student filling out answer sheet when taking practice test, with a clock in the background

A strong (or weak) test score can have a huge impact on college or private school admissions. Test scores are one of the most important factors that admissions offices consider when admitting applicants—no wonder taking standardized tests can be so stressful for students! 

To help improve test-taking performance, students and their parents will frequently turn to popular studying programs, such as test prep courses or test-specific study books. These programs can help, but if the resulting test score is still lower than the goal score, the student and parents are left with a choice: Keep studying and retake the test, or take a chance on admission officers liking the first score? Even though a strong GPA and a history of excellence in extra-curricular activities could make up for less-than-ideal test scores, families are increasingly opting to retest.

In recent years, half of high school students have taken the SAT more than once. Retaking exams can help boost your score, but an even more effective strategy is taking practice tests prior to your test date. We’re diving into the best practices when it comes to standardized test retaking so that you or your student can be best equipped for that final test date.

How Retesting Can Help You Achieve the Score You Want

Retesting generally has a positive impact on academic outcomes. In a small subfield of psychology, researchers have found that retesting will improve an individual’s score by 2/3rds of a standard deviation, on average. If the student takes a third version of the test, they can expect to improve their scores by another 0.2 standard deviations. This trend can continue for several test administrations, with test scores usually reaching a plateau after the 4th or 5th test. 

What does this mean? Though these observations apply to all sorts of exams, we’ll use the SAT as an example. The SAT is designed so that each year’s test-taking cohort will have an average score of 1000 and a standard deviation of 100. If a student received a score of 1130 on their first administration, they could retest for a potential score of 1200 on the second test, and possibly improve to a 1230 or 1240 on the third. 

Of course, these retest scores are not perfectly consistent, but even 50 more points could qualify the student to apply to several dozen more schools than their original score did. This truth makes the extra studying and second test administration a worthwhile investment. In fact, test researchers unanimously support retesting because of the reliability of score improvements, and even College Board advises that students take the SAT at least twice—once in the spring of their junior year, when schools across the country administer the exam, and once in the fall of their senior year.

How Colleges Evaluate SAT Retests and the Magic of Superscoring

Every college has its own policy in regards to evaluating SAT retest scores. Some schools only care about your highest single test score, even if it wasn’t your most recent. Others require students to send in all their SAT scores. Regardless, colleges don’t look poorly on retakes; in fact, retaking the SAT and improving your score demonstrates growth and perseverance to admissions officers. To help manage the scores you send, College Board provides a Score Choice service, allowing students to select the scores they wish to be sent to a college.

The SAT has two distinct sections, each with its own score—the Reading and Writing score and the Math score are combined to result in the total score. When you retake the SAT, what if your Reading and Writing score increased by 70 points, but your Math score decreased by 20 points? Many universities have a superscore policy that uses a student’s best section-level scores, even if they are from different test dates, in order to evaluate the best that a student has been able to perform on each section of the exam.

Keep in mind that score evaluation policies vary across universities, so make sure to read into the policies of the schools you’re applying to.

What if We Won’t Have Time for a Second Chance? The Downfalls of Relying on a Retest

Families cannot always rely on a retest—sometimes application due dates come up and there’s no time to take the test again and wait for results before applying. Another common situation is that the parents know that a student could perform better on a test than they did on their first administration, but the student has no interest in further studying or test-taking. Feeling forced to study and retest could result in resentment, and the student could refuse to give their best effort on the second test—they may even score lower the second time around.

This happens all too often. If a student feels that they did sufficiently well on their first test, or if they think their scores will allow them to gain admission to a “good enough” school, they will have no motivation to study for the test anymore, and they certainly won’t want to sit through a 2-3 hour exam again. Unfortunately, families may find themselves stuck in such a predicament after they receive their test results.

Test-Taking Anxieties

Another unfortunate situation that happens fairly often with standardized testing is student anxiety. Many students do very well in class discussions and complete homework with top marks, but experience debilitating anxiety in a high-stakes test environment. Some level of anxiety about testing is common in students, but some have test anxiety so strong that it greatly inhibits their ability to perform. Students of all ages recognize the importance of standardized tests; even when they don’t know the stakes of the test, students can hear the intonation of parents and teachers when they talk about “The Big Test”.

They might form a mental impression of the test as a powerful force to be wary of. Sometimes, they become so nervous about answering each question perfectly that they will spend an unnecessary amount of time on each problem. This extra time adds up over the test, and they may find themselves only answering half of the questions on a section before they are forced to move on to the next. Then their anxiety becomes even stronger. They want to answer each problem perfectly, but they need to hurry! After experiencing this intense stress for one exam, it’s understandable that such students avoid retesting and experiencing this fear again.

It’s easy for students to get stuck in a loop of anxiety, but test-taking anxiety can be managed and reduced over time. Studies have shown that taking practice tests (more on this below) and retesting can help decrease test anxiety by familiarizing the student with the test format, question types, and time constraints. That’s just one way that taking multiple practice tests can be a more effective test-prep strategy than relying on retakes.

