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A Retake on How Many Times to Take the SAT or ACT

tokenadulttokenadult Super Moderator Posts: 17,472 Senior Member
edited October 2011 in Parents Forum
Xiggi posted an interesting reply


in a thread he opened on a related subject decrying "undying myth of students being penalized for taking the SAT multiple times." I thought I should bring that issue to the fore in a new thread, to which I hope Xiggi will contribute his information, because I agree that there is much worry connected to the issue of retaking admission tests that seems to have no basis in the statements of current admission officers on the issue.

About three years ago I attended the NACAC Minnesota National College Fair, at which I first learned about regional college information sessions, when my son and I were invited to attend Harvard's autumn 2004 information session in my town. Since then, I have attended college-specific information sessions in my town for MIT; Princeton; Caltech; Stanford; a consortium of Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, and U of Virginia; the Colleges That Change Lives consortium; Carnegie Mellon; the Exploring College Options Consortium of Duke, Georgetown, Penn, and Harvard; a consortium of Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Rice, and the U of Chicago; and the new Exploring College Options consortium of Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford. My son attended a Yale information session one evening two years ago when I had another appointment. At most of those sessions the issue of standardized testing requirements was one of the first issues asked about in questions from the audience. I have also read carefully recently published books about college admission, especially preferring books of the "kiss and tell" genre by authors with RECENT experience in college admission offices. I have gradually noticed that there is far more worry among students, and among some of their parents, about retaking a college admission test once or twice than is warranted by any college's policies. Threads about this issue on CC abound (I have found dozens with different formulations of forum searching, on at least seven different forums), and many people pass along undocumented speculation rather than public statements of admission offices when responding to those threads.

I attended the the Exploring College Options consortium (Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford) meeting on 10 May 2007 in Bloomington, Minnesota specifically to ask about this issue. Before the meeting, I emailed ahead to the admission offices of Duke, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford with quotations from earlier CC threads, all publicly viewable threads indexed by Google, in which students asked about the issue of retaking the SAT I. I also included short "fair-use" quotations from some replies (of varying points of view) that those student questions elicited.

After slide shows about each college, the audience of more than 200 students (and many parents) was allowed to ask general questions. I looked around to make sure I wouldn't cut off a student, and then stood up to ask my question. I said that I have seen many online discussions in which a student has taken the SAT I once, and is concerned about taking it again. I asked if that could have a bad effect on how the college would view the student's first score, to report more than one score. The Georgetown admission representative (the only one I didn't write to ahead of time) replied that when there are SAT I retakes after the second time, score increases are not usually seen. But Georgetown counts an applicant's highest score, section by section, and does so even if some of the scores come from the old two-section SAT I rather than the current three-section SAT I.

The Harvard representative, admission officer Julia Topalian, looked me right in the eye as she said, "Take it ten times if you want to; it's not going to hurt you." She continued by saying that test scores are but one element in evaluating applicants for admission, and "how you use your time is important." Harvard will look at what an applicant's extracurricular activities (ECs) are, and taking admission tests is not considered an EC. But specific to the issue of retaking the test, "You can take it as many times as you like."

I thought that was a good response to the groundless worries so many students have about one or two retakes before the final deadline for submitting SAT I scores for an admission application. (By the way, the Harvard representative said in a later discussion specific to questions about Harvard that the first admission test [SAT I or ACT with writing] in the year 2008 will still be timely for class of 2008 applicants in Harvard's new one-deadline application cycle. She also said it is NEVER necessary to rush scores--rushed scores and regular service scores arrive at Harvard at exactly the same time.) Don't worry--don't worry at all--if you think there is a good reason for you to retake the SAT I (or ACT). Do remember that Harvard (and other fine colleges) every year pass over applicants with peak test scores to admit students with lower scores who have other desirable characteristics. There is no special admission wallop to taking the SAT I only once, and no guarantee of admission even with a perfect score. The 2006-2007 Official Register of Harvard University, a publication of the admission office, says, "You may take tests more than once; we consider only your highest scores."

All comparable colleges have similar policies, so this isn't an issue to worry about. I hope this helps the applicants in high school classes of 2008, 2009, and subsequent classes worry less and enjoy their activities more.

Good luck in your family's applications next year and in future years. Have a great Memorial Day weekend.
Post edited by tokenadult on

Replies to: A Retake on How Many Times to Take the SAT or ACT

  • nomadmomnomadmom Registered User Posts: 49 Junior Member
    A very, very helpful post. Many thanks.
  • nngmmnngmm Registered User Posts: 5,708 Senior Member
    I am not sure there is a "one size fits all" answer to this question. I am sure it is generally fine to take it 2-3 times, especially if your scores improve, but even that depends maybe... I saw the following post on one of the threads, and it made a lot of sense:

    Most admissions offices look very carefully at your scores in relation to
    the academic opportunities you have had. We look not only at the actual
    scores, but also at *when you took the test*. If you've taken the test in
    sophomore year, again in junior year, and yet again in senior year, this is
    going to make sense to us as you've read more, you've been writing longer,
    and you've probably had more math. If you take it 3 times in junior year and
    another 3 times in senior year, well, that's a bit much and rather
    ridiculous. Taking the SAT or ACT more than three times over the junior and
    senior years isn't advisable - it looks silly; most students usually take it
    twice, maybe three times, in total.

