Test Prep

Should You Have a Target Test Score? And What Happens When You Reach It?

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If you're on the track team, do you set a goal for what time you want to beat on your next 100-meter dash? When you're preparing for a swim meet, are you trying to beat the current record? Of course you are. You're competing with yourself, and you're competing with other school teams. It's no different when you're preparing for the SAT or ACT test.

Having a score in mind, to reach or beat, is what keeps you going. A target score gives you direction and keeps you motivated. Not only that, but studying to achieve a better test score can win you substantial scholarships and get you into the college of your dreams.


To make sure you're setting the right goal for yourself, there are several factors you should take into consideration. Carroll Easterday, a college counselor at Bender Rocap Educational Services in Indianapolis, Ind., is a big believer in a long-term, holistic approach for figuring out how to set your target test score.

“Students need to think about their 'fit'. What are their career aspirations, their passions? They don't need to already have passions for a certain career, but they can take a couple of free, career interest inventories to assess what kind of trajectory they might want to work toward,” she explains.

If you're looking only at schools that offer a four-year degree (as opposed to a two-year degree), you should take a look at the average test scores of admitted students at your target schools, and aim for the average of those averages.

Review the Score Report in Detail

Because the SAT and ACT are assessments of certain skills that you learn in the classroom, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to the personalized breakdown and analysis in your official score report. Using this information can help you determine which skills to focus on and sharpen in order to improve your score. You can ask your teacher for extra help outside of class, join a study group or hire a private tutor.

If you haven’t yet taken the SAT or ACT, you can review your PSAT or PLAN scores to figure out where you need to concentrate your test prep energy.

Still, the question remains: How do you know where to set your target score? Keep these factors in mind:

- Are you applying to colleges, merit-based scholarships or financial aid that require a minimum test score?

- Which scores have you been getting on your practice tests? If you haven't taken a practice test, you might want to take one soon.

- How important is the SAT or ACT score to the admissions process of the schools you're considering? Not all schools put the same emphasis on standardized test scores. Check the website or talk to someone in the admissions office to find out how heavily your scores will weigh into the admissions decision.

- How much time do you have left to study before the test date?

Once you've answered these questions, remember that your target score still needs to be realistic. If your parents have a different view of what you should be aiming for on the test, you can discuss  your target score with your high school counselor to make sure you aren't putting too much pressure on yourself.

To Retake or Not to Retake?

What if you followed all of the advice for sharpening your test score and you achieved your target? Is it time to relax and start submitting scores to colleges, or should you attempt to raise your scores even higher?

If this is your situation, you should first take a moment to celebrate -- reward yourself for all the hard work you put in. Now, should you take the test again to see if you can get an even better score?

Easterday says students should ask themselves if their latest score meets or exceeds the test score requirements for admission into a school, a particular program within a school (like pre-med or engineering) or for scholarship eligibility. If you answer no to one or more of these, you will likely benefit in taking the test once more.

However, remember that after a certain point, there can be a diminishing rate of return. Easterday points out that  “students should especially be very careful after the third time taking the test. Generally, there isn't a significant change in score.”