Test Prep

Taking The SAT: How Many Times?

Ask a dozen college admissions counselors how many times you should take the SAT and you could get a dozen different answers. My favorite answer to that question is the always-maddening "It depends."

Beyond that, in general, I have more often than not advised my clients that a three-test maximum seems to work best. Obviously, if you're in the high 700s across the board on your first try, then you should probably thank your lucky stars that you nailed it and move on to other challenges. Don't be obsessive and try to bump those 780s into 800s. In my view, that's greedy and, of course, you could always do worse. It's the diminishing returns thing.


For those of you unfamiliar with how the SAT is scored, here's an explanation straight from the horse's mouth (or other end, if you're not a fan of College Board/ETS). If you want to find out what your score "means," check this out.

The SAT is changing, you know. The College Board offers these insights on the redesign:

When students open their SAT test books in spring 2016, they’ll encounter an SAT that is more focused and useful than ever before. Below you’ll find descriptions of the major changes, full test specifications, and extensive sample questions for each section. Learn about the foundational research principles that are critical for student success: Empirical Foundations for College and Career Readiness (.pdf/2.16MB). ...

The spring of 2016 is less than a year away. That raises the questions: (1) What are you doing to prepare? and (2) Is there a good strategy for taking the test?

The other day, I got an interesting release from test prep provider Ivy Bound's Mark Greenstein. What he says pretty much answers both of the above questions. Here's the scoop:

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WHY 2017 GRADS MIGHT WANT TO TAKE SIX SATs in 2015-16

This will sound heretical to those who were in school when students were told “take no more than two SATs”. Some advised this on the erroneous thought that “after two SAT’s you pretty much know your score”. Others felt “even if you did jump a lot higher on the 3rd SAT, colleges will discount the score”. A few would opine “a big jump on your SAT is a sign of test prep, which colleges frown upon”.

Since none of the above is true today, and since colleges admit students without regard to the number of times they test, we’d like ambitious Class of 2017 grads to study for and take the SAT at least four times From October 2015 through March 2016. After that plan on at least two more SATs or ACTs in the junior year.

Given that the colleges truly take the best scores presented to them, and that most SUPER-SCORE, meaning they take the best Math and combine with the best Reading, and possibly the best Writing, using an abundance of test dates is wise.

The Class of 2017, which faces a changed SAT starting in March, should consider the current and New SAT as two avenues to get one good result: an impressive SAT score. As of this writing (May 2015) no college has announced a preference or a requirement for the old or the new SAT. Though a few colleges may express a “new SAT requirement”, most will allow either or both.

Thus the right strategy for 2017 grads: take the SAT, often. Or take the ACT, often.

For ambitious 2018 grads with little to do this summer the strategy is the same:

Take the SAT, often. Or take the ACT, often.

Students preparing this summer and fall have four opportunities to take the SAT before it changes: in October, November, December, and January. We suggest doing at least three of these four.

They should then take the March SAT. Every serious student should take the March SAT. Even students studying for the ACT should take the March SAT. Even if it’s not offered in your state, head to a U.S. state where the SAT is offered. That first “new” SAT in March might have a more forgiving scale. The test-makers can’t use prior scales, so they will guess what a fair scale should be. They might guess badly and give an overly favorable scale. If so, you are the beneficiary! If not, you get a low score, but since low doesn’t hurt when a high score is on the record, there is no blemish. Heads you win; tails, you don’t lose. Our Ascent students know why we think the odds are likely to be on the favorable side, but even without the “why”, trust that if we’re wrong, there is no blemish in your acceptability to colleges. Again...heads you win; tails, you don’t lose.

Whether to take the SAT again in May and/or June is a big question. If a student needs to take SAT Subject Tests, May and June are generally the best times to do so. Unfortunately, The College Board does not allow students to take SAT and SAT Subject Tests on the same date, so for those who lack strong SAT Subject Test scores, our lean is to take them in May and June (yes, you take the same Subject Test 2x in a row, unless you got 780+ the first time). Then use October and November to do the SATs again or September and October to do the ACTs. At that point, studying for the SAT will be similar to studying for the ACT, except the ACT will have the Science Reasoning section that the SAT lacks ...