    This year, I had a student who, on first attempt, scored 790-800-780
    (CR-M-W). The student took the exam another THREE times. Everyone at the
    committee table thought this was nuts...and the other three testings did not
    result in higher scores for the student. It was quite shocking to see, but
    sadly, this student was not the only one I saw this year with monster scores
    taking the test repeatedly. Such behavior certainly sends a message to an
    admissions committee....We are very much interested in understanding *what
    kind* of student an applicant is, and this certainly informed our
    understanding of these students.
  • calmomcalmom Registered User Posts: 17,869 Senior Member
    Tokenadult, I appreciate the time that you have spent sharing your views and particularly the detailed answers you were given at various college information sessions. Thanks!

    However, I have to point out: what that admissions officers say and what they actually do is not the same thing.

    Think about it: the goal of those information sessions is primarily p.r., to attract more applicants. The more applicants that they have, then the better their college looks in terms of selectivity and rankings, and the better array of choices they have among applicants. It is also in the college's interest for their admitted students to have the highest possible test scores ... so why not encourage students to retake the tests?

    But that is not the same as saying that they are going to be blind to the circumstances under which the tests were taken, or that having the highest possible score after multiple retakes is going to help in any way. It is far more likely that any student above a certain threshhold in terms of test scores is going to be selected on the basis of everything else -- the GPA, the class rank, the high school courses, the ECs, the recs, the essays, the hooks or tip factors. They won't hold it against a student who has taken the test repeatedly if they are inclined to admit that student .... but that doesn't mean that they are going to be fooled or even more likely to admit a borderline student based on higher scores after retakes. A kid who doesn't have the right other stuff to get admitted with a 2200 SAT is not going to be more attractive to them with a 2360 -- they have plenty of other kids wit high scores they can still take first.

    If test scores were really, truly important to ad coms -- if they believed that the scores really did tell them something important about the student's qualifications -- then they would not be so casual about the retakes. They would know that the validity of the test as a measure of aptitude or a way of comparing applicants was diminished by a system allowing for extensive prep and retakes -- that a kid who takes the test 6 times and gets an almost perfect score is not smarter or better qualified than a kid who takes the test once in 11th grade and has a score 350 points lower.... on the contrary, the one-time taker's score is far more likely to represent the "real" measure of whatever it is the test measures. In other words, if the test was truly important to them, then they'd want the "purest" score possible, and they'd try very hard to compare apples to apples by focusing on the context in which the scores were obtained.

    So when they say they don't care .... that they will look at the highest score -- it's because it increased scores after multiple retakes really don't make a difference in most cases. Yes, they *take* the highest score, but they also view the application as a whole and they make the decision as to whether to admit on the whole package.
  • KelownaKelowna Registered User Posts: 2,829 Senior Member
    Good point Calmom. I am a believer in just one shot at SAT/ ACT.
  • dadxdadx Registered User Posts: 2,509 Senior Member
    I have always quoted the old Xiggi advice that boiled down to the idea that while possibly there might be some small quesion raised if you took the SATs many times, you could be absolutely certain that no committee would add points to your scores because you only took it once.

    Factor in my own favorite point that the upper quartile break points at the super elites are different for males and females, and I think it makes a lot of sense for a capable male who is just below the published (blended) upper quartile break point to retake the test a time or two to see if he can push over what would be the upper quartile for his gender. Its not for everyone, and you have to believe you can improve,........ but the idea of "taking the high road" by simply testing once doesnt make a lot of sense to me. I see it as misguided. Especially so if you're a great student testing in the 1400s who might break 1500 or more.
  • asteriskeaasteriskea Registered User Posts: 1,210 Senior Member
    I agree with Calmom and especially her last line: "Yes, they *take* the highest score, but they also view the application as a whole and they make the decision as to whether to admit on the whole package" which, I think, pretty much nails it. I do want to thank Tokenadult for his detailed post and this thread because he brings up many important points. For too many students the issue of just how many times to take or retake the new SAT is like a bad penny - it just keeps on turning up. I think it is worth taking a look at not just what the Harvard rep had to say but what the Harvard admissions site faq states on the issue of retaking the test and the whole student package:
    If a student takes the required tests more than once, which results does Harvard consider?
    We consider a student's best test scores, but it is generally our experience that taking tests more than twice offers diminishing returns.


