Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?


Our counselors answered:

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

Brooke Seifert
Academic Counselor Fountain Hills High School

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

I usually recommend that my students take both the SAT and ACT. How well a student does on each test depends on where their knowledge base originates from. The SAT's focus more on reasoning skills, whereas the ACT's measure your knowledge of curriculum. This being said, it is more likely to find a student who doesn't do very well in school who aces the SAT's rather than the ACT's. Another factor that contributes to how well a student does on each test is how the tests are scored. The SAT's deduct a 1/4 point for wrong answers; the ACT's do not deduct points for wrong answers, so students are encouraged to guess as time runs out. Because of this, in my experience, students tend to do better on the ACT's than SAT's. There is an ACT-SAT concordance chart that tells you how your ACT score translates into an SAT score and vice versa. For the most part, if student took both tests, their ACT scores translate into a higher SAT score than they actually received. Student's should always verify which test is acceptable with the colleges that they are applying to. There used to be a stigma against the ACT, but it is now being accepted more and more frequently. In fact, I have not come across a college or university that does not accept it in my time as a high school counselor. Students should always take standardized test for the first time their Junior year, at the latest in the spring and again the fall of their Senior year. Colleges typically accept your highest scores, not necessarily your most recent. Most colleges and universities also have a deadline concerning when scores can still be accepted. Double check with them before you register for your test. I should also mention that, if you absolutely only want to take either the SAT or the ACT and not both, there are ways to decide which one will benefit you more. The easiest way is to take predictive tests earlier in high school. The PSAT and PLAN are usually available to sophomores. The PSAT is a precursor to the SAT and the PLAN to the ACT. The PSAT and PLAN are much more inexpensive than the SAT and ACT (usually under $20). If you take both of these tests and do better on one than the other, that should steer you towards what college admission test to take. If you are having trouble paying for any of the tests I've mentioned, contact your high school counselor. Fee waivers are available. Good luck! :-)

Jill Karatkewicz
Counselor East Hampton High School

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

There is no single answer that will fit all students. Traditionally, the standardized test "process" begins in sophomore year when students can take the PSAT (practice for the SAT) and/or the PLAN (practice for the ACT). The PSAT can be taken once more during the fall of junior year. Following this, most students make a plan to take one or both tests during the second semester of their junior year. If the student has had the opportunity to take both the PSAT and PLAN, they could use their scores and experiences from these tests to help determine which regular standardized test is best for them. If they have only taken one (or none), it would be my advice to take both the ACT and SAT at some point prior to the end of the student's junior year (e.g. April ACT, May or June SAT). By doing so, the student can evaluate which test resulted in a more favorable score and make plans to retake a test in the fall of senior year, if necessary. Most students take the SAT and/or ACT two times. Studies show that taking three or more tests does not typically result in a significant increase in scores. Any student looking to apply to a highly selective college will also want to be mindful that some colleges will require them to take 2-3 SAT Subject Tests as part of their admission process. Subject Tests can not be taken on the same day as the regular SAT Reasoning Test.

Kimberly Parsons
Counselor Herbert Hoover High School

SAT or ACT??

Which standardized test is right for you? When should you take it? How many times? These are all important questions for you when deciding on colleges. As far as which test is best, there is no right or wrong answer for that. Research your college choices and figure out what tests your colleges will accept and the score they will take. Many schools also offer scholarships base on standarized test scores and GPA, so this is also something to consider when deciding what the best score is for you. Start taking the SAT or ACT as early as you can. I have several students who try taking them their sophomore year, just to get an idea of what they are like, and what they need to work on to improve their score. I would highly suggest taking them at some point during your Junior year of high school, again so you have an idea of scores, if you need to improve your scores for acceptance or for scholarships that are out there. The longer you wait, the more pressure and stress you have. If you begin early, try taking both the SAT and ACT, to see which test feel more comfortable with. Also, make sure you ask your high school counselor about fee waivers for paying for the tests, there are options out there for you, if you feel like you cannot afford the test.

Rana Slosberg
Owner Slosberg College Solutions LLC


I recommend that students take an SAT I practice test and an ACT practice test and see which one they do better on. They should focus on preparing for the test they did better on. Typically, I suggest students take the test twice: once in the middle of the junior year and once in the end of the junior year. In addition, students should check if the schools they are applying to require that they take any SAT II Subject tests.

