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How Do Colleges View Multiple Attempts at the ACT/SAT?

Standardized tests can be a key factor in college admission and scholarship awards.  As a result, students often take the SAT or ACT more than once, attempting to earn the highest scores possible. Understanding how colleges view multiple attempts at these tests can help you decide if you should take one again

Multiple Attempts Are Common

If you are considering taking the ACT or SAT for a second or third time, you are not alone.  Nationwide, most students will take their choice of test two or three times.  However, simply retaking these exams will not improve your scores.  Before retaking either the SAT or ACT, many students find it beneficial to review content, calm their nerves, or learn how to employ different test-taking strategies.

Colleges Use Your Best Scores

Colleges and universities understand that students will take entrance exams multiple times, and will use your best score. Don’t worry that admissions officers will see multiple attempts at the test; this is the norm. But don’t think colleges will be impressed with your effort. They want to see results and don’t care that you’ve been diligent in retaking the SAT or ACT.

There is no limit on the number of times a student can take the SAT or ACT. I like to use common sense as a guide—more than three attempts is unlikely to result in better scores unless a student has devoted considerable time and effort to improvement. Colleges do not penalize students for multiple attempts. Unlike with some graduate school exams, colleges do not average ACT/SAT scores.  They will determine students’ best scores using one of two methods:  “superscoring” or single highest results.

Some Schools Superscore

Superscoring refers to the practice of compiling a student’s highest scores, even if they come from different test dates. The practice of superscoring started with the SAT. Let’s consider this example:

                    Reading/Writing          Math               Total

Oct SAT         560                             700                 1260

Jan SAT         610                             660                 1270

Superscore    610 (Jan)                   700 (Oct)           1310

This student clearly benefits from the practice of superscoring where he/she has a total of 1310—a real plus if a program requires a minimum SAT score of 1300.

Some colleges have started to superscore the ACT, but that practice is less common. It is also common for a school to superscore the SAT, but not the ACT, so be sure to ask if you are focusing on the ACT.

Superscoring allows students to focus on improving one graded section at a time without having to worry about their results on the other portion. It can also save you from an additional attempt at the test if a college is willing to superscore. But make sure to check with every school on your list to learn their policies.

Some Schools Use Single-Highest Results

Other colleges and universities prefer to use a student’s best scores from a single test date.  For a student who has taken the SAT multiple times, the college would look at the total of both sections and use the results from the test date on which the student earned the highest total score. From the example above, the total from the January test (1270) is the student’s highest total, so would be the score used. For the ACT, colleges would look for the best composite score.

If you plan to retake the ACT / SAT and send your scores to colleges using this calculation method, you have to pay attention to all areas of the exam in order to improve your total score.

Colleges Tell Applicants What They Want

Students should look at all the colleges on their list and determine how each school evaluates standardized scores.  Most colleges and universities are forthcoming with their policies, often posting them on their websites.  Regardless of how a school calculates your best scores, they may request that you send results from all test dates. If a particular school does not request all scores, you can use score choice options to send only your best results.

In this day of highly competitive college admissions, you need for colleges to see your best ACT & SAT results.  Understanding how colleges view multiple attempts at these tests can help you plan your own test-taking and college admissions strategies.

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Free Tool to Help Decide if Your ACT / SAT Scores Are Good Enough

“Are my ACT (or SAT) scores good enough?”

This is a popular question that follows many high school juniors and their families. Along with other questions: Should I retake the test? Try taking the other exam? Will these scores be enough? Am I competitive for XYZ University?

There is no absolute answer. In many cases test scores are just one of many factors colleges evaluate when making admissions decisions. But there is a way to see if your scores measure up compared to other students who were admitted to the schools you are considering.

In this video, I’ll show you how to use the College Search feature on the College Board website to evaluate your test scores.

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Key Standardized Tests You May Need This Spring

SAT ACT test taking


Now is a good time to plan all standardized testing for the remainder of the school year. Most families with juniors know it is time to take (or retake) either the SAT or ACT. But there are some other testing issues that may not be so obvious.

Here are some considerations based on your student’s grade level:

Freshman (9th Grade)

Freshman typically have few requirements outside of classroom tests and state-level exams. However, there are some exceptions (and opportunities to get ahead.)

