Just about every senior-year student I’ve worked with has had friends who have taken the SAT as if it were a monthly ritual to be resignedly endured, until he or she was finally able to crawl painstakingly to the mailbox for the very last time to check his or her scores, too exhausted to celebrate the outcome. Those same students most likely had friends who took the test the first time, left the test location and went directly to the public pool (the weather’s always gorgeous when there’s a test to be taken), and were never seen at a test administration site again. Most likely you’ve known students, too, at both ends of the SAT “numbers spectrum.” So where do you fit it?
Most students take the SAT an average of two to three times (If you’re curious about when to take your first swipe, see the article “When To Take the SAT”). In fact, studies have shown that scores tend rather naturally to rise around a hundred points a year for each year following the first SAT – often simply living your life between tests tends to raise your scores! But please note that all those myths you hear that the SAT should be taken at least twice should be treated as such – as myths, that is. There is nothing wrong with taking the SAT only once if you are happy with your first score. In fact, the biggest mistake a lot of students make is treating their first SAT as if it were nothing more than a practice test. In doing so, they downplay its importance and arrive on test day inadequately prepared. One should always arrive at the scene assuming – and well enough prepared – that this test will be the last.
That said, there is no penalty for taking the SAT multiple times; in fact, more than one million students take the test a second time every year (fewer take it a third). However, the only reasons you should ever retake (either a second or third time – I don’t recommend a fourth; after the third test your time is best spent considering other facets of your application) are
1. if your first test scores are not competitive enough for your colleges of choice,
2. if your score is directly related to scholarship qualifications, and/or
3. if you are certain your scores will improve or
4. if, for instance, you’ll be involved in athletics and haven’t yet achieved the predetermined score that, say, the NCAA requires of you – but that’s a whole new ball game.
If you decide you need to take the test a third time, you might want to focus on the “cold feet” you might be getting on test day as opposed to your factual knowledge.
Anxiety is a close second to lack of preparation when it comes to the explanations behind bad scores – if you know you’ve put the work into the first two, but still don’t have the score you want, focus instead on how to keep your cool during the test. And if you feel like you’ll need up until the last minute to prepare, just count six weeks back from the application deadlines of your colleges, and schedule your last SAT then – that’s about how long it takes for the SAT to be scored and the score report sent.
Those of you who are currently seniors are likely torn between other myths you’ve overheard about how colleges account for your scores once they receive them. While colleges do not average the tests, many colleges will either take the highest scores from sections of each sitting, or will take your highest combined score from a single day. As you’re biting your nails over this, consider that the first person to scan your scores might have been told only to care about your highest composite score, and will be highlighting or transferring that number for the admissions counselor to look at. Some of the more competitive colleges have suggested in the past that it’s a bad idea for you to take the SAT more than three times – I would agree with them, though only for the sake of your sanity. “Moderation is the key to health and longevity” is a commonplace platitude for a reason: By your third run you should indeed have ironed out all the kinks – some even say that by the third you’ll have reached your optimum score.
Of course, the College Board’s current policy is that you have the option to withhold any of your scores. Any hitches, you ask? Just two, and they might be minimal:
1. You will only be able to choose which scores to send by test date, not mix and match the highest-scoring sections the way some people believe college admissions folks have been doing for you all these years, and
2. Score Choice will be optional – which means if you forget to select it, all scores will be sent automatically.
As a final reminder, when scheduling test dates, please remember that you can’t take the SAT and the SAT II (Subject Tests) on the same day – though you can take up to three SAT IIs on the same date. Also consider that you need to sign up for tests about a month in advance – and the earlier you sign up, the higher your chances of getting placed in a test center convenient to you. I suggest you break out a calendar and start setting dates at the beginning of your junior year – you can make changes as your scores come back and your studies progress. The students I’ve seen begin their preparations early are the students that (unlike many of their friends) aren’t going grey in November of their senior year, still trying to decide what colleges they want to attend, writing all their essays at once, and taking crash courses to learn English grammar for the first time. Even if it seems too early to be studying, I can guarantee you it’s likely not.