Limits on SAT Retakes
There are no official limits on retaking the SAT. Students may, in theory, take the test as many times as it is offered within their college application timeframe. However, the College Board does keep track of the number of test attempts and scores for each attempt associated with a given student, and will report this information upon institutional request. Admissions officials at schools that require submission of all test scores do not tend to look favorably on students who have taken the SAT an excessive number of times. The ideal situation for students is to receive a high score on the first test attempt through substantial preparation with an experienced SAT tutor or instructor. A second test attempt is common for students with score levels that are insufficient for admission to their chosen universities or for the purposes of financial aid, but for most students it is probably not advisable to take the SAT more than twice. Third test attempts (and beyond) should be taken only when absolutely necessary.
Students should remember the costs associated with each SAT test attempt. These include registration and testing fees as well as the expenses incurred during preparation. Student decisions with respect to SAT retakes must balance the additional financial burden with the potential rewards. If a given student's SAT scores are sufficient to achieve his or her academic goals, multiple extra test attempts purely for pride or "bragging rights" may not be worth thousands of dollars of additional cost. College applicants must also make the most effective possible use of their time. At a certain point, students should consider if the time necessary for SAT retakes would be better devoted to other aspects of their college applications.
Students whose second test attempts produce scores that are well below the average range for their chosen schools may have no choice but to take the SAT for a third time. Students who are dependent on merit-based financial aid in order to attend college may also be forced to consider this option. In these cases, students must improve their approach to SAT preparation, probably with the assistance of qualified and experienced SAT educators. Though some test prep companies have become known for lofty and implausible-sounding promises, the fact is that private SAT instruction has been independently shown to improve performance. A large body of published research on this topic is publicly available, from statistical analyses to studies that use random control groups. This type of research dates back at least 20 years, and is widely accepted in educational circles.
According to the College Board, more than half (55%) of high school juniors improved their scores when re-taking the test as seniors, and the average gain was 40 points. Some universities provide their acceptance rates by SAT scores, and these statistics show that in many cases, 40-point score increases (or slightly more) can give students much better chances of acceptance. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 690 SAT Math score was associated with a 3% chance of acceptance, but a score of 730 more than doubled the odds to 7%, and a 750 quadrupled the odds to 12%. At Brown University, the acceptance rates for SAT scores of 690 on Critical Reading, Math, and Writing were 7.5%, 7.8%, and 6.5% respectively. Applicants who scored 700 on each of these sections were admitted at the substantially higher rates of 10.9% to 11.7%, and the difference between these groups was just 30 points on the composite scale. Of course, students should also remember the risks associated with retaking the SAT. College Board statistics show that more than a third (35%) of subsequent test attempts result in score drops. These risks can be effectively managed with experienced and professional instruction, and students who devote sufficient effort to their preparation nearly always avoid score drops.
Students should never undergo an official administration of the SAT purely for the purpose of practice. This is an exercise that is at best unnecessarily stressful and time-consuming and at worst destructive to student application prospects and confidence. Official SAT practice tests are widely and inexpensively available, and there are many sources of free practice tests. Test timing, test environment, and other actual testing conditions are fairly easy to replicate in an artificial setting. These mock tests have the obvious advantages of being both close to the real thing and "off the record." An ample number of practice tests will provide better preparation than an official test taken for preparation. Steadily rising success on practice tests will boost student confidence, which can further increase student scores on the official day of the test.