Is Testing Ten to Fifteen Times excessive?

Given the commotion that the changing SAT has created, it’s certainly reasonable for students to take the SAT or even the ACT (which is changing slightly) 10+ times. We cannot divine what colleges will say in 2017, but every admissions officer asked face-to-face in a May 2015 conference said “number of tests is irrelevant”. You can technically bury the bad early scores prior to applying. This is called “Score Choice”, which ACT and SAT allow. Some colleges dislike this, but have not said what the penalty for burying scores is, or how they would ever know in the first place.

WHICH TEST IS BETTER FOR MY STUDENT in 2015?

Students with weak vocabulary will be hurt on the CR of the current SAT. Someone unable or unwilling to absorb vocabulary who is also a good math person will likely do better on the ACT.

Students requiring double time test face a more arduous SAT than ACT. SAT and ACT length will be similar, but the ACT will be done in a student’s school, on her/his schedule.

Students with no trigonometry are slightly hurt on ACT. However a good coach can address this area fairly quickly, and with 2 – 4 hours of extra effort most students can be ready for the ACT trigonometry.

Students flustered by charts and data interpretation will be hurt on ACT.

Students who are not CAREFUL readers will be hurt more on the SAT.

“Good testers” have an advantage on the current SAT. This includes students willing to undergo coaching to BECOME good testers. The current SAT lends itself more to coaching. Just understanding the guessing advantage alone gives a student an advantage over a good portion of test-takers. And the forced essay on the SAT is likely to yield an advantage for students who can take a short class combined with individualized essay evaluations.

Finally, timing is an issue for more students on the ACT. The College Board expects 20% of testers not to finish the SAT. This figure is misleading though, for it masks the RUSHING and CARELESSNESS that attend students’ meeting tight time restrictions. We estimate 30% – 40% of students rush to finish sections in the SAT. For uncoached-but-diligent students, that figure is probably over 50%. On the ACT, the estimate is that 10% do not finish on time, yet even ACT psychometricians admit this is hard to gauge because with no guessing penalty, virtually all students are filling in answers at the end. Anecdotally we know this:

- ACT English is the easiest to finish on time. Though it has 75 questions, the processing is quick.

- ACT Math is hard to finish on time unless you are an A student in an advanced class.

- ACT Reading is easy to finish on time if you are well-coached, and hard to finish on time otherwise. 

- ACT Science is BRUTALLY hard to finish on time. Even with good coaching, the pacing is furiously fast. We suspect only 2% of students finish the Science section on time comfortably.

A SUGGESTION ON TEST CHOICE:

For students who have ten to fifteen hours to diagnose which test will be better, take two ACTs contained in The Real ACT PrepGuide and two SATs contained in The Official SAT Study Guide. Use the Equating table (which shows relative percentiles) to judge which test is better and then prep only for that one test.

For students who don’t have the time or inclination to make an ACT vs SAT Diagnosis, prep for the current SAT. This allows students to avoid both the Essay and the Science Reasoning, though it foists on them the need for a strong vocabulary. The vocabulary building should be welcomed because it tends to help in other school endeavors, and in life. You may need to take the New SAT to satisfy some colleges, so you’ll do added study after the December test.

Students who know they are not applying to a single college that is concerned with SAT Subject tests have an easier time. They may want to take these subject tests anyways, as they COULD serve as a credential down the road for advanced placement. These are short 1-hour tests that don’t require dozens of study hours like the SAT and SAT require.

Finally, discern whether your student can afford to skip ALL THESE tests. Don’t allow your student to be caught up in testing just because everyone else is. Students who are starting at community college almost certainly do not need to present SAT or ACT scores, and even among 4-year colleges, some have dropped the SAT / ACT requirement. To these colleges, three years of grades and recommendations are satisfactory and they do not discriminate against students who choose not to give standardized test scores.

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Thank you, Mark. There's a lot of wisdom in those words, so take heed.

What's your opinion? Let us know. Give us some feedback below.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.