PSAT – If your student took the PSAT in October 2016, you can review scores online at CollegeBoard.org. You may need to create a student login; be sure to save this information because over the next four years you will need it. Your school’s guidance counseling department can help with the information you may need to create a College Board account.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – AP Exams are designed to test students’ knowledge of the curriculum covered in Advanced Placement courses, high school classes that are designed to teach the equivalent of a first-year college course in the particular subject. AP Exams are hard and most high school freshman struggle to develop the analytical and writing skills necessary to do well on these tests. If your student is taking an AP class (not pre-AP, but actual AP), you should hear more from the teacher or guidance counselor about signing up for and taking the AP Exam. This year’s AP exam schedule is available online.

SAT Subject Tests – Very few freshman will find themselves in a situation where they should consider taking an SAT Subject Test this spring, but it is possible. Freshman who are taking AP U.S. History or AP World History should consider taking the Subject Test in May or June. Subject Tests are appropriate for underclassmen when they are taking an advanced course in a subject they will not continue with the following year.

For example, a student taking advanced Algebra would NOT take the math Subject Test because he or she will take another math class in 10th grade. But a 9th grader who is finishing AP World History and will take a different type of history next year may want to take the SAT Subject Test this spring when his knowledge of world history is at its zenith. It is rare for freshman to take other advanced classes that correlate to Subject Tests, but occasionally I will meet one taking AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or language (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.)

To learn more about the SAT Subject Tests, you can read “SAT Subject Tests: Should You Take Them and When?


Sophomores (10th Grade)

Like freshman, most sophomores are still a little early to worry about testing related to college admission, but there are some important exceptions.

PSAT – Like freshman, sophomores who took the PSAT in October should login to their College Board accounts and see their results. Because they will take the SAT as juniors, sophomores should spend additional time reviewing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan for improvement.

Sophomore PSAT scores are key in identifying potential National Merit Scholarship candidates in time to prepare for next October’s exam. If you have a 10th grader scoring in the 90th percentile or above, you may want to give serious consideration to whether he or she can score well enough next fall to earn recognition and, if so, what type of study plan you should follow to pursue this opportunity. For more about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships, read this article.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. I strongly recommend all student enrolled in an AP class take the AP Exam. You do not need to send scores to colleges for admissions consideration, but some universities will accept strong AP results in place of the SAT or ACT. (See NYU’s testing policy as an example.)

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussion of these tests under freshman year. More sophomores may be in a position to take Subject Test exams this spring. As I write this I’m thinking that I need to sign my own daughter up for the May test date. The week before the May 6 SAT administration (SAT Subject Tests are given on the same Saturdays as the SAT.) she will take the AP U.S. History and AP Spanish Language exams. Why not take those Subject Tests while the material is fresh in her mind!


Juniors (11th Grade)

Junior year is full of admissions testing. The sooner you can finish with standardized exams, the sooner you can turn all of your attention to the college search and application process.

SAT / ACT – Every college or university that requires standardized tests for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT—with no preference given to either one. Many juniors have already taken the ACT and/or SAT this school year, but most students take these exams more than once because colleges look at a student’s best score. If your junior hasn’t taken the ACT or SAT or isn’t satisfied with his or her scores, make plans to complete your testing soon.

PSAT – Hopefully you have already accessed your results online and started working on areas of weakness. If your student scored extremely well on the PSAT, you will want to keep your eye out for National Merit communication. Typically National Merit doesn’t release semi-finalist information until the start of a student’s senior year, so be patient.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. Juniors really should be taking AP exams for all of their AP courses. Yes, the tests are hard. No, not everyone will earn a score which qualifies for college credit in the future. But the process of studying for a tough, comprehensive exam is great practice for college.

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussions above, but this is the time to complete all the Subject Tests you may need for fall. This means it is time to take Literature, Mathematics (highest level you can), and any other key subjects or those that may be required by colleges on your list. Students can take three Subject Tests on any test date, but keep in mind you cannot take the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. So many juniors will take Subject Tests in May and retake the SAT in June.

Spring is a busy time for everyone. We all have end of the year activities so it is vital to plan ahead to avoid schedule conflicts.




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When Is Another SAT or ACT Unnecessary?


When Is Another SAT or ACT Unnecessary

Earlier this week I got an email from a friend asking what her senior son needed to do about the ACT. He was scheduled to take the exam this Saturday, which also happens to be homecoming. (No thanks to the school administrators who thought it was a good idea to schedule homecoming on the first ACT test date of the school year!)

My friend’s son took the SAT last spring and made an 1150. Should he push to take the ACT this Saturday and forgo some homecoming festivities or focus on October test dates with the option of doing additional test prep?

My answer might surprise you.

I told her to forget testing. Let him go out and have fun with his friends for his senior year homecoming and don’t bother taking the test again in October.

You see, additional testing isn’t always necessary, or recommended.