    The admissions site has been revamped since the advent of the new SAT - the general advice doled out a few years back sent the message that the admissions folks kindly tolerated three and even up to four retakes but not more. No doubt too many retakes do send up red flags and send a message of desperation and I think that goes for students going for the gold "perfect score" just as much as those just trying to crack 500 or 600. In this context, too many retakes, regardless of the score, does offer diminishing returns.

    I think that this general advice on the number of retakes - up to three and not more than four for those not happy with their results - still holds although I do get the impression that the new SAT is doing quite of good job of giving an accurate snapshot of academic achievement on the first try. Even so, like dadx, I cannot agree with Kelowna's one shot approach. As more students take the new SAT earlier and more often it does make sense for many schools to push a testing policy asking students to take the test twice or even up to three times over the course of sophomore, junior, and senior years. This testing pattern will probably become the norm at our hs since the SAT is, after all, not an aptitude test but a test of academic achievement on any given day. In this context, a student can show academic improvement and growth with well-timed strategic retakes of the test - especially for those kids scoring in the 500-low 600 range. On this point, thanks to nngmm for the apt quote from adofficer.
  • MarianMarian Registered User Posts: 11,832 Senior Member
    I am a believer in just one shot at SAT/ ACT.

    I am not.

    Especially with the current, appallingly long version of the SAT, the first time through is mostly a learning experience. You don't know what it's like until you've done it.

    If you're lucky enough to get a good enough score the first time, great. My son, who aspired to our state university, got a score substantially higher than what's necessary for admission to that university on his first try. He never took the SAT again, with my blessing.

    But if you are in any way disappointed with your score, taking it a second time -- perhaps with some focused preparation -- makes excellent sense. My daughter, who aspired to very selective colleges, was satisfied with her math and writing scores the first time she took the SAT but disappointed with her score in critical reading. She was also surprised at how long and draining the test was. Before taking it the second time, she did some specifically critical reading-related preparation, and she knew what to expect in terms of the length of the exam. Her math and writing scores changed little (one stayed the same, the other went down 10 points), but her critical reading score went up 110 points on the second try (from 690 to 800). I see no downside to this. Apparently, Cornell didn't, either. They accepted her Early Decision.
  • xiggixiggi Registered User Posts: 25,434 Senior Member
    I'll go right to my conclusion: there is NO universal answer to the question about how many tests are ... acceptable. However, I completely disagree with a conclusion that "this general advice on the number of retakes - up to three and not more than four for those not happy with their results - still holds" because that is a mere marriage of common sense or logic on one hand but also of idle speculation on the other hand.

    Years ago, I posted a challenge for anyone to provide a verifiable proof that a school would hold a negative view towards multiple settings and that schools applied negative criteria to higher scores obtained AFTER multiple sittings. There is yet to be a positive reply!

    As far as the quotation attributed to AdOfficer, it serves little purpose because it answers a different question altogether. Obviously, a student who decides to retake a 2390 needs to reevaluate his or her priorities. While I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the account, I think that we can safely assume that such anecdote only relates to the rarest of the rarest cases, especially when one considers the number of 2390 scores obtained during one sole sitting. This is one obvious reminder that the plural of anecdote is NOT data! When it comes to data on multiple SAT sittings, one could be well served by reading Tom Fischgrund's book titled "1600 Perfect Score" for an account of students who score 1600 and get admitted to Harvard ... after FIVE sittings.

    Further, the statements by AdOfficer also represent his experience at HIS school only ... a school that must be "equipped" with sufficient readers to not only read all the scores but also analyze the patterns of multiple tests. Again, it must be safe to assume that this only happens at private schools that accept a few hundred students per annum and have a total pool of applicants in the mid four digits. By now, we all have read accounts that schools do employ technicians, interns, or junior officers to transfer the application data onto a reading card or reading folder. I believe that the Yale statement I quoted earlier could not be ... more clear: the officers responsible for the admission do NOT the multiple scores and only see the HIGHEST individual scores. Plain and simple, isn't it!

    My conclusion remains the same: a student should not hesitate to take the test as many times he or she needs to score close to the desired score that reflects his or her aptitude AND progress. I base this conclusion on my firm belief that the schools do NOT penalize multiple sittings, as this is firmly defined by a lack of policies that would undermine multiple sittings. If the schools were truly interested in reducing the number of sittings, they would have no problems implementing policies of score averaging, lowering scores after 3 or 4 trials, or any other mathematical formula.

    Does this mean that everyone should embark on an adventure that includes 6 or 7 SATs? Of course not! Does this mean that it makes sense to retake a 2390 as in the example of AO? Of course not! One needs to maintain a bit of common sense. However, a student who finds him- or herself in the 50-75% range at a targeted school should not hesitate to retake the test with the caveat that retaking tests without adequate and dedicated preparation does yield the oft-quoted diminishing returns.

