SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Should You Retake the SAT or ACT? 3-Step Process


At long last, you get your SAT or ACT scores back, and now you have to make an important decision—do you retake the test and aim for a higher score? What are your chances of improving your score?

The answer can get complicated, depending on how many times you've taken it before and what your score target is. Read on to develop the best testing plan for yourself.The decision on whether you should retake the ACT or SAT depends on two main questions:

  1. What is your target score? 
  2. How likely are you to improve your score on the next test?

We'll tackle each question one at a time.


What's Your SAT/ACT Target Score?

Long before you take the SAT or ACT, you should have an exact target score in mind. This score is based entirely on the colleges that you are planning to apply to.

It's not the score that other people say you should get. It's not the score that sounds right.

This score is mathematically determined by researching the colleges you want to apply to. If you don't calculate this score, you'll be led astray from the study plan that's best for you. You might think a great score is out of reach, or you might be complacent about a lower than average score.

Click the following links to download a free guide to calculating your target score.

Exclusive Free Bonus: Download a free step-by-step guide on finding your personal SAT score target or ACT score target. Once you go through these steps, you'll know exactly what score you need to aim for. Don't delay - this is one of the most important steps of SAT/ACT prep.

Once you have your target score, compare your score with this target score. How likely are you to improve your score to this level?

Here's a set of very general guidelines from my personal experience with thousands of students (we'll be using the 1600 scale of the new SAT):

SAT Score ACT Score What do I need to do to get this improvement? Difficulty
+0-50 +0-1 Some prep before the test. You might achieve this score improvement just by retaking the test if you did especially poorly last time. Not too hard, especially if you've taken the test just once
+50-160 +1-4 Serious prep on a dedicated schedule. You'll need a smart system to figure out where your weaknesses lie and how to improve them. You won't be able to achieve this just through sheer effort. Possible with hard work and smart studying
+160-260 +4-7 Very serious prep. You have some major gaps to fill before you start mastering the test. You will benefit from a personal tutor who can spot your weaknesses and teach you strategies. Possible with serious dedication, time, and a great study plan
+260-400 +7-10 Dedicated prep for an extended period of time. You will most likely need an excellent 1-on-1 tutor who can teach you the fundamentals and make sure you stay committed. Difficult, but possible for the very motivated.
400+ 10+ Nearly re-education. You have major content gaps from school and need to be taught fundamental content. You'll need hundreds of hours of work. Very difficult. Re-evaluate your target colleges if possible.


(if you're using the 2400 scale of the Old SAT, then just multiply each of the range values by 1.5)

These are general guidelines and depend heavily on your exact situation. As we'll soon explain, the more you've prepped and the more tests you've taken up to this point, the harder it is to improve your score from here on. If you've taken the test 5 times and prepped hard, improving your test score on the 6th test by 100 points will be difficult. You'll need a completely different approach from you've already tried to make any improvements from this point forward.

If you've taken the test several times by this point, you might be worried that colleges will look down on your many test entries. This is a common myth that we're going to bust right now.




Myth: Colleges Care How Many Times You've Taken the SAT/ACT.

Not true!

You might have heard the idea that when colleges see your SAT/ACT scores, they take into account how many tests you've taken. If you've taken 10 tests, they'll wonder what's wrong with you, especially if you don't improve from test to test.

The reason this myth exists is that this used to be true. Back in the old days (before 2009), if you took the SAT and applied to college, the College Board always required you to send ALL your scores to every college. If you took the test too many times and didn't improve, the school might potentially look down on this.

This system has totally changed. The SAT now uses a system called Score Choice. For the majority of schools, you can choose which test dates you want to report to the school. They'll either take your highest test score in a single setting, or your highest section score from all the tests you send (creating your Superscore). 

See for yourself: the College Board has a list of over 1,500 colleges and their Score Choice participation. The majority of schools participate in Score Choice, where you can choose which test scores you send.

Those that don't are marked by "All Scores" - they require you to send all your scores from the College Board. Notable "All Scores" institutions are the CUNY system and University of California. 

But even for these "All Scores" institutions, they won't care all that much about your other test scores. All they want to see is your highest test score, because that's all that actually matters to them.

Take it straight from the University of California itself, which requires All Scores sent:

"For the SAT Reasoning Test, we will focus on the highest total score from a single test date."


What about the ACT? The ACT has never required you to submit all your test scores. In fact, you must pay a separate fee for each test score you send to every college, which can end up costing quite a lot. Because the schools will never see any ACT score you don't send them, you're free to send them just your highest score. There are a few schools that require all ACT scores sent, but they're in the far minority.

So how many times can you take the SAT or ACT? As many times as you want. What actually matters at the end of the day is your highest score. But for the sake of your wallet, if you stop improving, question why you aren't improving, and find a new prep program that can work better for you.


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What Are Your Chances of Improving Your SAT/ACT Score?

This is the million dollar question. By now, you should have your SAT target score or ACT target score firmly in mind, and you know you want to improve to that point. Whether you can reach it depends on a few main factors.


#1: Did you underperform on the official test, and you know you could have done better?

A fluke test happens to the best of us. You might not have been feeling well that day. You might have gotten distracted during a reading passage that was especially difficult. You might have had a family situation that stressed you out the morning of the test.

If your official test score is 100 SAT points or 2 ACT points lower than your consistent practice test score, RETAKE the test.

There's a lot of variation from test to test, and chances are very good that if you take the test again, you'll get a better score the second time. I've seen students swing as much as 500 points upward between two tests a month apart, simply because they had a terrible day the first time and knocked the second test out of the park.


2) How many times have you taken the SAT or ACT before?

Here are some simple guidelines.

Only taken the test once: DEFINITELY take it again. Both the College Board and the ACT publish results that show that most students (over 50%) who take the test a second time improve their score. Furthermore, the lower your starting score is, the more likely your second test is to improve. You should try to prep as well as you can, but even if you just take the test, odds are that you'll improve your score.

Taken the test twice: Lean towards taking it again. If you prep, you'll have a much better chance at improving your score. Furthermore, because most schools take a Superscore, the chances that you'll improve your Superscore are very good.

Taken the test 3 or more times: That depends on this next question:


3) How much have you already studied, and how did you prep?

The less you've prepped before, the more likely you can improve your score.

If the only thing to prep before the test was look at the cover of an SAT/ACT book through the storefront window, you can make huge improvements with the right SAT/ACT prep method.

If you've spent 400 hours studying, devoured all the SAT/ACT books, and hired a personal tutor for 100 hours, it's a lot harder to improve your score. You'll need to change your study method to have a shot at boosting your score again.

If you've prepped a lot already and are unsure of what to study to improve your score, one thing is clear - you need a new approach. If you try what you've been doing with just a little more effort, you'll be disappointed with your results. I've seen hundreds of students come to me frustrated that their score isn't improving, when of course they've been doing the same incorrect things over and over again.


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What's Next?

Now that you know your chances of improving your score, you should have an idea of whether you want to retake the SAT or ACT. In my experience, very few students are lost causes - nearly everyone at this stage can continue to improve their score, with the right prep method.

Read this next:

Figure out when you should take the SAT or ACT, and what the best test dates are.

Check out our leading SAT and ACT prep programs:

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.

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