Background Information

First, my friend and her son have undergone considerable upheaval in their personal lives over the past few years. Test scores, or even college admission, haven’t been the family’s primary focus.

The son took the SAT, new format, last spring and scored an 1150. He would like to attend Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

Here is where a little research can really pay off.

Texas State, like many of the state universities here in Texas, has standards for automatic admission based on class rank and test scores. Before I could advise my friend on how to proceed with the ACT or SAT, it would help to know her son’s class rank. He is in the second quarter of his graduating class.

Here is what anyone could find on the Texas State admissions website:

Texas State University Automatic Admission 2016

Texas State University Automatic Admission 2016


You can see that a student in the second quarter needs the following scores for automatic admission:

Old SAT (reading plus math): 1010

New SAT: 1090

ACT: 22

So with no further testing this student with his 1150 on the new SAT already meets the entrance requirements for Texas State University.

Additional testing wasn’t necessary. This student could enjoy homecoming weekend and use the time he may have studied for the October ACT to complete his applications. What high school kid doesn’t have something better to do than take a standardized test?!!

When Is Another SAT or ACT Unnecessary

Obviously, the story of my friend’s son clearly shows additional testing was unnecessary. Here are some times where I would pass on the extra ACT or SAT:

  • When a student has met the criteria for automatic admission at his or her top choice school.
  • When a student has taken the exam three times and has already devoted significant time and effort to studying and test preparation.
  • When a student has exhausted all reasonable means of score improvement and sees little opportunity for improvement in taking the test again. (In other words, taking a class, working with a tutor, or studying more doesn’t offer much hope for improved scores.)
  • When time and energy are limited and a student has to choose between efforts spent on the application and effort spent on retesting. Typically this applies to seniors trying to do everything in the fall when a choice has to be made to prep for another test or work to develop a strong application because the student can’t do both.

The first scenario was easy; all goals can be met without higher test scores. The other scenarios are a little more complicated.

Over the years, after working with thousands of students, I found that there tends to be a limit to how much test prep will help a student increase his or her scores. At some point the student and his or her family need to turn attention from test scores to the actual application. A student may get more benefit out of 10 hours of focused effort on essay writing and application construction then she would get from studying and taking the ACT again.

When Is Another ACT or SAT Recommended

Because it can be a judgment call to take the ACT or SAT for a second, third, or possibly fourth time, here are some things to consider. One more test is recommended:

  • When a student is close to the score needed for one of his or her top choice schools. For me, close is up to 3 points on the ACT or up to 150 points on the SAT.
  • When the student is a junior and has only attempted one standardized test.
  • When standardized test scores are noticeably lower than a student’s grades. Another way of saying when the test scores draw attention to themselves because they are out of character with the rests of the application.
  • When a student would benefit from higher scores and hasn’t put much effort into score improvement.
  • When the student wants to retake. Even if actually unnecessary for admission, this test is more about the student working to achieve a personal goal.

Arguments for taking another exam are based on the need for higher scores, available time to retest, willingness to engage in some type of study or test preparation, and student interest in the process.

Just a Test

I’ve seen some parents and students confuse the issue by assigning meaning to the ACT and SAT that just isn’t there.

Whether a student chooses to take the ACT or the SAT, it is just a test. It does not predict success in college (or life.) It does not evaluate academic ability or what a student has learned. It is just a test—an important test for admissions, but just a test.

Additionally, college admissions officers are looking at ACT and SAT scores. They are not looking for more than standardized results in English, math, reading, and science. They don’t wonder why James scored lower in math when he took the September test. And they aren’t proud of Lauren for putting in the effort to take the test another time. Students show effort and dedication in course selection, classwork, and extracurricular activities. These are not traits colleges look to find in one’s ACT or SAT scores.


More isn’t always better, especially when it comes to the ACT and SAT.

Planning ahead and doing your research can really pay off. First, you might save the time, struggle, and cost of another standardized test. Second, you can significantly reduce stress around testing and college admissions by planning ahead. Third, you can use your college research to guide your ACT and SAT plans and goals. Finally, you can give yourself permission to stop chasing higher scores and focus on more meaningful activities.


I hope those students taking the ACT on Saturday morning are calm and focused so their scores are appropriate reflections of their abilities. I’ll be in the stands rooting for our high school football team at the homecoming game this weekend. I want all students to enjoy these celebrations responsibly.

Whether it is a high school homecoming celebration, college football season, or just a weekend with friends, remember that indulging in alcohol or drugs can lead to questionable behaviors that put lives and futures at risk. Have a safe fall!