Standardized testing can be among the most stressful parts of the college admissions process. Not only do the results from just a few tests have an outsized impact on your application, but also the test-taking experience itself is grueling. No one – and we really do mean no one – enjoys waking up at 6:30 AM to take a test for 4 hours. Despite this, many students take their tests multiple times, for some 3 or 4 sittings. The logic behind putting oneself through the excruciating test-taking process so many times is that with repeated sittings, test scores will, supposedly, steadily improve. But to what degree is this actually true? Is it worth it to take your standardized tests more than once? Read on for our advice on retaking standardized tests.

 

The Law of Diminishing Returns

 

One of the most fundamental principles of economics is the law of diminishing returns: the idea that the more an action is repeated, the less value can be derived from it. This concept is one you should definitely keep in mind when deciding whether or not to take standardized tests. As a general rule, the more times you take a test, the less you’ll see your score increase with each subsequent sitting.

 

This is because the major factors that can lower your score initially, like nervousness, unfamiliarity with the test, unpreparedness, or fatigue are likely to diminish each time you take the test. While you may see a significant jump between your first sitting and second sitting results, you will have to study increasingly more past that point in order to see significant score increases.

 

As a result, typically the wisest course of action, at least for major exams like the SAT I or the ACT, is to retake a test once. There are some circumstances where a third sitting can be warranted, but a fourth is almost never necessary and will probably cause more stress than it’s worth. (Admissions officers have also stated that they don’t like seeing you take an exam more than 3 times.)

 

Tests like the SAT IIs, also referred to as Subject Tests, play a less important role on your application and it is rarely worth taking any single subject more than once. Most colleges  also only require you to submit 2 Subject Test scores, so you can take several and only send the results of the tests you performed strongest on.

 

Under What Circumstances Should I Retake Standardized Tests?

 

Many students assume they should take the SAT or ACT at least twice, regardless of what their initial score is. In truth, you shouldn’t sign up for a retake by default; take some time to consider whether you’re happy with your initial score and whether it’s in the range for the schools you’re interested in.

 

If you score a 28 on the ACT initially and your sights are set on Princeton, you should probably consider a retake. However, if 28 is in the range of your dream school, you are by no means obligated to take the test again. Sure, a second sitting and a shot at a higher score can’t hurt, but weigh the benefits and costs: if you don’t need to put yourself through the rigmarole of testing again, why would you?

 

If your testing circumstances prevented you from performing to the best of your ability, you may want to consider a second sitting, even if you’re relatively pleased with your initial score. For example, if you suffer from severe testing anxiety, or if someone in your testing room was distracting, your score may not be an accurate indicator of your ability. Students with testing difficulties can request extra testing time, and those with unsuitable testing environments (proctors who fail to follow procedure, loud or distracting environments, etc.), can file complaints with testing services. If these conditions apply to you, you may benefit from taking the test a second time.

 

In addition, many students perform better on their second sitting simply because they feel more comfortable. No matter how many practice tests you’ve taken, your first time taking the SAT or ACT will probably be extremely nerve-wracking, partly due to the touted importance of these tests in your application, and partly because you’re about to be taking a test for 4 hours straight! Students who take their tests more than once often perform better because they’re more at ease and know exactly what to expect. Oftentimes a score increase can be attributed more a student’s confidence level than anything else.

 

Finally, if you’re considering a retake, take a moment to reflect on your degree of preparation. If you neglected your test preparation and only took one practice test before jumping into the real thing, your scores are probably not an accurate indicator of your maximum potential.

 

I Retook My Test Once and I’m Still Not Happy with My Score – Now What?

 

If you’ve taken the SAT twice and you’re still not pleased with your score, you have a couple options. First, you can consider giving the ACT a shot – or if you’ve taken the ACT, vice versa. Many students struggle with one test but excel on the other, due to the different skills tested in each test and their dissimilar formats.

 

If you’ve taken the SAT and you’re only looking at your composite scores, you may not have to test again at all: many schools accept a “superscored” SAT, where they take your highest score in each category across all sittings rather than your total score from a single sitting. For example, if you scored a 650 in the Verbal section of the SAT and at 710 on Mathematics the first time you took the SAT, and a 700 in Verbal and 670 in Mathematics the second time, colleges would consider your score to be not a 1360 nor a 1370, but rather a 1410. Unfortunately, if you’ve taken the ACT, this probably doesn’t apply to you; few colleges accept “superscored” ACT results.

 

Contrary to what you might believe, test results are not the be-all end-all of your college application process. Students with strong academic and extracurricular profiles who struggle with the high-pressure environment of standardized test-taking have the option of applying to test-optional colleges. Test-optional schools, such as New York University, do not require students to submit an ACT or an SAT score in order to be considered for admission.

 

However, test-optional schools often include a caveat to their testing policy – for example, they make require test scores from out of state students, or require test scores other than SAT or ACT scores, like SAT Subject Tests or AP tests. Be sure to thoroughly research your school’s test policy to ensure not submitting ACT or SAT scores will have no adverse effect on your application.

 

If you feel that scoring higher on your SAT or ACT is integral to achieving your goals for the college admissions season, you may also opt to test for a third time. As mentioned earlier, score increases tend to be diminished with subsequent test sittings, so this decision shouldn’t be made unless you’re ready to put the work into your preparation.  

 

If you plan to sit for a third test, you should begin by putting together a comprehensive test prep plan. Playing it by ear and hoping you’ll just happen to do better the third time around probably won’t get you the scores you want; start by pinpointing your weaknesses on previous tests, such as test anxiety, issues with timing, or difficulty on a certain section. Then, create a prep plan that will allow you to address these issues. If you know the content, but timing is tricky, performing timing drills can help you finish all the questions in the allotted time. If you’re solid in mathematics, but your reading comprehension tends to be weaker, you might prepare by quickly reading and summarizing passages to develop comprehension skills.

 

Admissions Hero’s ACT Tutoring services help students pinpoint their weaknesses and create effective test preparation plans with the help of our team of experts.

 

Standardized testing is without a doubt one of the most stressful components of the college admissions process. Unfortunately, the current college admissions culture encourages retaking of tests ad nauseam without putting much thought into the decision, which only piles more work and stress upon already busy students. Approaching the test-taking process with a level head can take a great weight off your shoulders. By considering all your potential options, you can save yourself the strife of taking countless tests and navigate the college admissions process with as little stress as possible.

 

Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez