Going back to complete your college degree is a great way to create new career opportunities and significantly increase your income.
If you’re considering taking this step, though, you probably have a lot of questions. A common one is about retaking standardized tests. You might remember test scores being important when you first applied to college. So should you try to retake standardized tests to increase your chances of being admitted to a program?
We’ll help you answer that question by clarifying how colleges traditionally use standardized test scores and how their use is dramatically changing. Then we’ll suggest some things to consider as you decide whether retaking a test makes sense for you.
How are colleges using standardized test scores?
Let’s start with a brief reminder of what standardized tests are. These are exams designed to provide a uniform way to assess the academic preparation of students across all schools and regions.
The two most common standardized tests used in the U.S. for high school students planning to enroll in college are the SAT and the ACT. Though there are differences between them, they are both timed exams that test for general abilities in the areas of reading and comprehension, language use, and math. The ACT also includes a section on scientific reasoning and knowledge.
How do colleges use the scores from these exams? There are five common ways they come into play:
- Extra information: Beyond high school grades, standardized test scores give another measure of academic performance and potential.
- Comparison: School grading systems can differ quite a bit from one another. It can be difficult to compare students from different backgrounds based on grades alone because a B at one school might represent a very different standard than a B at another. Standardized test scores provide a way to overcome this obstacle.
- Placement: Beginning college students are often required to take courses in areas like writing and math. Their scores on the ACT or SAT can help colleges determine their present abilities so they know the appropriate level at which they should begin.
- Scholarships: Some institutions use test scores as a criterion for eligibility for certain scholarships.
- Finding students: When students register to take the SAT and ACT, they can elect to share information about their scores and academic interests with colleges. Then the colleges will reach out to students they believe might be a good fit.
When you consider the potential role test scores can play, it’s easy to see why having the best possible score is an advantage.
The use of standardized test scores is shifting
The use of standardized test scores in one or more of the ways described above was common at most higher ed institutions in the U.S. until very recently. However, two things have come together to substantially reduce the extent schools rely on test scores.
The first has been a growing concern on the part of many in higher ed that standardized test scores put certain categories of students at a disadvantage, including those for whom English isn’t their first language or whose parents never attended college.
The second was the pandemic, which completely disrupted the normal patterns of test-taking and forced many colleges to suspend requirements for standardized test scores in 2020 and 2021.
That pause caused by the pandemic encouraged many colleges that may have already had concerns about standardized testing to move away from it permanently. In this year’s application season, more than 80% of higher ed institutions in the U.S. made submitting standardized test scores optional.
So standardized test scores have quite recently become much less significant than they used to be. Still, being optional doesn’t mean they play no role at all.
Should you retake a standardized test?
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if it makes sense for you to retake a standardized test:
Do I even need standardized test scores? As we’ve noted above, standardized test scores will be optional for many colleges. For many others, they won’t be requested at all. If the schools you hope to apply to don’t make standardized test scores part of your application, then there is no reason to worry about it.
What was my score? On the other hand, maybe there are schools you’ll be applying to that do request or encourage you to submit scores. In that case, you know they play at least some role in the admissions process.
Still, your potential to benefit from retaking an exam depends upon what your original score was. If it was low, retaking it might help your chances of gaining admission or qualifying for aid.
How do you know if your score is sufficient? One way is researching information about average test scores at the college you’re considering. Many institutions make this data available. If your score is significantly below that average, it could make sense to try again.
How likely is my score to improve? This question may seem difficult to answer, but you can make an educated guess.
One thing to consider is what the test-taking experience was like for you. If you were super nervous and the test format was unfamiliar, a retake with a little practice first could help alleviate those problems and maybe result in a better score.
There is also some interesting data available on the average benefits of retaking tests. For the SAT, one study found an average score increase of 90 points (out of a maximum score of 1600). That’s about a 6% increase.
Another study found those who retook the ACT improved their scores by 8% on average. However, the gains were largest for those who took the test for the first time as sophomores or juniors. For those who took their first test and a retake in their senior year, the average gain was only .6%.
So is it a good idea to retake a standardized test before you start applying to colleges?
As we’ve seen, standardized tests have become much less important in recent years. It still might make sense for you to try a retake, however, if a school you’re applying to requires or encourages you to submit scores and you’re not happy with what you got originally.
We’re one of the few universities in the country that specializes in transfers and students who want to return to college to finish their degrees. We understand the challenges you face and have designed our admissions process to remove any unnecessary obstacles as you seek to complete your education.
With more than 50 majors and degree options and a flexible, affordable curriculum, we put earning your degree within reach.