The Big Tests: When Should You take the SAT?

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The SAT is offered seven times during the school year: October, November, December, January, March, May, and June. It is generally a good idea for a student to take it for the first time in the second half of the junior year; January, March, and May are good dates. You can register for it very easily online at www.collegeboard .com by using a credit card for a fee of $45. Fee waivers are available through high school counseling offices for low-income students who cannot afford the cost. The test is offered at many sites, mostly at large public and parochial schools, but the sites vary on different dates. Details are available online on the College Board Web site and in the printed registration booklet. Some test sites fill up quickly, so it is good to plan ahead and register early to get the site of your choice, without having to drive a long distance to take the test.

Scores are mailed about three weeks after the test date, or are available by phone or online two weeks after the test. Online scores are available free; a fee is charged for scores by phone. The same Web site where you register for the test will have your scores—password-protected, of course. You can also pay for an answer grid showing your pattern of correct and incorrect answers as a function of question type and difficulty level. For some test dates, but not all, you can even purchase a copy of the actual test you took.

How Often Should You Take the Test?

Once you get your first set of SAT scores, you can decide whether to retake the test later in the spring of your junior year or in the fall of your senior year. The College Board keeps track of your scores and reports them only to colleges you specify. For students who took the SAT in March 2009 or later, the College Board now offers Score Choice—an option that lets students decide which test scores they wish to submit to a college if they have taken the SAT more than once. All three parts of a given test administration are reported, but students can now choose which test dates they want to report, even if they wish to report scores from a test taken before March 2009. Previously, the College Board sent all scores from every test administration. They will continue to send all scores unless the student specifically elects Score Choice at the time scores are sent. There is no extra charge for Score Choice.

Score Choice, while welcomed by many, is proving controversial. Critics say that it favors students who can afford to take the test multiple times and disadvantages those who cannot. But Score Choice is unlikely to change anything—either for students or for colleges—since most colleges, especially including private ones, typically count only the highest critical reading, math, and writing scores you have received, regardless of whether they come from the same test date or different dates. And a few selective colleges, including Stanford University, Yale University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Pennsylvania, now ask students to submit all scores, although they say that they, too, count only the highest scores on critical reading, math, and writing regardless of test date. Some other schools (all campuses of the University of California, for example) don’t mix and match scores across test dates, but simply use the highest total score from a single test date, regardless of how often a student takes the test.

You can take the SAT as many times as you want, but actually only a small percentage of students take it even twice, and an even smaller percentage three times or more. Three times is a reasonable practical maximum—taking it more than that is probably not the best use of your time. And at $45 a test, the costs can add up. You can take as many practice tests as you want on your own, of course. The College Board publishes The Official SAT Study Guide for the New SAT, which contains eight practice tests and is ideal for this purpose. It costs about $20. Commercial publishers and test preparation companies publish similar self-help guides with common inside tips on how to do well. If you have the self-discipline to coach yourself in this way or from a computer program, this can be a low-cost and highly effective form of test prep.

Obviously, the idea of repeating the SAT is to do better—no one has ever claimed to do it for fun. How can you maximize your chances of doing well on the SAT, regardless of how many times you take it? The fact is that for most students, preparation will help. And for some, it will help a lot.

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