Jeana Robbins

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

Sophomores can begin by taking the PSAT. This exam may be offered within the high school's guidance counseling department. Juniors should take the PSAT and the SAT and/or ACT. The PSAT is a practice test to help students prepare for the actual SAT. The student will receive scores and will see where they are ranked in comparison to other students throughout the United States. Students taking the PSAT will get back their test booklet and will be able to use it as a study guide. This is a nice option and an advantage for students who take the PSAT. Students taking the SAT during their junior year will automatically be entered in a running for certain scholarships. Students shouldn't be too discouraged if they receive less than perfect scores on the SAT/ACT. They should understand that they are able to take these exams over again. If a student receives a lower score the second time around, it won't replace the higher score. There may be study groups within your community to help students prepare for these particular exams.

Geoff Broome
Assistant Director of Admissions Widener University

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

ACT and SAT no more than three times. Statistically, nothing happens after the third time that you take an exam. By the third time, you should have already studied or prepped for the exam instead of taking it on the fly.

Alan Duesterhaus

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

The big two standardized exams for undergraduate admission are the SAT and ACT. You should take at least one of these in your Junior year. If you are able it would be good to take both. Regardless of your scores (unless you get a perfect score!) in your Junior year you will want to take one or both exams no later than the Fall of your Senior year. Most colleges will accept either the SAT or ACT. If you have a good sense of the institutions you wish to attend it will be worthwhile to see what percentage of students submit which test. If 75% of the students submit the ACT then you probably will want to do so as well since the college will be more familiar with this test. Although, most colleges will calculate what your SAT score would equate to on the ACT if they prefer to use one exam over the other. If you are not interested or able to take a test prep course you probably will not want to take any standardized test more than three times. Your score will not change much after that unless there is something new (e.g. completing a test prep course). Best wishes for your college choice!

Benjamin Caldarelli
Partner Princeton College Consulting, LLC

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

After the PSAT, which I would take as sophomore for practice and as a Junior for the National Merit competition, either the SAT or ACT if not both. Most of my students decide which test they are going to focus on and take it twice. Unless you prepare in a drastically different way, taking the test a third time usually does not result in a higher scores. Also, the most selective schools require two or three SAT subject tests, and as many AP tests as possible.

Lora Lewis
Educational Consultant Lora Lewis Consulting

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

Almost all schools accept either the SAT or ACT. Some students find that one test works better for them than the other. If possible, take the PSAT and PLAN tests your sophomore year to get a sense of which test you're more comfortable with. If you can't do a "pre-test", visit the SAT and ACT online to try some sample questions and get a sense of how the tests are organized. Ideally, you should take the SAT or ACT in the spring of junior year, leaving time to re-take the test in late spring of junior year or early fall of senior year if necessary. Re-taking the test can be helpful, but taking it more than two or three times rarely results in improved scores and may even backfire and result in lower scores overall. If you're applying to colleges that require the SAT Subject Tests, it's helpful to take tests in subjects you're currently studying as close to the end of junior year as possible. The information will still be fresh in your mind and you won't have to go back and bone up on skills and concepts after having been out of class for several months. Keep in mind, though, that you can't take the SAT reasoning test on the same day that you take the subject tests. Be sure to construct your testing timeline carefully so that you have adequate time to complete all tests, especially if you are planning to apply early decision or early action, as the colleges will expect all testing to be completed by the November administration.

Karen Ekman-Baur
Director of College Counseling Leysin American School

Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?

