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

When is the best time to take the SAT? How many times should you take the exam? My general advice for students applying to selective colleges is to take the 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. However, the best time to take the SAT depends on a variety of factors: the schools to which you're applying, your application deadlines, your cash flow, 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. That's not always the best approach, and it can be costly. The College Board offers the SAT seven times in a year (see the SAT dates): August, October, November, December, March, May and June. Note that the August exam date is new as of 2017 (it replaces a January test date that was never very popular).

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 most popular for juniors). Doing so allows you to get your scores, compare them to the score ranges in the college profiles, and 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.

I would argue, however, that taking the exam early can be a waste of time and money, and cause unnecessary stress. The redesigned SAT exam is testing 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. 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 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.

I'm a fan of the College Board's new August exam option. 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

The College Board's Score Choice Option may make it tempting to take the SAT more than twice. With score choice, you need mail only your best set of scores to colleges. However, be sure to read the pros and cons of Score Choice. Some top colleges don't honor Score Choice and require all scores anyway. It may look a bit ridiculous if they see you've taken the SAT a half dozen times.

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 desperate 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.