The ACT, a common alternative to the SAT, is a college entrance exam that many American colleges and universities use to assess the academic preparedness of their applicants. It’s made up of four multiple-choice sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—and an optional Writing section, for a total of five sections.
Starting in September 2020, students looking to improve their ACT scores will have the option to retake single sections—up to three sections in any one sitting, with seven national testing dates offered throughout the year—instead of sitting for the entire five-section test again. There is no limit on the number of times a student may retest overall.
This new option comes with the advent of “superscoring.” Currently, a student’s scores on each of the four mandatory sections—called “subscores”—are averaged into a composite score. If students have taken the test more than once and want prospective colleges to see their best subscores, they have to send in multiple full test results. Beginning in September, students will receive a “superscore” that combines their best score on each section, spanning all the times they took the test.
Are you thinking of choosing the ACT over the SAT because of these new changes? Not so fast. In theory, it’s great that ACT (the company that makes the ACT) wants to offer more flexibility to students and enable them to present their best possible test scores to colleges. However, there are several concerns that should be factored into any student’s decision to choose the ACT over the SAT, or even to choose section retesting over complete retesting.
It’s important to note that section retesting is only available to students who take the entire test first—it’s not a way to take the test section-by-section on the first go-around. You will still have to sit for the entire ACT at least once.
You have the option of taking the entire ACT in paper or on the computer. But section retesting will only be offered on the computer. This means that if you study for and take the ACT on paper, you will have to modify your strategy to prepare for section retesting. For example, on the Reading section, you may find it helpful to underline key sentences or scribble notes in the margins. This isn’t possible on the digital test. In general, if you are prepping for section retesting then you should practice using online materials and electronic practice exams to get comfortable with the medium. The benefit of taking the test online is that you’ll receive your scores more quickly.
Obviously, section retesting allows you to avoid doing worse on sections that you had done well on earlier—but it’s unclear how much this matters, given the new superscoring option. On the flip side, if you retake a section, then you are forgoing the opportunity to do better on the other sections. At what point is it worth it to forgo this opportunity? Obviously, a student who scored a 36 on the English section would want to avoid retaking the English section. But what about a 30, or a 32? Is it worth it to retake English to see if the student does better? It’s also worth noting here that ACT’s own research shows that the order of sections does not impact a student’s scores on any one section.
Because 2020 will be the first year to reflect these changes, it’s also unclear whether college applicants with an ACT superscore from multiple exams and/or section retests will be evaluated differently from those with a composite score from just one exam. Be sure to check if your prospective schools accept superscoring. This information should be available on the school’s admissions website, or by calling the admissions office.
Though ACT has already announced that section retesting is coming in September of 2020, they have not provided any information on the registration process. Particularly for college-bound students in dense metropolitan areas like New York City, it’s easy to anticipate a shortage of computer centers to accommodate all the students who will want to retake sections. You will want to register as soon as possible to take a section retest if you think it’s the right option for you.
Overall, when it comes to picking between the SAT and the ACT, you should still go with the test you have the best practice scores in. If you’ve already taken the ACT and know you want to retake three or more sections, it might be a good idea to sit for the entire test again. This is especially true if you’re more comfortable with taking the test on paper. You’ll still get your best subscores no matter what option you choose—but if your composite score from one of your tests is higher, then you may end up having an edge in the admissions process over students with a superscore. On the other hand, if you struggle with attentional disorders and/or test-day anxiety, or if you feel you’ve underperformed on only one or two sections, then section retesting may be the right option for you.
Every student is different; there’s no one-size-fits-all method for taking the ACT or SAT. That’s why Empire Edge advisors tailor their approach to the needs of each individual student. We assist with every aspect of the college entrance testing process. In addition to determining the right test for each student, coming up with a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, and offering extensive tutoring for that exam, our advisors will also help students navigate the tricky retesting process and assess whether section retesting is right for them.