Does Retaking the SAT or ACT Look Bad to Colleges?

Guest blog post by J.K. Halsted

It’s a feeling that every high school student dreads: opening the results of your SAT or ACT and not seeing the perfect score you wanted. Whether that goal was a 1500 or a 1250, there’s an inevitable swell of disappointment, insecurity, and worry. Your mind somehow conjures up the harrowing image of your college dreams washing away.

Don’t worry. Silence your neural inquisitor. You will be okay.

Taking standardized exams is almost never like slaying Dracula: one stake through the heart isn’t enough to stop the vampire. Hardly anyone achieves his or her dream score in a single attempt. Most students, no matter their initial level of satisfaction with their first score, end up retaking the SAT or ACT at least once.[i]

But retaking an exam comes fraught with uncertainty. Many parents and students fret about the extra preparation, doing worse on a retake than on the original, and how schools might potentially penalize them. This post seeks to soothe some of those worries, debunk the gold standard set by the one-and-done testing triumph, and answer that oft-asked question: does retaking the SAT or ACT look bad to colleges?

The short answer is no. Retaking the SAT or ACT does not look bad to colleges; it may actually demonstrate your perseverance and improve your score.

Chances are, you’ll do better on the retake than on your first try. Most students do. In a 2015 study, the ACT found that high school seniors who first took the test in their sophomore year achieved a final score that averaged 2.7 points higher than their first score. The SAT hasn’t published comparable statistics recently, but a 2014 study (completed when SAT scores were calculated out of 2400) showed that students retaking the SAT raised their score by 90 points on average.

So… that’s it! The numbers say that you’ll do better if you retake the exam. Fork over that Nobel Prize, Einstein!

Well, not exactly. You’re more likely to see an improvement in your scores because you’ll figure out what topics to spend more study time on, and you’ll know what taking a standardized exam is actually like.

Actually sitting for a standardized exam is the best form of test preparation that you can get. Once you’ve been through the trenches — crunched in a tiny desk, surrounded by dozens of peers, hammered by the persistent hum of a fan — and still powered through an exam, you’ll be able to accurately say what you can achieve under those circumstances. You’ll also find out what exactly you do (and do not) understand. Suppose you flew through rational functions while studying but floundered when it came time to do them on the exam. That’s an indication that you probably cut a few corners in your studying, and you should practice more rational functions in preparation for your retake.

Furthermore, the first time anyone sits for a standardized exam, they’re bound to be nervous. First-time frights are real. Retaking the exam will let you approach the test with more confidence than you had in your first attempt.

Typically, these two advantages — more thorough preparation and increased confidence — are why some SAT consultants may recommend taking your first SAT in March and another SAT in May. After you reevaluate the way you prepare for the exam, your score will likely increase.

Most colleges won’t even consider your original scores. Colleges get it. They understand that we’re human, that we all have rough days, and that one number does not reflect our overall ability. Many colleges, therefore, have adopted a practice called “superscoring.” Superscoring involves dividing your standardized exams into their constituent parts and, in order to evaluate you at your best, considering only the highest of those sections.

For the purpose of retaking an exam, the majority of colleges will ignore your lower score and consider only the higher, especially for the SAT. Policies vary from school to school, so be sure to check each school’s official policy, but the majority of colleges have adopted some form of superscoring. Each of the Ivy League schools, for instance, superscores the SAT. [ii]

The ACT is a little different — schools are more reluctant to superscore the ACT because of its smaller score range and its composite average score — but that’s not to say no school superscores the ACT. Some do, and most others have official “considerations” that seem like superscoring in all but name. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, superscore the ACT; five other Ivy League schools have “consideration” policies, where they consider a student’s ACT superscore but do not officially calculate it.[iii]

But continually retaking exams might not be the best idea. If retaking an exam typically increases scores, some students might want to sign up for every SAT or ACT administration that they can. But if you’ve been preparing effectively, retaking an exam for the fourth of fifth time is unlikely to make any substantial difference.

For one, it’s expensive. Although the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers, exams cost around $50 each per sitting, and costs can rack up quick. But more importantly, scores tend to taper out over time.

So, should you keep retaking the SAT or ACT to improve your score?

Probably not. To borrow some mathematical language, standardized exam scores follow a logarithmic trend (if you already understood that, keep slaying those math sections). In other words, there are major score increases in the beginning, but these dwindle as time goes on. The Collegeboard reports that students see the highest score increase when they take the SAT for the second time — but, after the second testing, a student’s increase in score between exams becomes smaller and smaller. You’re unlikely to see your score jump up 200 points after you’ve prepared and sat for the SAT three times already.

It’s also crucial to weigh the psychological toils of taking another exam. With each exam you take, you’ll have to restudy and give up more time that could be used composing college applications, leading extracurriculars, or working outside of school. Your well-being is more important than any score on an exam.

Have the myths been busted? Retaking an exam will certainly not hinder your college chances. With adequate preparation, your score will typically increase — and that will make you even more competitive in the admissions process. And with superscoring, colleges probably won’t even consider your lower scores.

One-and-done is done. Perhaps we should rewrite Dracula. It’s about time that we slay the vampire not with the single wooden stake, but instead with perseverance highlighted by long-term persistence and practice.

On second thought, that would be pretty bloody.




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