The primary college admissions standardized tests are the SAT Reasoning Test and the ACT. Some institutions ask for one, some ask for the other, and some will accept either or both. Also keep in mind that some of the schools you are considering may require one or more SAT Subject Tests, which are focused on particular areas. Some institutions will also ask for the ACT Writing Test. These requirements will be indicated on the institutional websites. The SAT Reasoning Test has a writing component at each testing. The ACT Writing Test, however, is optional, but it is administered in conjunction with the regular ACT, adding an additional half hour to the testing time. You don't have to take the ACT Writing Test unless the institutions to which you are applying ask for those results. The Writing Test is offered at all ACT sittings in the U.S., but not internationally. If you are at an international location and need the ACT Writing Test scores, check the ACT test schedules to determine when those Writing Test sessions will be offered. Students needing SAT Subject Test scores may take up to three Subject Tests at any one sitting. The SAT Subject Tests take about an hour each and must be scheduled on a separate day from the SAT Reasoning Test. (To clarify, the SAT Reasoning Tests and the SAT Subject Tests will be offered at a test site on the same day, but a student registered for the SAT Reasoning Test cannot also take any Subject Tests on that day, as they take place at the same time.) Students tend to feel that they do better on one test than the other because of the way the tests are structured, but when comparing scores of students who took both the SAT and the ACT, I found that the results were essentially equivalent. I recommend that students take each of the tests at least once, however, in order to have at least one score from each test available for their applications. The SAT Subject Tests may also be taken more than once. Since it costs money to register for these tests, it makes sense to plan carefully, but I have found that students do tend to achieve better scores when they take the tests at least twice. The improvement undoubtedly has partially to do with becoming familiar with the test administration procedures and learning to cope with the stress of the timed testing situation, developing a strategy for effective pacing. Improvement is also likely if the student recognizes his/her areas of difficulty and institutes a plan for more focused study in those areas before the second testing. Some students plan to take the tests three times each, but this can become counter-productive (overkill, maybe). It really depends on the student, his/her goals, his/her attitude toward the testing, and what kind of preparation is being done. Assuming that a student has decided to take both tests and plans to take each one twice, I would suggest that he/she take one SAT and one ACT toward the end of the 11th grade. At that time, he/she will have finished or almost finished that year's high school studies so that the possibility of doing well on the tests will be greater. Perhaps the student has already been doing some kind of standardized test preparation, but the results on the tests taken at the end of the 11th grade will give him/her a chance to analyze where his/her strengths and weaknesses lie, so that more focused test preparation can be done over the summer. As mentioned above, taking the test at this time will also familiarize the student with testing procedures, thus potentially making the second testing a smoother experience. The student should then plan to take both of the tests again in the fall of the 12th grade. Registering for the earliest fall tests is probably a good idea. If the student is dissatisfied with those test results, there is always the possibility of retaking the tests at a later fall testing in time to meet college application deadlines; if the results meet the student's expectations, he/she can relax and won't have to be concerned about that aspect of the application any longer. Students requiring SAT Subject Test scores could plan to take those tests at one of the later fall testings. Another viewpoint with regard to the SAT Subject Tests is that the tests would best be scheduled at the end of the courses of study in the relevant subjects. For instance, if a student were taking a certain course in the 11th grade and planned to take an SAT Subject Test in that area, he/she might want to take the Subject Test at the end of the 11th Grade, when the subject matter was fresh in his/her mind. Students should also plan to take the PSAT, which is administered in the fall of each year. This test will usually be accessible to students throughout their high school years but is particularly important in the 11th grade. The test is officially designated as PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), and it is the 11th-grade test sitting, not any of the others, which could qualify students who are U.S. citizens for the National Merit Scholarship program. The PSAT is structured similarly to the SAT, and the feedback and analysis students receive afterwards provides a good basis for further preparation for the SAT. It also gives students a feel for the timed testing environment, but in a more limited way. The PSAT is not required for college admission and the results are not submitted to colleges/universities (except in the case of National Merit Scholarships and related recognitions), so it is a good way of testing the waters. International students, depending on the language in which they receive their high school education, may be required to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (Internationl English Language Testing System), both of which assist the universities to which you are applying in determining your English-language proficiency. In some cases, the results could affect your admission; in others, if your results were weak, the university would place you in an English-language development program upon entry into the school before transitioning you into the regular academic rigor of the institution. Both the TOEFL and the IELTS may be taken more than once. In summary, the following could be an effective standardized testing plan. Additional tests could, of course, be scheduled at the student's discretion. - Fall of 11th Grade - PSAT - Spring or Late 11th Grade - SAT Reasoning/1st sitting ACT/1st sitting SAT Subject Tests, if required - Fall of 12th Grade - SAT Reasoning/2nd sitting ACT/2nd sitting SAT Subject Tests, if required Hope this helps you establish an effective Plan of Action!