Test Prep

5 Things to Scrutinize on Your Test Score Reports Before Retesting


That moment you've been dreading (or looking forward to?) is finally here – the test results are in! But as you skim over your score report looking for the numbers that actually matter, you realize this document looks about as complicated as the test.

Don't worry, we're here to help you interpret this data-heavy report so you can figure out if you should retake the test or not. This essentially involves breaking the report down into its most college-application-relevant components.

Here are five things to analyze on your SAT or ACT score report that will guide you toward your next step:

1. Find Your Score Range

Because we all know that a standardized test isn't the most perfect representation of your skills and abilities, a test score range is much more helpful to colleges who are reviewing your application. Check your score report to find the score range where your total score and section scores fall. Then, search for the average SAT and ACT score ranges on the websites of the colleges where you're applying. The closer you are to the top of their range, the less need there may be for you to retake the test.

2) Break Down Your Total Score

Students too often focus on the overall number, says Nina Berler, a college counselor at the Hudson School in Hoboken, N.J., so she always ask students “to break down the overall number (SAT or ACT Composite) into its components and look closely at the Reading versus the Math scores. "Students who display a significant difference between the Reading and Math scores (what I call 'gap kids') are candidates to retake the test, as it can signal some sort of deficiency or possibly be a red flag in competitive admissions," she says.

3) Check Your Percentile Rankings

Your percentiles for each section score and for the total score allow you to compare your scores to those of other students who took the same test. The number is the percentage of test-takers who scored lower than you did. On the SAT score report, there are two percentiles given, but the SAT User Percentile will be more relevant. When a college is reviewing your application, it will take this percentile into account. For example, the most competitive universities often accept students who are in the 90th percentile or above. You can check the College Board or ACT's most recent list of percentile rankings and matching composite scores to determine which score you should aim for to achieve a certain percentile ranking. To help you decide which areas to focus on before you retake the test, you can also compare your percentiles for each section of the SAT or ACT.

4) For the ACT, Focus on Reading and Math

When it comes to the ACT, Berler emphasizes the importance of your Reading and Math section scores over your English section score, “Which is grammar and punctuation, and Science, which is a high-volume, somewhat quirky section.”

5) For the SAT, Check the Test Scores

Beneath your Section Scores, you'll find three “Test Scores” ranging between 10 and 40: Reading, Writing and Language (these two make up the Verbal Section score) and Math. These specific scores can give you a good indication of the areas you need to work on if you are going to retake the test.

There are quite a few more sections and numbers that are scattered throughout the score reports for both the SAT and ACT – but basically, they are not as helpful in determining your next step. For example, the SAT score report will show you “sub scores” and “cross-test scores,” but you don't need to worry about these – because colleges don't either.

The College Board offers an explanation of its score report here, and you can check out the ACT's score report guide here. If you took the SAT, you can link your College Board account with your Khan Academy account to find further study recommendations based on your scores.

Not happy with your scores? If it was due to lack of time and effort put into test prep, then you should definitely retake the test – just make sure to study this time! If you did study, a lower score could be due to test anxiety. In this case, you should also retake the test since you have already gone through the testing experience once, and this should hopefully give you more confidence the second time around.

Depending on how much money you want to spend and how much time you have before college and scholarship application deadlines, you really can retake the SAT or ACT as many times as you wish – although you're only allowed to take the ACT 12 times total! Just make sure to go through your score report thoroughly and refocus your study efforts based on the weaknesses it reveals.