    And that is an entirely different story.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 28,264 Senior Member
    I asked this same question at a session at our high school with admissions officers from Yale, Williams, Dartmouth, and a couple of more Ivy schools can't remember which ones exactly. The Yale admissions officer said, you absolutely don't get penalized for taking it more than once, but that if you took it more than three times she might start wondering why you didn't have better things to do on Saturday mornings. Everyone else nodded. That said, it was my impression that if you were on the edge of being accepted or rejected and they already had the impression that you didn't have interesting ECs or that you were a bit of grade grubber, multiple retakes might harden that impression, but for the most part I don't think they care.

    I know at many schools only the best scores are put on the folder transcribed by a peon in the office. The application readers may not even be aware of how many times you took the test.
  • xiggixiggi Registered User Posts: 25,434 Senior Member
    Here's the excerpt from Yale's admission pages.
    In evaluating SAT or ACT results, does Yale consider scores from previous test dates?

    Yes, in the sense that readers of the application will see all of the test results that are in your file, since you are asked to self-report your scores from all test dates. The formal admissions committee that meets to vote on applications, however, will see only the highest score you received on any individual test, if you have repeated any of the tests. For the SAT I, the admissions committee will consider the highest score from each of the test's three sections. For the ACT, the admissions committee will consider the highest composite score.
  • asteriskeaasteriskea Registered User Posts: 1,210 Senior Member
    Xiggi, to get right down to it - you went a long way around to say exactly what I said because general advice is just that - general. After all, all we can do is marry common sense and idle speculation and hope that common sense wins out. Especially since too many students get tied up into knots over this question. Idle speculation - perhaps, but I find the Harvard faq answer quite telling precisely because there are no hard and fast rule on this issue. Quite true that colleges may or may not care at all about the number of retakes. One graduating senior at our hs took the new SAT a total of six times with only a slight increase in score and anecdotal as this may be, I don't think he gained much from all those retakes - and since hindsight is 20/20 if you ask him now he would readily agree. It is up to each student, and even those poor put upon parents who have to foot the bill, to decide at which point a retake will yield diminishing returns in terms of scores, time, effort and stress. Whether or not an adcom committee will interpret multiple retakes as a negative, a positive or not at all depends the particular college and, as Calmom points out, the "whole package".
  • sishu7sishu7 Registered User Posts: 567 Member
    If you get a 2250, then retake 10 times, won't it scream *obsessive*?
  • undecidedundecided Registered User Posts: 2,029 Senior Member
    Yes, sishu7, it pretty much will.

    What the admissions committee would like to see is a student who used his or her time wisely. Retaking an exam for which the initial results were very positive multiple times suggests the student is far more interested in the appearance of excellence than the actualizing of their potential. An EC in one's passion, I believe, will ALWAYS trump an SAT score improvement of a handful of points.

    The point of the retakes, I think, is to eliminate any non-test variables. With the first exam, a lot of students underestimate the length of the exam, the variety of material covered, and their preparation for it. If they are not satisfied with their score, it makes sense to devote a little time to targeted studying and to retake the exam. If they feel they have to do this 3 or 4 times, particularly over a period of years -- maybe the room was too cold, maybe the student was ill one time, maybe they were just burned out -- and they can improve their score so doing, the admissions committee will not penalize you.

    As others have aptly put before: there is no "they did this in one sitting! +50 points!" benefit to scoring well the first time, but there's no penalty for taking multiple sittings to do so.

    Just use common sense, as Xiggi said. There is no need to retake a 2390. There is no need to take the exam at every offered test date in your junior year. The exam is ONE datum that the committee uses to determine admissions, and unless you're aiming for a school which has very specific cut-offs AND you think you could achieve them with a little practice, taking the exam multiple times and increasing your score by maybe 30-60 points is not going to help you nearly enough to justify the hours spent prepping for and taking it.
  • calmomcalmom Registered User Posts: 17,869 Senior Member
    Xiggi, I have a question about your quote from Yale in post #11-- do you know how Yale admissions decisions are made? Does the full admissions committee meet to vote on all applications, or only those being seriously considered for admission after an initial screened by the readers? Because if many students are rejected by the readers without ever going to committee, then the Yale statement means that the multiple scores *will* be considered in the initial screening phase, which may be the only time that scores have much impact.

    So I read the Yale statement as possibly saying that the multiple scores WILL be considered.... assuming that the readers have the power to make a recommendation that impacts which apps go to the committee.
  • sjmom2329sjmom2329 Registered User Posts: 2,930 Member
    So, what is the consensus on when it makes sense to retake the SAT? I think S2 is done -- we think his scores are in the range for any school, and that at this point scores won't be the deciding factor. But it's not a 2400, so I must admit to some question in my mind about whether there is any benefit in taking it again.
This discussion has been closed.