Should You Retake the SAT?

This post will help you figure out whether you should retake the SAT, whether you were disappointed the first time or simply feel you could do a lot better the second time around.

There’s a variety of factors to consider, and the decision to retake ultimately depends on your unique situation, so I’m simply going to walk you through the decision process I use with my own students and through that, you’ll hopefully be able to make your own judgment. But before we get to assessing your situation, there are some guidelines to abide by.

Guidelines

1. Never Retake a 2300+

This is almost self-explanatory. Any score above 2300 is more than enough for any university out there, including the Ivy League. You’re doing yourself a disservice by retaking a score this high, not only because it’s a waste of your valuable time but also because you’re putting yourself in serious danger of scoring lower. At that level, the curve is so sensitive that one or two questions can mean the difference between a lower score and a higher one.

2. A Better Score is Almost Always Better

This second guideline, which doesn’t apply when the first guideline is the case, applies to college admissions. If you look at the statistical data, especially for top-tier universities, you’ll find that higher scores are strongly correlated with higher admit rates. The higher your score, the higher your chances of getting in. This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many students get complacent with their score. A lot of students who SHOULD retake the test often don’t because they don’t believe an extra 100 points would make a difference in college admissions. Most of the time, it DOES make a difference.

3. Most People do Better on a Retake

Most students are nervous and don’t know what to expect when they take the test for the first time. They may not be aware of the pressure and the timing or they just might not be fully mentally engaged. Once a student gets past that initial experience, however, a retake usually goes much better simply because of the newly established comfort level.

Furthermore, many of my students have said that after the first test, they naturally learned to tweak certain things, whether it be time management, what questions to skip, or their approach to certain question types – things they only fully internalized by taking the SAT under real conditions. These “test-taking” factors should not go overlooked; testing experience matters a lot more than you think. In fact, I would say that over 90% of my students have improved after the first test, even ones who had little to no preparation in between.

4. Don’t Retake the SAT More than 3 Times

Most students are aware of this guideline. Take the test more than 3 times and admissions officers will start to think twice about your abilities. Even if you do well, some will view you as a score-obsessed student with nothing better to do.

Even though you’ll likely score better on retakes, make sure you put in enough preparation before a retake to justify it. A lot of students retake the SAT before they’re ready to, get the same score, and end up having to retake it again.

If you still can’t get what you want after 3 takes, you’re probably not going to score much better on the 4th take.

Your Decision Process

At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, I don’t have a 2300. Given above guidelines 2 and 3, it looks like I should retake. No brainer.” But hold on! We haven’t yet considered your particular situation. A lot of students actually don’t need to retake, even if they would score higher by doing so. For a final decision, follow the steps below:

1. Figure out your target score

First, list out what universities you’re interested in. If you have a dream school, great!

Now go to College Prowler and search for your school.

collegeprowler1

After you click on the corresponding College Prowler result, go to Statistics and then Admissions Statistics.

collegeprowler2

Then check out the SAT statistics further down.

collegeprowler3

You want to focus on the scores at the 75th percentile. If you want to have a solid chance of getting in, your target score is one that’s a little less than the 75th percentile (~65th percentile). Obviously, your chances (and thus your target score) will be affected by the rest of your application, but in general, the 65% percentile is what you want to shoot for. The people who get in with much lower scores will be those who have hooks (recruited athletes, minorities, legacies) or those with otherwise very strong applications (stellar essays, teacher recs, extracurriculars).

To complicate things even more, your target score might vary with the school you’re applying to within a university. New York University, for example, has a business school (Stern), a liberal arts school (College of Arts and Sciences), a school of the arts (Tisch), and several others. A student applying to Stern, which is known to be quite competitive, should shoot for a higher score than one applying to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Looking at the College Prowler stats, I would want a score above 2000 if I were applying to NYU, and something a bit higher if I were applying to Stern (generally speaking).

Make sure to do the research and work out your target score. If you’ve already exceeded your target score, you should be hesitant to take the test again. Conversely, if you haven’t reached it, you should be more willing.

2. Analyze Your Score Report

The next step is to take a look back at your online score report, which The College Board provides after every exam.

You want to focus on the difficulties of the questions you got wrong, because that will indicate your potential for improvement.

If you’re getting quite a few easy and medium questions wrong, that means you could probably improve just by being more careful and getting down the basic concepts. If you’re getting hit by the hard questions, then it’ll be a lot tougher for you to improve because it takes a lot more practice and study to get those questions right.

Let’s take a look at a student score report as an example:

studentreport_reading

For this student, the potential for improvement on the reading is huge. Just look at the sentence completions – 8 incorrect and 4 blank – that’s 13 out of 19 missed. The plan of attack would definitely start with memorizing the top 400 words.

There’s a lot of room for easy improvement on the passages as well. This student missed 3 easy questions and 8 medium questions. That’s a lot of points (~150).

studentreport_math

Unlike the reading section, there is little potential for improvement on the math section. This student only missed the toughest questions and they’re spread across different topics. If he missed just the easy questions, it would be easy to improve just by cutting out the stupid mistakes. If he missed only medium questions, it would be worthwhile to study and practice a bit, but as it stands right now, there is little to gain from studying the math section further. This student should devote his time to the reading and writing sections, but if he were to practice a bit of math, he should only work through the toughest questions.

studentreport_writing

The breakdown here is quite interesting. The essay is close to perfect (11 out of 12), but the grammar needs a lot of work. Fortunately, there is room for improvement – this student missed 9 medium questions. Forget about the tough ones – those 9 medium questions alone would have accounted for over 100 points and it’s relatively easy to master those types of questions by studying and reviewing.

All in all, the potential for improvement on the reading and writing sections for this student point to a retake.

As a final note, this student doesn’t need to worry about the essay given his score, but it’s definitely something that you should think about. Most students don’t realize how fast they have to write or how to frame their argument the first time around. They go in blind. This is exactly what happened to me – I couldn’t finish the essay within 25 minutes and scored a 7. I was extremely frustrated because I knew I could’ve done better. But it was only afterwards that I realized how much planning and practice I had to do to produce a full-length essay in the time given. My second essay scored an 11, and the difference between a 7 and an 11 is huge – about 80 points. If you walked in unprepared or felt that your essay wasn’t up to your usual standards, a retake might be worthwhile.

3. Prioritize

Last but not least, think about your priorities. If you’re anything like the typical high-school go-getter, you’re probably busy juggling extracurriculars, AP’s, and your classwork all at once. Do you have the time and effort to devote to SAT study? As I mentioned before, a retake is a bad idea if you can’t study enough to make it worthwhile.

Summary

Hopefully this post has given you some things to consider when it comes to retaking the SAT. Unfortunately, there isn’t a black and white way to decide whether it’s worth it. You’ll have to weigh the above factors and decide for yourself. My hope is that after reading this, your decision will be an informed one.

3 thoughts on “Should You Retake the SAT?

  1. Hello Mr. Panda! I recently took the new SAT and I got a satisfying essay score but I want to retake the SAT to get a better grade for the Verbal and Math section. The schools I want to apply to all accept the SAT score as a super score. As the essay is not optional, for the second time, I do not want to take the essay again, to save time studying. Is this is safe choice or will this be to my detriment in the future?

      • You should be fine retaking it without the essay, though you should make sure that your schools aren’t ones that only superscore between tests that both have the essay or don’t have it. It’s hard to find this info online, so a few calls to the admissions office should do it.

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