ACT and SAT scores are driving forces when it comes to getting into your target schools. It's straightforward enough to figure out the average scores of admitted students at a given college — most schools offer this information on their own websites and they're listed in our book Complete Book of Colleges. But there's another factor to keep in mind: How many times should you take a test in order to get the score you (or the school) will like?
How Many Tests Should I Aim to Take?
It's a good question, especially because there's otherwise no limit to the number of times you can take the SAT. (For the ACT, there's a cap of 12 administrations.) Breathe a sigh of relief, then, because I do not recommend sitting through all the ACTs you're allowed, nor do I encourage you to take advantage of unlimited SATs. To hit the sweet spot for both you and college admission officers, I suggest taking the ACT and SAT about three to five times, at most.
About 120 colleges, including many Ivy leagues and schools in the University of California system, will require you to send all of your official test attempts. Think about the message you're sending by having a long list of test sittings. It might suggest that you're taking tests less seriously than other candidates, that you struggle with study skills or proper preparation for big assignments, or that you're quite simply at a financial advantage (these tests aren't cheap!). Which of these do you want to avoid? All of the above!
Now, if you received your ideal score on your first attempt, great! You don't need to retake the test. But keep in mind that it won't make a negative impression if you do. Plus, it could give you an extra edge — many students see at least a minor increase on the second attempt. Of course, be aware that the higher your initial score, the less likely you are to see a big improvement.
How Can I Keep the Number of Attempts Low?
If you ran out of time before the test to prep the way you'd hoped and your score reflects that, don't be discouraged! The majority of test takers take the ACT or SAT at least twice, so a redo is totally acceptable. But if you're going to give it a second go, you want to learn from the first time and prepare accordingly.
Now, when I talk about limiting the number of tests you take, I'm talking about the number of officially reported tests. To prepare, I strongly recommend taking practice tests for both the ACT and SAT. Doing one for each can be an indicator of which test style works better for you, as there are subtle variations between the two that can make one test trickier for you than the other! From there, you can determine which to focus on with proper test prep. Familiarizing yourself with the test format will help you recognize the types of questions you struggle with. By comparing your answers to the test and sample questions immediately after, you can see any silly mistakes or questions you misread; it'll also show you which concepts you might just need to study.
Whether you absolutely adore taking standardized tests and wait excitedly for test dates to roll around, or you watch the date approach on your calendar with dread (and laugh reading the first part of that sentence), there is definitely a sweet spot to aim for in the number of testing administrations. Hopefully, knowing that it's never frowned upon to take a test more than once will help to reduce the pressure you put on the entire process. From there, dedicated test prep classes and/or books like our ACT Prep and Cracking the SAT can help, providing you with breakdowns of each section and their various question types. With a strategic approach, you'll be well on your way to your target score.