When should you schedule your SAT or ACT exam date? The short answer: It depends.
Unfortunately, few people will ever tell you this. Guidance counselors often offer blanket advice that coincides with what is published on the College Board website, which states: “Most students take the SAT during their junior or senior year of high school.” The ACT website cites the advantages of taking the test in 11th instead of 12th grade, and I agree with that strategy. But while most high school students take these exams during the spring of their junior year, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should do the same. In fact, it may be beneficial for you to take the test earlier — during the fall semester of your junior year.
It’s important to take into account your particular circumstances when considering your test schedule. Below are eight factors you should consider when selecting your exam dates:
1. Preparation Time
Some students are good at cramming for tests. The majority of students who cram for the SAT or ACT usually fall short for one reason: There is simply too much material to cover in a short period of time. Starting to prepare three days or even three weeks before the exam doesn’t really help improve scores substantially. Most students need at least two months of study time to realize their full potential on the SAT or ACT. For that reason, it’s important to schedule test dates that allow adequate time for test preparation. Ideally, students should begin studying in the summer leading up to their junior year for the September ACT and October SAT.
2. School Workload
During your junior year, you are likely taking a heavy course load that includes honors, AP, or IB classes, and your schedule will only get tougher as the school year progresses. Given that AP and IB exams take place in May and are quickly followed by final exams in June, the spring is a bad time for students to also have to worry about the SAT or ACT. Instead, you may want to take the test in the fall or winter of junior year so you can study the summer between sophomore and junior year without other distractions.
3. Retaking Exams
By taking the ACT in September and the SAT in October, you will also have flexibility to retake the exams, if necessary, at an opportune moment. A general rule of thumb is that the majority of students who take the SAT or ACT for a second time see an improvement in their scores. By taking an exam twice, students can also take advantage of what is known as superscoring. Superscoring refers to the process by which schools take into account your highest scores across multiple test dates. For example, say the first time you take the SAT you receive a Reading score of 600, a Math score of 650, and a Writing score of 700, for a total of 1950. Then, you retake the exam for a Reading score of 650, a Math score of 600, and a Writing Score of 700, for a total of 2000. Institutions that practice superscoring will take the highest combination of scores, which in this case would be a score of 650 for Reading, 650 for Math, and 750 for writing, for a total high score of 2050.
Another option is to participate in Score Choice, which is a service offered by the College Board. Score Choice allows students to select which scores according to SAT date to send to particular institutions. However, some schools requires applicants to submit all test scores, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the policy of each school you’re applying to.
While you don’t necessarily want to sign up for back-to-back test dates, it’s important to take the test for the second time in relatively close proximity to the first. After all, the test material and process of taking the exam should still be somewhat fresh in your mind. One suggestion is to take the ACT in September of junior year, and then retake the exam no later than December.
4. The PSAT
Students who score high on the PSAT may be eligible for certain scholarships. Competitive students who would like to be considered for such scholarships may opt to study for the SAT during the summer between sophomore and junior year, and then take the October administration of the SAT prior to taking the PSAT, with the intention of taking the PSAT not to prepare for the SAT, but to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. In other words, students may opt to prepare for the SAT not by taking the PSAT, but by taking the SAT. The College Board provides free, readily available full-length exams on its website, and these provide far better preparation for the real thing than the PSAT does.
5. SAT Subject Tests
Additionally, many selective schools require applicants to take one or two subject tests. By taking the SAT or ACT in the fall of junior year, you will have more time to incorporate the subject tests into your schedule strategically.
6. College Applications
I recommend that students take the SAT and ACT prior to their senior year for several reasons, in part because that is when students are working on their college applications. It’s stressful enough to have to work on multiple college applications without the SAT and ACT looming. Additionally, the grades students receive the first quarter of senior year are generally the last grades that get sent to colleges. You don’t want your GPA to suffer because you are worrying about exams and unable to focus on coursework. And finally, students who are applying for early decision have less time to prepare their applications, since these are typically due in either October or November of senior year.
7. Math Level
A common misconception is that the SAT and ACT feature higher-level math, such as precalculus and calculus. On the contrary, the highest level of math the SAT features is geometry and algebra 2, while the ACT also includes some trigonometry. You’ll want to make sure you’ve taken these particular subjects before registering for the exams — but you don’t want too much time to elapse between your completion of the subject matter and your test date. For many students considering selective colleges, geometry, algebra 2, and trigonometry get covered during sophomore year.
Stress is an important factor when considering your testing schedule. If you tend to get anxious about upcoming events, an earlier test date might lessen the amount of time you spend worrying about the exam. On the other hand, if you don’t feel overwhelmed about testing in general, then you may have more flexibility when selecting a test date.
It’s important not to sign up for a test date simply because it’s when other students take the exam. Students have different needs based on extracurricular activities, course loads, goals, and personality. If you choose the right test date based on your circumstances, you’re taking the first step toward successfully planning for the exam — and your future higher education.