SAT & ACT Scheduling: An Alternate View

With students expected to take the SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests, and finals all in the second semester of their junior year, we may as well rename the term "Spring Hell." In today's Noodling Jonathan Arak offers a scheduling strategy that could help lighten the load.

When I was asked to write for this blog, there was no question as to what my topic was going to be. From mid- August right through to the October SAT, a mother of one of my students, we'll call her Mrs. A, insisted that what I had scheduled for her son to take the test was "brilliant, and you should put it on the Internet". She was amazed that no one else had mentioned it to her, and was confident in spite of the fact that numerous other mothers had told her she was "crazy" for having her son take the SAT in the fall of Junior year. So here's to you, Mrs.A, for prompting this blog entry.

Before I get to the heart of the matter, I do want to point out that this is not a perfect strategy for every student, but it is__ a strategy to be considered for every student, in the hopes of making his or her Junior year less stressful and painful. Standard Operational Procedure for taking SAT/ACT has been to take it for the first time in the spring of Junior year and repeat it, if necessary, in the fall of Senior year, and so it has been since the dawn of mankind (or at least since the birth of these annoying tests). But just because it's the way things have always been done, doesn't mean it's the way it should be done.

I've been prepping students since 1988, and somewhere along the line in the mid 90's it hit me that the struggle the Juniors were going through was not completely necessary, that there was a way to mitigate "spring hell" when students were doing SAT's, AP's, SAT Subject Tests, Final Exams, and Term Papers. Taking one big item out of that constrained three month period could make things much more bearable. For years, students have taken summer SAT/ACT courses and then would come back for a brush-up before the spring exams. I realized that many would lose the improvement they had gained over the summer, and would not regain it through participating in the brush-up. It actually would have been better for them to have jumped into the test in the fall and not have waited. So, I thought, "why not just plan to do that in the first place?" And ever since, when I get a call from a prospective client early enough, it's a plan of action that I thouroughly discuss. Unfortunately, guidance counselors at schools are almost universally against this idea. Mostly, they seem to be driven by the idea that students shouldn't be distracted from their school studies by standardized tests any sooner than necessary. And noble though this thought this may be, what they fail to consider is that there is a greater competition for the students' time and energy when they prep from January to March/May Junior year than if they had done the prepping mostly over the summer.

If you take this approach, then depending on a student's summer commitments, it's worth starting prep as soon as possible after July 4th weekend. Aim to take the test in the fall, as soon as students have achieved their target score on a practice test. This approach may require registering for several dates in the fall, as you won't know up front when exactly they will be ready, but you don't want to wait to register and get shut out of choice/convenient locations. If a test date is not used, it can be transfered (for a fee) to another date. _Though what I am about to type sounds nutty, the best test date could come as early as September(ACT) or October (SAT), if the students are ready. Otherwise, plan on taking the test later on in the fall as progress dictates.

Now, to some of you reading here, it likely sounds crazy to take the SAT or ACT before the PSAT, but I have had students do just that. Some even nailed their score on that first try, and were done with standardized testing until SAT Subject Test season (starting up in late February/early March). For those who don't achieve their score on the first attempt, getting ready for re-taking the test usually takes less time/effort than initial prepping/studying would, thus still keeping the stress to a minimum.

Who is this approach good for? I suggest many, especially high achieving students who are taking AP classes Junior year. AP's are a big commitment, and it really doesn't make sense for those students to try to juggle taking the SAT/ACT in the spring, when they already have two or more AP's on their docket. Three sport students are another especially appropriate group; I actually have a personal policy of not tutoring three sport students unless I get to work with them the summer before Junior year. I got tired of crying, depressed and stressed out students, who I basically couldn't help because they had NO time to do the prep that they so desperately wanted to do. One mother finally yanked her daughter off the track team, because I told the mother her daughter couldn't keep up with her school homework, let alone get to the SAT stuff.

Who is this approach not good for? Primarily, I would say students who are on a slow math track and may not have covered all the material yet at school. Another group that doesn't need to push the timeline up are the more average or below average students who won't be taking AP's or SAT Subject tests. Though for some of those students, there may still be benefit in doing the bulk of the prep during the summer without having to juggle school homework as well.

Ultimately, the point here isn't that this is the way to go about scheduling standardized test dates, but it is an approach that most people never even consider, and one that should be examined by everyone as it can make students' lives easier and less stressful.

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