ACT. Most of them have been related to when should I take it, how often should I take it, and are my current scores good enough so that I don’t have to take it again? I’ll address each of those here in case you have some of the same questions.


When should you take the SAT or ACT? It used to be that taking standardized tests were just one more thing you did when planning to apply for college. There wasn’t the same level of focus and intensity then as there is now on making the “right score” to win big scholarships or get into the colleges of your dreams. But, over the past 10-15 years, we’ve seen the landscape become much more competitive. That’s due in part to sheer numbers of students that are coming through the ranks and applying for college. The college demand is much greater than the college supply, and colleges know it.


With more prospects than seats to fill at most colleges, admission offices can be picky. Good grades alone are not enough to ensure success anymore. You now need good grades and rigor…and good activities…and good recommendations…and strong character traits…and, of course, good test scores. High schools vary in their levels of competitiveness and every person’s situation and background are different, so activities, recommendations and character development can be very subjective too. What isn’t subjective are standardized test scores. After all, they are standardized for a reason, right?


Ideally the best time to begin taking the SAT or ACT is in the second half of the sophomore year or any time during the junior year. Once your students have taken the math that is covered on the SAT and ACT, they’re usually ready for a go at it. Give them a couple of practice tests and sign up for the real thing whenever it makes sense for them. This first crack at everything will give you a baseline number to work with and show you which areas need attention in order to improve future results.


It takes 2-3 weeks to get your results back and you’ll likely need a little time in between test efforts to prep for the next time. The main thing to remember is you want to have all of your test results back BEFORE you begin to apply for college in the early part of your student’s senior year in high school. Having a complete package for the colleges to review early in the admission cycle can definitely increase your chances of success.


If you haven’t completed everything by the time school starts back for your student’s senior year, have them complete SAT or ACT as soon as possible. You’ll indicate on the admission application whether or not they’ll be taking it again. If the answer is yes, it tells the college more information is on the way. That can crate delays in getting your applications approved, but if it’s your only option, try to wrap things up and get the colleges everything they’ll need to accept your student as soon as possible.


How often should I take the SAT or ACT? Most students take their SAT or ACT (or both) at least twice. You can take it as many times as you’d like, but once you get past 3-4 times, it begins to look a little squirrely to the colleges. Plus, unless something meaningful changed from one test effort to another, you reach a point where taking it again doesn’t provide any additional hope for improvement. That’s usually around 3 times for most students.


If you’re close to reaching a new threshold and qualifying for a higher level of scholarship, definitely try again and prep like crazy to improve your chances of success. I’ve found that it’s easier to answer why you took SAT or ACT so many times than it is to settle for less than what you deserve because you were worried the college might look at you sideways with another test score. Merit scholarships are often linear in the sense that if you hit the numbers, you win the prize. They don’t put restrictions on how many times you can or can’t take SAT and ACT in order to win. Take it as many times as you need, but don’t waste your time and money if you see things beginning to level off. That’s probably as good as your student is going to do. Accept it and shift your focus to making sure the rest of his or her application is solid.


Are my scores good enough that I don’t need to take ACT or SAT again? The answer to this question has everything to do with the colleges on your list. If you’re applying in state and your current numbers are within the range of what your particular colleges usually accept, then you’re probably done. File your applications early, do them well, and wait to be accepted.


If your college has an Honors College and that’s something you’re interested in, sometimes they will require higher test scores than the Admission office does for acceptance into the university. Check with the Honors department to see what’s required and what’s recommended. If your numbers are shy of reaching those levels, you should plan to take your SAT or ACT again.


If your test scores are good enough to likely get you into the colleges you’ve selected, take a look at what thresholds are required to qualify for merit scholarships. A difference in 1 ACT point or just a few SAT points could bump you up to another level – and save you between $4,000 and $6,000 each year on your college bill. Most of these merit scholarships are renewable all 4 years your kids are in school, so spending some extra time and money prepping to reach that next level could provide a HUGE return on your investment.


Finally, if you’re looking at top tier colleges and universities, like Ivy League schools for instance, every little bit of extra sizzle you can add to your application will help. They’re used to seeing strong test scores, so naturally you’ll need similar numbers to stay in the running with the competition. The general rule of thumb for your test scores with colleges like these, and any college really, is the higher the better. Adding points, especially at the higher levels, exponentially increases your chances of getting noticed and awarded tens of thousands of dollars in free money to make college more affordable. Give it your best shot knowing that you have nothing to lose by trying - and possibly something very positive to gain if you hit your goals.


One more thing No matter how good your test scores are they will not completely erase a poor GPA or other negative items in your application. You still need good recommendations, a clean personal and academic record, good activities, and a history of spending your free time wisely and productively to help ensure you get accepted.


If the GPA is good, but not great, a college can sometimes weigh a super high test score disproportionately higher so that it helps offset a less than ideal GPA. This is most commonly done where there was some issue in high school that caused grades to slide temporarily. And, it’s pretty common to see a student struggle in any given year, so if that’s happened in your situation, don’t worry. Simply explain those circumstances in your application and show how it was a one-time thing. Hopefully the colleges will see your student’s true potential reflected in their exceptional test score and in their ability to overcome a challenge. Demonstrate to them that he has what it takes in every other area of his life and maybe they will still give him a chance to show his stuff.


More to come I’ll share more about SAT and ACT strategies in another article later, but take these ideas and use them to your advantage as you’re mapping out your testing game plan. In all my years of working with families, I’ve never heard anyone say they regretted the steps they took to boost their student’s test scores. Just make sure there’s a clear benefit to investing the extra time and money before you try again.

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