First, the facts: you’re technically allowed to take the SAT as many times as you choose. You can take the SAT in childhood, in fact, and many kids who are applying to talent search programs do so. This a safe choice because your SAT record is erased once you start 9th grade.
Once high school begins you can take the SAT as many times as you want to, and, believe it or not, you can continue to take the SAT throughout your adulthood (the hallmark of professional tutors and masochists alike).
Since you’re allowed to register for and take the SAT as many times as you choose, many students run into a classic problem: too much freedom.
You probably know intuitively that you even though you could do so, choosing to take the SAT five, six, seven+ times looks problematic on a college application, a document on which you’re showing both your achievements and your personality. Quite seriously, it’s exactly the same as making new friends: you want to appear interested and committed without looking obsessed.
Let’s talk about all the factors you need to consider when you’re deciding how many times you should take the SAT.
This can be a complicated answer, but the kernel is this: you want to take the SAT enough times to be sure you’re showing your academic strengths and college preparedness without seeming like someone who is inappropriately focused on taking the SAT.
Inappropriate focus on the SAT means testing so repeatedly that it’s obvious you’re either…
As soon as you’re taking the SAT four or more times, it starts to look problematic to an admissions committee.
This is when deciding how many times to take the SAT becomes highly strategic—and extremely personal. I talk more about planning when you take the SAT in another post, but here are some things to consider.
It’s still fairly common for college counselors to suggest that students take the SAT more or less blind to get a baseline score. The idea here is to get a sense of where a student’s performance currently is and how much prep work he needs to do to improve without wasting too much time in advance, in case that turns out to be unnecessary. It’s really a way to budget time and effort ahead of time.
I’m of the opinion that getting official baseline scores on the SAT is unneeded, and sometimes it’s categorically unwise. Here’s why:
It’s expensive and inconvenient to take the SAT at a test center. Yes, you can take the SAT for free in many states, but that’s not the same as unlimited free SAT testing.
Students don’t like to admit it, but they don’t tend to take diagnostic tests that seriously. If you tell a student that something “doesn’t really count,” only the most unusually motivated student is going to go the extra mile to chip away on questions that feel initially out of reach. It’s my belief that the baseline score a student shows when she knows she’s taking it as a diagnostic in the test center isn’t wildly different than her performance if she took a free timed test at home in quiet conditions.
An official SAT goes on your record, and some universities don’t offer score choice and require that you send a record of every test you’ve ever taken. In this case, getting an official baseline score is a bad idea, especially if you know you’re unlikely to do your best work if you haven’t had any preparation.
Low baseline SAT scores can be demoralizing and overwhelming. Sometimes I’ll work with parents to do a “passive assessment,” in which I casually test students for knowledge without alerting them to testing conditions. This is especially useful for students whose school performance or anxieties allude to the high possibility of an initial score well below that student’s expected outcome. In these cases, it’s bad for both an application and a student’s mental health to have official records of SAT scores that vary by 300 to 400 points.
You may notice on your SAT score report that your scores are posted within an expected range. SAT scores have an official margin of error of thirty points; in other words, your predicted score, if you were to take the SAT again without doing any other preparation, is predicted to be somewhere between thirty points higher or lower on any given section.
Most students show an increase of 30 points or so when they re-take the SAT without any further preparation, so you want to make significant efforts between tests dates to show improvement beyond the expected 30 points.
It’s fine to want to be one-and-done in the testing world, and if your SAT scores are stratospheric—either close to perfect or unusually higher than your typical performance—leave it alone. I talk more about average SAT scores here. Most of the time this is not the case, though. If you take the SAT once and your score isn’t in the very highest percentiles or surprisingly strong compared to your GPA, it may exhibit to an admissions committee a lack of motivation on your part.
Ultimately, you should take the SAT at least twice and, in some cases, three times. Your first test date can familiarize you with the experience of officially taking the test in a test center and may help you choose where you’ll want to take your next test. You want to go into this first test prepared, however, so that you don’t post a weak score.
The second time you take the SAT can be your last, but it’s mentally helpful to create space in your test-taking so that you know you could take the test a third time if something doesn’t go as well as you’d help. The possibility of taking the test a third time often becomes the mental safety net that helps students do exceedingly well on the second test and avoid taking it a third time altogether.