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March 8, 2011

Retaking the SAT: Should you?

When I took the GRE a dozen or so years ago, I freaked out – for lack of a better term – during the last test, which happened to be the now-defunct multiple-choice logic section. I suspect low-blood sugar spiked my anxiety during the last leg of the four-hour test and deep-sixed my efforts. My scores were strangely lopsided.  There seemed little choice but to retake the expensive test.

I did. This time I was prepared. I don't mean I studied more. I mean that I had a healthy, balanced lunch and took an extra sweater for the uncomfortably cold room waiting for me. All of my scores improved slightly, but the results of the second logic test jumped by several hundred points. Yes, I really do mean that I freaked out.

If you are ill during the test or having a bad day and think you can raise your score significantly, then take the test again. But, most people aren't improving that much.

According to the College Board, a little over half of junior test-takes improve during a retake their senior year, 35% of test-takers go down and 10% had no change. That's just a little better than 50/50 odds.

The blog Education Research Report tells us about a study in the journal Psychological Science that  finds students are more likely to retake the SAT if their scores end in 90 (say 1290 instead of 1300, 1390 instead of 1400). The difference is miminal, but it feels significant. This must be the same psychology behind 99-cent pricing. The price $13.99 feels much cheaper than $14.  It's isn't.  The researchers found that students who scored 1390 were just as likely to be accepted as those who scored 1400.

“The SAT doesn’t matter nearly as much for admission as people think, so 10 points probably don’t make a difference,” the author of the study said. 

That's a relief because there is lots of debate about just how good a test the SAT is. In 2008 a commission he National Association for College Admission Counseling suggested that colleges and universities move away from relying on standardized tests for admissions.  In 2009, two professors took the test for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  One was happy with what he found. The other was not impressed. So, if you take the SAT and find some of the questions convoluted or banal, know that at least one journalism professor agrees with you.

A New York Times blog, The Choice, taps also offers some arguments against retaking the SAT or taking both ACT and SAT. Should you take both tests?  Some students, the guest blogger notes, do better at one test than the other and vice versa, but colleges who accept both don't prefer one over the other (if you doubt this advice, you can always ask your particular school). If you take one and do as well as you expected (in line with your practice tests), you might think about the time and money that could be saved if you don't take the other.

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