by Annie Manion

One of the most frequent questions I get as a test prep tutor is: how many times should a student plan to take either the SAT or the ACT? Neither ACT, the non-profit organization that administers the ACT exam, nor College Board offer clear-cut answers to that question. Students aren’t likely to get much guidance on how often to take standardized tests from their high schools, either. Schools are much more invested in making sure students take the exam at all, and only the most attentive counselors might offer suggestions for test-taking strategies.

There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to registering for test dates. Are the rules different for each exam? Is it better to take it just once and hope for the best or to take it as many times as you can manage in order to get your goal score? Is it possible to burn out during the preparation process or to take the exam too many times? Do colleges care how many times a student has taken the exam? Will they even know?

Truthfully, everyone’s situation is different and calls for a specialized approach, but over the years I’ve found that there are broad guidelines that can benefit the vast majority of students and facilitate their efforts to achieve the best possible standardized test score. You don’t want to take the exam just once. A single sitting puts all of your eggs into one basket, and leaves you susceptible to “the jitters,” the often unavoidable and unpredictable anxiety that affects first time test-takers. Likewise, you don’t want to go overboard and take either exam too often or start too early. Both the ACT and the SAT are very different from exams that you take for class. They are much longer and they are designed to test skills like logical reasoning and reading comprehension in addition to specific information like punctuation rules and mathematical formulas. Studying for these exams is like training for a marathon – it’s a long-term commitment, and success is about pacing as much as it is about facts and figures. And similar to training for and running a long-distance race, over-doing it can lead to “the plateau,” the condition in which you keep getting the same score instead of continuing to improve. Furthermore, colleges rarely want to see that a student has taken standardized tests more than three times because of the belief that repetitive test-taking dilutes the accuracy of the exam as a reflection of a student’s abilities.

To avoid losing points to “the jitters,” as well as sidestepping the frustration of “the plateau,” I recommend that you plan on taking either the SAT or the ACT more than once, but not more than three times. In my experience, the first test tends to be the worst test, and most students can achieve their best score on the second or third sitting. Take it only once and your score may be lower than you are actually capable of due to nervousness, but take it more than three times, and it’s common for exhaustion, stress, or discouragement to set in – and students often plateau.

There are some exceptions to this general guideline. Sometimes students with accommodations benefit from taking either exam more than three times due to the nature of their diagnoses. And sometimes it benefits students who have their eye on extremely competitive schools – like those in the Ivy League – to plan on taking it once (and scoring almost perfectly, if not actually perfectly) as an additional accomplishment they can present on their applications.