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How Many Times Can I Take the SAT or ACT?

The short answer: as many times as you need.

The long answer is a bit more complex. First, some students fear taking the SAT or ACT “too much” because doing so “looks bad” to colleges. In fact, most colleges just want you to do the best you can. Whether it takes you one try or five tries is inconsequential to them.

In addition, Score Choice allows you to send any number of your scores to colleges that allow this option. (Check with individual colleges because some do require you to send every score). Even if you take the SAT or ACT ten times, Score Choice allows you to send only your best scores.

So don’t worry about what the colleges think about this. However, there are very good reasons to minimize your retakes.

One problem with too many retakes is expense: taking these tests costs money. Books and tutoring and classes cost money. Your own time spent on studying and test taking costs you “money” in the form of the abstract value of your labor. Even if you are made of money, dumping unnecessary funds into this aspect of your education may not be the best allocation of your capital.

But the more serious problem with taking the SAT or ACT a thousand times is that it defeats the purpose of the exam. The SAT and ACT are  flawed tests in some ways but good in others. The SAT does measure, for instance, some aspects of your reasoning ability and academic prowess – but only the skills you currently possess. It say’s little to nothing about your capacity for academic achievement, your potential for success, your “innate intelligence,” or any other fixed quality about you. I worry that an extreme focus on the SAT over other more worthwhile activities can lead to more serious issues down the line.

Let’s say you start your career in the 1000s, but with diligence work your way up to 1400+. (Congrats!) You take the test eight times and spend hundreds of hours preparing.

On the plus side, this effort does show perseverance and ambition, but I’d caution anyone about sacrificing all just to get a high score. Perhaps the same student would have been admitted into the same college – or a better one – if he or she had instead focused on 1) improving grades 2) building skills and talents 3) participating in extracurriculars and 4) networking and finding mentors.

The SAT and ACT are just tests. Yes, they’re a decently weighted part of your application, but they’re tests nonetheless. They are just a small part of who you are and have almost no real bearing on who you will become. I worry about students who obsess about these tests. Try hard and do your best, but you should maintain a balanced life as well. In the end, perhaps spending hours and hours and hours and many dollars on improving 50 or 100 points or whatever one test is not the best use of your time or energy. Using your most precious resource, time, to build long-term skills and gain unique experiences is almost always better than studying for the SAT like your life depends on it.

It doesn’t!

Your life’s success will not be defined or limited or bounded by your SAT or ACT scores, no matter what some people say and think or what you may hear or believe. I won’t waste time listing the litany of examples that will prove this point.

This isn’t to discourage you to do your best. By all means, take the exam three times if you think you can improve by the end of the process. But keep the test in perspective. In the end, remember the law of diminishing returns, or the 80/20 principle – 80% of your results will come from 20% of your effort; 80% of your score improvement will come from 20% of your effort. Whether the last 20% matters to you – and is worth the investment of 80% more of your resources – is up to you, but for most people the choice is a no brainer.

Take the SATs and ACTs to meet your score goals, but don’t go overboard – not because colleges frown upon taking the test too much, but because there are more important things to focus on in life.

About the Author:

I’m Rob Schombs, the founder of Reason Prep, creator of these videos, and your test prep tutor. I earned a BA in Chemistry (2006) and an MA in Science and Technology Studies (2009) from Cornell University. In 2010 I started tutoring SAT, ACT, math, chemistry, and writing full-time, and Reason Prep followed shortly after!