The Value in Retaking Practice Exams

There are many benefits to retaking an exam, but waiting until after the first test administration to plan for a retest may not give students the best advantage. Rather, successful test-takers can take multiple practice tests, making their official test feel more like the third or fourth attempt. Taking a regimen of practice exams can bring a whole host of benefits to a student’s test scores and real exam performance, from helping with test-taking anxiety to identifying and closing knowledge gaps.

Why Take Practice Tests?

Practice tests allow students to evaluate their academic understanding and test readiness without the pressure of a real test. Practicing their knowledge of the material and test-taking strategies is best done during a practice test. Doing so on an official test, especially for the first time, can compound worries and negatively affect their results. 

Because test anxiety can be persistent, it may be helpful for anxious test-takers to take several practice tests, even four or more. Once a student is truly comfortable taking their practice tests, they will be much more comfortable taking the real test. Simulating the test in advance through multiple practice runs can also curb loss of motivation. If a student plans to sit for only one or two “real” tests, they cannot become resentful and unmotivated about the nonexistent “next try”. 

The PSAT is an example of an effective practice test. Each year, high schoolers take this official “Pre-SAT” practice exam—which has the same format as the SAT but doesn’t affect college admissions—to prepare for their real SAT. 

How to Study for an Exam Using Practice Tests

The most effective way to use practice tests to prepare for the real deal is to use them as benchmarks to guide the student’s studying. (Developing an exam prep timeline can help!) Here, we break down what that looks like:

1. Take the First Practice Test Before Studying

The most effective test preparation starts with taking a practice test before any studying. The student takes a practice test in an authentic test environment with only a general knowledge of what the test assesses and how the test is set up, including the amount of time to take each section.

By taking a practice test without any studying, the student can see exactly what sections and which types of questions they need to spend the most time studying (e.g. big-picture questions in the reading section or math questions that combine geometry and algebra). Afterwards, they can effectively practice by focusing most of their time on those sections of the test. This should be several months ahead of the first test day (if it’ll be the School Day SAT, for example, they should probably take a preliminary practice test and start studying the summer before or early months of 11th grade).

2. Taking More Practice Tests Before Test Day

After two or three months, the student can take another practice test. With their new knowledge, they should see drastic improvements; still, even this test will show sections that could use more practice. Using this feedback to re-assess study goals, the student can then fine-tune their knowledge and test-taking skills in the months leading up to the test.

It’d be helpful to take one more practice test two or three weeks before the actual test date. The purpose of this final practice test is to make sure the student has a strong understanding of how to pace themselves during the test, because some students get into the habit of taking too much time to reason out certain problems while studying.

Taking a final practice test less than two weeks before the actual test date could be detrimental if the student is likely to fret over the questions they got wrong on their last practice test. So, plan to take the final practice test 3-4 weeks before test day, giving enough time to study ahead of the exam.

3. Test Day and Onwards: Practicing Before Retakes

The final practice test should be more than 2 weeks away from test day—ensuring that there is enough time to study concepts from that practice test can help the student alleviate test anxiety and be more prepared for test day. Then, students should feel free to stop studying a few days before the actual test. This will rest their minds so they can approach their exam with a rested and ready brain. 

Taking practice tests shouldn’t disrupt any plans to retake the real exam; in fact, taking practice tests will substantially support the various retakes a student chooses to take. Remember that the vast majority of test researchers and the College Board all recommend taking a test (especially the SAT) at least twice. After the first test day, students should take one or two practice tests before the second test dates, then again before any later test dates—all the data points towards their score rising with each retake. 

The Importance of a Simulated Test Environment

When taking practice tests, it is important to have a test-taking environment that is similar to the environment the student will have for their actual test. Psychologists know that memories are formed by associations: you remember more about a bonfire if you remember the way the smoke smelled and how the s’mores tasted. The more associations added to the study environment, the more the student will be able to remember during the test. If the student learns to be comfortable taking a long test in a quiet, imposing room (like the all-stone walls in most schools), then they will be more comfortable when they take their actual test.

As such, the student may need to take their practice test away from home. This way, they’ll be free of any distractions they’d have at home and be immersed in a more studious environment that more resembles their experience on test day. Ensuring that this environment is similar to the real test environment will make their practice test-taking experience more effective.

In addition to a similar setting, the student should make sure to follow the test’s timing. A stop-watch could help, as could a friend or family member to act as the test proctor. By emulating test day on a practice test day, the student is helping their future, test-day self be prepared to do their best. 

The original version of this article was originally published on and written by Matthew Rottman.

Practice Tests and More Test Prep with Piqosity!

Students often find it necessary to take a standardized test two or more times. Scores tend to improve when retesting, but time constraints and other factors could make it difficult to take multiple official tests. Therefore, it’s more practical and efficient to simulate several retests before taking the real thing. By taking multiple practice exams and approaching each one like the actual test, students can get all the benefits of retesting without the hassle of preparing and paying for more than one test administration.

If you’re on your test prep journey, Piqosity is here to help! Along with our full-length, online ELA and Math courses for grades 5-12, we offer full test prep courses for the ISEE, ACT, and the new Digital SAT! Each test prep course includes practice exams, dozens of concept lessons, personalized practice software, and more.

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