3 Solid Strategies For Deciding When to Take Your SAT or ACT
Determining when it’s best to take the SAT (developed and produced by College Board, like the PSAT) or the ACT (developed and produced by ACT.org) really comes down to when you’ll have time to prepare for the college admissions process and to properly organize your junior and senior year priorities.
First, it’s important to give yourself an opportunity to take practice tests of the SAT or ACT test 2-3 times before beginning your test prep journey. Many students under-perform the first time they take the test, and if you’re prone to test anxiety, knowing that you only have one chance to do well will make that anxiety even worse.
Furthermore, most schools "super score" the SAT and a growing number super score the ACT. Superscoring means that schools will mix and match results from multiple test dates to give you the best overall score. So, for example, if you scored 640 Math and 550 Reading on one SAT and then scored 560 Math and 660 Reading on the next, your super score would be 640 Math and 660 Reading, and that’s the SAT score most schools would use when weighing your college application. The same is true for ACT scores.
The next factor to take into account is the Early Decision/Early Action deadline. Ideally, you want to give yourself the option to apply early to one or more schools. The latest qualifying test dates for the ACT and SAT are the October test dates of senior year in high school.
Finally, if you are taking SAT Subject Tests, you have to make sure you have time to fit those in as well. This is especially complicated if you are taking the SAT, since Subject Tests and the SAT are offered on the same test dates.
With all these factors in mind, there are three major timing models for preparation.
Model 1: Heavy Preparation Summer Before Junior Year, First Test in the Fall.
Many high school students have substantial free time during the summer, rather than during the school year, and this model takes advantage of that free time. You prepare heavily during the summer after sophomore year and then take your first ACT in September or the first SAT in October of your junior year. This gives you plenty of chances for a second and third taking the ACT and SAT test dates and has the added bonus of potentially getting the test out of the way before the second semester of your junior year, a very important year for your transcript/GPA.
The downside of this model is that you’ll be taking the test without the benefits of everything you’ll learn Junior year; odds are that your math and especially your reading skills will get stronger over the course of that year, which might allow you to score higher if you put off the test--especially when it comes to the math section.
Model 2: Start Preparation as the School Year Begins, First Test Winter or Early Spring of Your Junior Year
This is the model taken by students who are planning ahead, but who are busy with extracurricular activities during the summer. They start ACT or SAT prep more-or-less at the end of the summer and take their first test when they’re ready: as early as December and as late as March depending on the student. This still makes it easy to take the ACT or SAT test multiple times, but it does tend to make for a more packed school year.
Model 3: Start Preparation After Winter Break, First Test in Spring of Your Junior Year
This model more-or-less guarantees you’ll have a time crunch second semester of senior year, especially if you’re taking a lot of APs and/or Subject Tests. That said, it’s still a viable model, especially for students who don’t need a lot of improvement from their baseline test scores. You may have to schedule your second test in the fall, which can create a real crunch if you have to take Subject Tests then too. Overall, this is a recipe for a hectic schedule, and if this is the route you plan to take, understand there’s a very good chance you’ll still be testing the fall of your Senior year and cutting it very close to college application deadlines.
Finding Your Path
The bottom line is that you need to figure out the best balance between your other priorities and these standardized tests and find the best time to prepare. I generally recommend one of the first two models, as they don’t put the student under as much pressure as the third, but I’ve seen test-takers succeed using any of these approaches.
If you can manage the first model—prep during the summer and first crack at the test before Winter Break—I think that’s the best approach to take for most students who don’t need the benefit of their Junior year courses in order to score well.
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