To maximize your chances of a high SAT or ACT score, don’t prep for a test date, prep for a test score. Sometimes preparing for a specific test date is unavoidable (such as when a student has one last test before early application deadlines in senior year). But, I’ll explain why preparing for a score increases a student’s chances of hitting that score goal and what a student should do if they must prep for a specific test date.
Most of us don’t perform as well when under a lot of pressure. So, the pressure of “I have to do well on this next test” is a lot more pressure than “I’ll just keep taking this test until I hit my score goal and submit my best scores to colleges.” In the latter scenario, there is much less pressure because any given test is not really that important, and that lesser pressure actually helps students perform better and increases their chances of hitting their score goal. And, if students are not reporting all of their scores to colleges (the ACT even allows students to delete past scores for free), then students can take the real test as literal practice — and real tests as practice tests are the best practice, and you can’t get any lower stakes than that.
As we discussed here, because students can have a good or bad day, because test content varies from test to test, and because the favorability of a test’s curve varies from test to test, fluctuations in scores from one day to the next are not only possible but 100% expected. The pandemic gave us an interesting natural experiment that demonstrated this: In 2020, the ACT added 5 additional fall test dates, many schools ran their own school-day tests, and there were the regular three fall test dates as well. With so many tests, many of our students were able to take the ACT twice in 8 days (on consecutive Saturdays). So, same student, two tries, one week apart. How do you think those students did? On average, their composite scores fluctuated up to two points from one Saturday to the next. For some, they did better on their second try: one student (who was averaging 32 on their practice tests) scored a 32 on the first test and then the next Saturday scored a 34. For others, the reverse was true: a student (who was averaging a 28 on practice tests) scored a 29 on the first test and a 27 the following Saturday. A week in the school year with limited time for prep is not enough time to gain or lose much knowledge or skill, so the best explanation is the expected one: natural variation in scores. And, both the SAT and ACT (in the fine print) predict these fluctuations.
The SAT itself explains this well:
No two days are the same, and if you were to take the SAT three times in a week or once a week for a month, your scores would vary.
That’s why it’s helpful to think of each score as a range that extends from a few points below to a few points above the score earned. Score ranges show how much your score might change with repeated testing, assuming that your skill level remains the same.
Usually, section scores for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and for Math fall in a range of roughly 30 to 40 points above or below your true ability. Colleges know this, and they receive the score ranges along with your scores to consider that single snapshot in context.
Understandably, this can be frustrating: a 30 point difference on the SAT could make or break getting into a college, but scores are expected to range +/- 40 points on each of the two sections. So, on average, the SAT is expecting students’ scores to vary by +/- 80 points in composite score. To put that in perspective, if a student is averaging a 1400 on practice tests, the SAT would expect them to score between a 1320 and a 1480 on test day — a massive 160 point spread. (For an extended look into the design, scoring, and curving of the tests, here is a fabulous podcast episode on the topic from the lead psychometrician at the ACT, Jeffrey Steedle.) So, this expected variability in performance is frustrating (just like it’s frustrating when we don’t perform our best on a given day on the soccer field, the basketball court, or any other task), but awareness of this variation is important for students, parents, and educators. You might have to prepare for a single championship game in a sport, but, on the ACT, you can redo that championship game as many times as you want until the application deadlines in order to increase your chances of performing at your best. So, because we can expect natural score variation but can’t control it, what’s our first defense? Take the SAT or ACT multiple times. Over the course of a few tests, a student is very likely to score at the high end of their expected score range.
