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When Should Students Take the ACT/SAT?

As a full-time tutor, I work with students and parents all the time to help put a study plan in place for the ACT or SAT. It’s a fairly personalized process, as every student has different goals, target schools, timelines, etc. Some of the questions are similar, however, and one of the first questions we tackle in those conversations is, “When should I plan to take the exam?” The answer to that question is very clearly, “It depends.” Here are a few things to consider.


When Are You Planning To Apply To Colleges?

Make sure you have enough time to take the test at least twice before application deadlines. Why twice? Two reasons. First, if you discover after your first try that you still have room for improvement, there is still time to study before your scores need to be in. Second, there’s always the chance of a fluke test-day experience. Anything from skipping breakfast, a poor night’s sleep, or test-day jitters can affect a test score, and you’d want a second try if something like that happened.


If you’re planning to apply early, say October 15th of your Senior year, you may want to look at one spring and one summer test date during Junior year to ensure scores are back before admissions deadlines. If regular decision, typically with a deadline in early January, seems like the best route, testing once over the summer and again in the fall of Senior year would be a typical plan.


As a side note, it’s normal to take the test anywhere from two to five times as you continue your preparation. Just make sure plenty of study is happening in between tests. If you haven’t spent time studying, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect much improvement on the next test.


What Do You Want Senior Year To Look Like?


Some students plan on taking a hefty course load full of AP classes and other challenging material their Senior year, while others plan to spend their time soaking up the last year of high school. Still others will have schedules packed with athletic events and other activities. It helps to spend some time thinking about what your Senior year will look like and whether it will be a drain to add test prep on top of your normal activities.


On the whole, I see more students who prefer to go ahead and get their scores in before Senior year begins, but that’s by no means across the board. It’s a personal decision, and every student has a unique set of considerations.


What Scholarship Opportunities Are Out There?

Sometimes, those who continue working on test prep into their Senior year are not so much working to get into a certain school, but to land scholarship money. I’ve regularly had students who achieve the score they wanted for their college applications, only to find themselves within a couple of points of the next level of scholarship money at their target school. Often, those students will gear back up their Senior year for one last try or two at some extra scholarship money.


This scenario is another argument for trying to wrap up testing by the summer before Senior year, so that if you are close enough to try for scholarship money, there is still time for it.


When Is It Better To Wait?


Studying for the SAT or ACT is a long-term project, and there are times where it makes the most sense to plan for test dates that are a little later. If a student has very high goals or has a significant amount of improvement to make before they reach their goals, it can make sense to plan to wrap up their testing in the fall of Senior year. Other students may want to see more classroom material, particularly math, before test day. While a good test prep program can provide instruction on any concepts that might be missing, some students just feel more comfortable if they can do this side-by-side with their school work. In either scenario, these students might want extra time to squeeze every point possible out of their test prep activities before they walk in on test day.


The Bottom Line


On the whole, I’ve found working with students that planning to take your tests earlier, rather than later, tends to be the better choice for many. The most typical plan is to start with a practice test over the winter of Junior year to see where to focus study time and then plan on taking the SAT or ACT once in March/April and then again in June/July. This leaves plenty of time in the fall to continue sharpening if needed, push for scholarship money, or just soak up Senior year. In the end, though, choosing test dates is a personal decision, and it all comes down to finding an equilibrium between giving yourself enough time to study and having enough test dates to achieve your target score.

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