Summer SAT prep has become a rite of passage of sorts for rising juniors, but once school starts again, the timeline can get a little fuzzy. What if that first set of scores, from a test in September or October, seems pretty solid? Is it ok to walk away, or is a retake called for, and if so, when?
Much of the time, I suspect, students’ instinct is to think, I spent all that time prepping over the summer… I have lots of stuff to do now, and I don’t want to have to think about this anymore — can’t I just stop? I want to address this because I think it’s a common question, and the answer isn’t necessarily what people want to hear. Obviously, the desire to get the standardized testing process over with as quickly as possible is understandable; however, prepping early does not — and in many cases should not — automatically translate into being done early.
Here’s the thing: under normal circumstances, seniors need to be done with standardized testing by October at the very latest. It’s just not a good idea to juggle applications and test prep simultaneously (especially when you’re burned out and never want to look at another practice test again). And if you’ve already taken a test three times, you probably won’t see notable improvement; at some point, you have to settle for what you’ve got.
For juniors, however, the situation is exactly the opposite: rather than worrying about finishing all your testing early, you need to make sure you don’t finish too soon and inadvertently shortchange yourself out of a higher score.
Look, I get it: test prep is a pain, you’ve got a bunch of AP classes to manage, sports practice or rehearsals or club meetings to attend, etc., etc. Adding test prep into that mix isn’t a particularly attractive prospect. And if you’re one of the lucky few who can get a 1500/34+ early in your junior year, then it’s probably worth your while to step away and focus other aspects of your life.
In fact, if you’re scoring, say, a 1550 or a 35, you most certainly should not neglect other areas to try to get that perfect score. Diminishing returns, ok? Once your scores hit a certain level, they stop mattering. I promise.
But if you’re like most people, what your scores look like at the beginning of junior year — even if they’re relatively strong — are probably not what they’ll look like six months or a year later. For a lot of students, junior year is a big step up intellectually from sophomore year; things that seemed inordinately confusing to you over the summer (e.g., historical documents passages) might seem a lot less perplexing after you’ve had six months of APUSH. And the trig on the ACT will probably seem much more straightforward after you’ve covered it in class. If you want to retake a test in the spring, you might find that you don’t need a lot of formal prep beforehand.
Then there’s the question of how adcoms will view your scores — and if you were one-and-done in, say, October of junior year, they will take that into account. “Could she have pulled that 670 in SAT Math up to a 700?” they might wonder. “Or could he have gotten that 23 in ACT Science up to a 26?” Just as colleges may look askance at a student with five or six retakes, so they may also raise their eyebrows at a (non-disadvantaged) student who had the time and opportunity to improve and did not attempt to do so.
I worked with a number of students who came to me after a pretty-good-but-not-amazing performance on a too-early test and who ultimately scored in the stratosphere — but not until the end of junior year, or even the beginning of senior year. In some cases, I didn’t even need to do much work with them at all; a lot of the improvement was simply a question of maturity.
Obviously, it’s up to you: if the colleges you’re planning to apply to aren’t overly selective and you’re already scoring at the 75th percentile; or if your scores are solid while your GPA leaves a lot to be desired; or if you’re participating in athletic recruitment and are required to submit scores early… those are all good, compelling reasons to get done sooner rather than later. Likewise, if you set a score goal for yourself and met it, and you’re solidly in the running at your absolute top-choice schools, then it might be perfectly fair to walk away in the fall or early winter of your junior year.
Otherwise, potential unpleasantness aside, there’s probably no need to impose an early deadline on standardized testing, especially if you’re applying to competitive colleges. Even if the prospect of one less thing to worry about seems enticing, remember that there can be a literal — and in some cases quite significant — payoff for retaking the SAT or the ACT. High scores = merit aid, even at colleges that are nominally test-optional. A few hundred extra dollars in test prep could translate into thousands of dollars in aid. Particularly if your family falls into the “doughnut hole” of too-wealthy-for-need-based-aid/too-poor-for-sticker price, test scores can be the difference between a small financial stretch and an unmanageable stack of loans.
This is a really important point that often gets overlooked in discussions about standardized testing. Scores aren’t just about whether you can get in; in some cases, they’re also about whether you can afford to go.