When and How Many Times Should You Take the SAT?

Learn Strategies for Planning the SAT in Junior and Senior Year

Students Taking Exam
Students Taking Exam. Fuse / Getty Images

The most common advice for students applying to selective colleges is to take the SAT exam twice—once at the end of junior year and again at the beginning of senior year. With a good score junior year, there's no need to take the exam a second time. Many applicants take the exam three or more times, but the benefit of doing so is often minimal at best.

As for when you should take the SAT, the answer will depend on a variety of factors: the schools to which you're applying, your application deadlines, your cash flow, your progress in math, and your personality.

The SAT Junior Year

With the College Board's Score Choice policy, it may be tempting to take the SAT early and often because you will be allowed to choose which scores you send to colleges. That's not always the best approach. For one, many colleges ask you to send all of your score reports even with Score Choice, and it can reflect poorly upon you if it looks like you've taken the test a half dozen times in the hopes of lucking into a better score. Also, it gets costly to take the exam over and over, and it isn't unusual to find that total SAT costs become many hundreds of dollars.

The College Board offers the SAT seven times in a year: August, October, November, December, March, May and June. If you're a junior you have several options. One is simply to wait until senior year—there's no requirement to take the exam junior year, and taking the exam more than once doesn't always have a measurable benefit. If you're applying to selective schools such as the country's top universities or top colleges, it probably is a good idea to take the exam in the spring of junior year. May and June are both popular times for juniors, although March has the benefit of coming before AP exams and final exams.

Taking the exam in junior year allows you to get your scores, compare them to the score ranges in the college profiles of your top choice schools, and then see if taking the exam again in senior year makes sense. By testing junior year, you have the opportunity, if needed, to use the summer to take practice exams, work through an SAT preparation book or take an SAT prep course.

Many juniors take the SAT earlier than the spring. This decision is typically driven by growing anxiety about college and a desire to see where you stand in the college admissions landscape. There's really no harm in doing this, and colleges are more and more seeing applicants who took the exam three times—once at the end of sophomore or beginning of junior year, once at the end of junior year, and once at the beginning of senior year.

However, taking the exam early can be a waste of time and money and cause unnecessary stress. The redesigned SAT exam tests what you've learned in school, and the reality is that you'll be much more prepared for the exam at the end of junior year than the beginning. This can be particularly true if you aren't in an accelerated math program. Also, the PSAT is already serving the function of predicting your performance on the SAT. Taking both the SAT and the PSAT early in junior year is a bit redundant, and do you really want to spend that many hours doing standardized testing? Test burn-out is a real possibility.

The SAT Senior Year

First of all, if you took the exam in junior year and your scores are strong for your top choice colleges, there's no need to take the exam again. If, on the other hand, your scores are average or worse in relation to matriculated students at your favorite schools, you should definitely take the SAT again.

If you're a senior applying early action or early decision, you'll most likely need to take the August or October exams. Scores from exams later in the fall probably will not reach colleges in time. If you're applying regular admission, you still don't want to put off the exam for too long—pushing the exam too close to the application deadline leaves you no room to try again should you fall ill on exam day or have some other problem.

The College Board's relatively new August exam option is a good one. For most states, the exam falls before the term has begun, so you won't have the stress and distractions of senior-year coursework. You're also likely to have fewer conflicts with weekend sporting events and other activities. Up until 2017, however, the October exam was the top choice for seniors, and this test date remains a good option for all college-bound students.

A Final Word About SAT Strategies

It may tempting to take the SAT more than twice, but realize that doing so can reflect negatively upon you if your standardized testing becomes excessive. When an applicant takes the SAT a half dozen times, it can begin to look a bit desperate, and it can also look like the student is spending more time taking the test than actually preparing for it.

Also, with all the pressure and hype surrounding admission to highly selective colleges, some students are taking a trial run at the SAT sophomore or even freshman year. You'd do better putting your effort into earning good grades in school. If you're eager to know early how you might perform on the SAT, grab a copy of the College Board's SAT Study Guide and take a practice exam under test-like conditions. It's less expensive than the actual SAT, and your record won't include low SAT scores from taking the exam prematurely.