Advice on Retaking the SAT or ACT

The school year is underway, and, for high school seniors, this fall will be their busiest yet. In addition to the usual homework, studying and juggling of extracurricular activities, seniors are frantically writing college essays and filling out applications. It seems like there isn’t a moment in the day to fit in anything else. So it’s not surprising that when a parent or counselor asks, “Do you think you should retake the SAT (or ACT)?” the student’s first impulse might be to say, “I don’t have time.”

So what is the correct response to this often-asked question? The answer will be different for every student. So let’s look at some real-world scenarios.

Do It Right the First Time

Joe is a senior who has been on the varsity baseball team since sophomore year. He took the SAT last May, after completing 10 private, tutoring sessions with an SAT coach. He admits that juggling team practices and games with homework left little time for anything else, so he never completed the homework that the SAT tutor assigned.

Should Joe retake? Yes, but only if he is willing to put in the time to prepare in advance of the test. It is possible for scores to go up, but only with practice and repetition.

Three Times a Charm?

Marie is a hard-working student who has already taken the SAT twice. She is also someone who takes a long time to do her nightly homework and is often up until 1 a.m. completing her studies. She took an SAT preparatory class and completed every assignment and practice test that she was assigned. She increased her scores on the initial test over her PSAT significantly, and then on the second try, increased by 20 points on the math, 10 on the writing and remained steady on the critical reading.

Should Marie retake the test? Marie – resist the call to retake. Chances are you have reached your potential, and now your time would be better spent doing your schoolwork and completing your applications (and please…try to get some sleep).


Emily is a strong student who is applying to several colleges that require SAT subject tests. She was disappointed with her scores on the chemistry and math subject tests, however, she recently discovered that most of the colleges on her list will accept the ACT in lieu of both the SAT Reasoning test and all SAT Subject tests. Her scores on the SAT Reasoning test are very strong.

Should she bother with the ACT? Emily – yes, give it a try. You may find that since you do well in school, that the ACT, which is more aligned with the high school curriculum than the SAT, is a better test for you. If you do well on the ACT, you can send those scores to all the schools that will accept it in lieu of your weaker subject tests. And with score choice being accepted as a policy by most colleges, you do not have to send the ACT if you are unhappy with the score. Remember, you can send both the SAT Reasoning test and the ACT if both scores are strong.

The ACT and Testing Accommodations

Brian takes longer to process information so he gets extended time for tests at school because he has a documented learning issue. He worked with his school to apply for the extended time accommodation through College Board and received approval in advance of taking the SAT last June. He recently did a practice ACT with his tutor and he felt more comfortable with the format of the test. In fact, his scores were higher when compared to his performance on the SAT.He is thinking about trying the ACT.

Our advice to Brian is to apply for accommodations for the ACT, and, if approved, to take the ACT. However, it is important to know that for the ACT  each time you register for online you must click YES when asked if you want the same accommodations for which you were approved previously. ACT does not offer a one-time approval that covers you for all tests you might take throughout high school in the way that College Board does. 

The Mistake of the One-section Focus

Max just wants to improve his critical reading score since he scored 700 and 650 on the math and writing respectively on the SAT he took last May. He heard that colleges will “super score” the tests, meaning they will take the highest score for each section of the test from all administrations. Max figures he can coast through the math and writing this time – he might even skip some of the questions, since he really only cares about improving the critical reading.

Our advice? Max – if this is your plan, we recommend that you do not retake the SAT. Even if the colleges do take the top scores from each test administration, what message do you think you are sending about yourself if you dramatically drop your scores in the other sections? It will look like you do not care enough to take the test seriously or that the initial results were a fluke. Remember, human beings read your application file and they have human reactions – in this case, their response to you may not be favorable.

The Final Word

Still not sure you want to spend yet another Saturday morning taking a standardized test? Retaking the SAT is a good idea if you have only taken the test once so far, and you are willing to put in the practice time in advance of the second administration. For those who have already taken the test twice, keep in mind that students generally have an easier time increasing their math than their critical reading scores because they can learn math concepts they may have missed in school and do repetitive practice drills. It is often more difficult to increase the critical reading score because it is challenging to learn all the vocabulary that one might encounter on a given administration of the test. It is also possible to improve on the writing section with some grammar instruction and practice in organizing one’s thoughts for the essay portion of the writing test.

If you are not happy with your test scores, please don’t despair. There are an increasing number of colleges and universities that are SAT/ACT optional (visit And while it would be misleading to say that test scores do not matter, because they clearly do at many colleges, remember that your grades are the most important component of your college application. Never neglect your homework or study time for your courses in favor of studying for the SAT or ACT.

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