But, suppose you’re a rising senior who still needs to get their score up and has one last try, what can you do to maximize your chances of reaching your score goal? Try to bring your SAT or ACT score up such that the minimum expected score in the range is the score you want to hit. For instance, because the ACT expects students to score +/- 2 points on any given test, then if possible, you should try to bring your average practice score 2 points above the test score you want/need to hit. Here’s a real life example of this: One of our current students is a rising senior who will be taking the ACT one last time in September before he does early applications to colleges. In July, he scored a 29. Given that score, on any given test day, the ACT expects him to score between a 27 and 31, but neither a 27, nor a 28, nor a 29 will improve his score and help his chances of admission, and he wants a 30 or above on the ACT. So, what should he do? If he’s willing to do so (he actually is — he’s doing a ton of prep), then he should aim to bring his average practice score up to a 32 by test day. If he does so, then his expected score range will move from 27-31 to a 30-34. So, even on a bad day, he should hit a 30 and increase his admission chances. It’s significantly more work to bring your average score 2 points above your score goal, but, if you can do it, that’s the best option for increasing your chances of hitting your score goal on a particular test day.
Granted, for many rising seniors who are significantly below their score goal, just raising their average scores to their score goal let alone raising their average scores to 2 points above their score goal in a very short period of time does not offer a high probability of success. So, what should they do? They have two options:
- Apply without test scores to test-optional colleges. But, students also need to realize that applying without test scores decreases their chances of admission. If a college is not test-blind (meaning they will not look at SAT/ACT scores even if you send them) and is instead test-optional, then really that college is “test-preferred.” And, a good rule of thumb is this: if a college would have accepted you with an SAT or ACT score significantly lower than their average because you are a priority applicant for them (very high GPA, you add diversity that they are looking to increase on campus, etc), then you can apply without test scores now and they will likely accept you. But, if they wouldn’t have accepted you with a significantly lower score before, then they very likely won’t accept you without test scores now.
- If a student is unlikely to gain admittance without test scores, then they should continue to take the SAT in October, November, and December or the ACT in September, October, and December of their senior year. (Applying with test scores can double a student’s acceptance chances at many colleges, especially — as CollegeVine data points out — if the student’s SAT or ACT score is above that of the median SAT or ACT score of accepted applicants at that school.) Although students who continue to take the SAT and ACT in the fall won’t get the admissions boost from applying early, at least they will greatly increase their chances of admission with a higher SAT or ACT score, which can more than offset the boost they would have gotten from applying early. For example, we have a current student who recently started with us that has a 22 on the ACT. She has a lower than average GPA (3.46 unweighted) and no background that makes her a priority applicant. There are many schools to which she can apply and still gain admittance (typically colleges that accept 70% or more of their applicants). But, she wants to attend a higher caliber college (those that accept about 60% or less of their applicants); so, on average, she’d need a 27 or above to get into such a college. Could she go from a 22 to a 27 on the September test? It’s possible, but unlikely. More likely it will take her until the October or December ACT test to hit that 27 (both because she needs to learn a lot of content to do so and because multiple testing opportunities in and of themselves boost a student’s chances of reaching a higher score). So, for the more competitive colleges, is she better off applying early with a 22 on the ACT (or just not submitting her scores) or applying by the regular deadline but with a 27? The probably unsurprising answer: regular deadline with a 27, because she’s unlikely to get into a more competitive school with either a 22 or without submitting scores, but she still stands a good chance of admission in the regular decision applicant pool with a 27 or above. If she still hasn’t reached her score goal by the November SAT or October ACT, then she should switch to the “last resort” option: over-prepare for the December SAT or December ACT to maximize her chances of success on those test dates (and doing so increases her chances of exceeding her score goal as well — so the “risk” of over-preparing is a higher score and even better admission chances).
Many factors influence a student’s score goal on any particular testing day (see the addendum at the bottom of the page for a potential, additional surprising cause of test day score variation). Although we can’t control the variability in performance and test scores on a particular day, we can plan for it. And, to do so, students can prep not just for a test date but for a score goal and maximize their chances of success.
There is quite compelling data to suggest that air pollution, specifically of particulate matter concentration, on a given day can significantly affect cognitive ability and test performance; that probably sounds too crazy to be true, but there is enough evidence for its effect that the Freakonomics Podcast recently devoted an entire episode to it. If the data is to be believed, air pollution affected percentile performance by, on average, half a standard deviation. In plain English and related to the SAT and ACT, just random chance of particulate matter concentrations on a given day could alone account for about +/- 1 point on the ACT and about +/- 100 points on the SAT.