This month I’m going to share answers to some of the common questions clients have asked this spring. Today— should we retake the SAT / ACT?

The decision to make another attempt at the ACT or SAT is different this year. Some students haven’t had as many opportunities to retake due to limited test center capacity or other COVID restrictions in their areas. Colleges are responding by extending test optional policies.

Case Studies

Let’s look at these three examples so you can understand some of the factors influencing my advice:

  1. Student #1: High GPA, very involved student, wants to apply to big state universities.
  2. Student #2: Student athlete, 3.5 GPA from private college-preparatory high school. Scored 21 on initial ACT. Retook and now has a super score of 24. May try to play for some academically competitive universities.
  3. Student #3: B student ranked in the top 50% of her large suburban high school. Undecided on colleges; wants to keep options open. Has played basketball for three years and has some school club involvement, but nothing extensive. Highest score is an 1110 on the SAT.

All three struggle with standardized tests. All have previously devoted some (and in one case, very extensive) time to improving scores, but it is a challenge.

Should they try to retake the ACT or SAT before applying to college in the fall?

Student #1

Student #1 has a GPA of 4.85 out of 5.0 and has consistent and significant involvement in a few extracurricular activities. The schools on her list are primarily large state universities like Texas A&M and University of Oklahoma.

She is an ideal candidate for test optional admission. Test optional means the student has the choice whether to send ACT / SAT scores or not. If scores are submitted to colleges, they will be used in evaluating that student for admission. If no scores are sent, the school will only consider what they have received: transcripts, applications, essays, etc. Test optional means students should only send scores that help.

Student #1 has the grades, activities, and can put together a strong application. Her only weakness is her test score (ACT of 24). If she applies without sending her ACT results, her application will focus only on her strengths.

If she retakes the ACT, will she be able to improve her score enough? It might be difficult for her to bring her test scores on par with the rest of her application.

My advice: save the time and effort that could be spent on additional test prep. Instead focus on the application and essays. Be thankful schools are extending test optional policies. Student #1 is the ideal candidate for the test optional model.

Student #2

Student #2 starts to move us into some grey areas. Her grades are pretty good. Unlike student #1, she does not have a top-of-the-class average, but she is a solid student from a highly competitive private school. She’s also an athlete looking to play her sport in college. Her current ACT score of a 24 puts her in the 75 percentile (think of this as a top quarter score.)

Her need to retake the ACT / SAT will depend on a few factors:

  • Where she decides to apply & the average scores at those schools
  • How aggressively particular coaches want to recruit her and the scores they ask her to produce
  • How much she can improve her test scores with extra work

An argument can be made that she may open additional academic and athletic possibilities with higher scores. For those of you unfamiliar with athletic recruitment, it is common for coaches to tell potential recruits they need to meet a particular score range. Coaches are under pressure to recruit talented athletes who also meet academic standards at that university.

Student #2 has some academically competitive schools in mind. Improving her ACT score to a 26 (top 15%) might make the difference at some of these colleges.

The final consideration is how much she thinks she might improve with some time and effort. It has been challenging to study during the school year, but Student #2 could spend this month preparing for the June SAT or wait until school lets out to study for the July ACT.

My advice: take time to research the colleges and their test scores. Possibly contact some of the coaches who have shown serious interest and ask if the current scores will be sufficient. Finally, make an honest evaluation for plans to retake. Will the student really spend time to practice? Does she think she can identify areas for realistic improvement? Test prep efforts shouldn’t reduce the time or effort Student #2 spends on the rest of her applications.

Student #3

Student #3 has average grades and scores. They are not bad, but she wishes they were higher. Her 1110 on the SAT is equivalent to a 22 on the ACT. She knows she will not qualify for automatic admission at most of our Texas universities based on class rank and scores. There is no way for her to improve her GPA or class rank once this semester ends, so her only possible area for improvement would be her test scores.

Student #3 is in a difficult position. She has already spent a lot of time and effort preparing for the SAT and has taken it twice. Her ability to add to her score is in question.

She’s still researching colleges but is getting discouraged because she feels her grades, test scores, and activities are just not strong enough.

Let’s look at a specific example. The University of Houston will offer automatic admission to students:

  • In the 25%-50% class rank who apply without scores but have an unweighted GPA of at least 3.45 in core academic classes. (GPA will be recalculated by UH and will not include elective courses.)
  • In the 25% – 50% class rank who score an 1170 SAT / 24 ACT.

Students who do not meet these standards will be considered for individual review where strong activities and essays are essential for admission success.

Student #3 does not have the 3.45 unweighted GPA in core classes. Her current score of 1110 is close to the 1170 needed for automatic admission. Maybe she could earn 60 more points. She might be successful in the individual review process if she puts a lot of care into her application and essays.

My advice: Like Student #2, Student #3 has to make some choices. Does she think she could do any better if she retook the SAT or ACT? If so, is she willing to study? If not, is she willing to put forth the time and effort on her application to help in the review process?

Conclusion

There isn’t always an easy answer. The extension of test optional policies makes the issue of retaking the SAT or ACT an easy decision for extremely qualified students with high GPAs. Other students find themselves in situations that require more analysis. They may benefit from one more try at either (or both) the ACT or SAT. But extra testing should not take away from the time and effort spent on applications and essays.