While most people would tell you that the “right time” for students to take the SAT or ACT is spring of their junior year, the reality is that it depends on a few things.  One of the most important factors in determining a student’s testing timeline is whether or not the student has completed Algebra 2.

If you’ve taken Algebra 2, you’re probably ready to start prepping!  And if you haven’t taken it, you aren’t ready and you’ll likely be frustrated, because you’ll be presented with math questions you have absolutely no idea how to approach or solve.
So here’s how we advise our clients:

If you take Algebra 2 in 10th grade, great!  During the summer between 10th and 11th, take a full-length practice SAT, and a full-length practice ACT.  These will not be fun.  And they should be real, retired exams (see below for explanation on this).  After you’ve taken both practice tests, it’s time to determine which you like better, and on which you scored higher.  This tells us which direction to choose:  SAT or ACT.  All colleges in the country accept either, so there’s no reason to take both!

Once you have a plan (SAT or ACT), it’s time to start prepping.  You have choices throughout the school year.  Why should you take it before the end of 11th grade? 

Here are the benefits:

If you have a bunch of AP courses in 11th grade, your spring is going to be full and busy.  AP exams are usually the first two weeks in May, and they are usually followed pretty closely by finals.  And remember – your 11th grade grades are the last grades that many colleges will see when you submit your college apps in the fall of your senior year.  THEY ARE SUPER IMPORTANT!  Why, oh why, would we want to add another super-stressful test on top of those AP exams and finals?  And why, oh why, would we wait until a year has passed since you last finished algebra 2, and then pay a tutor to remind you what you learned a year ago!?  We wouldn’t, and you shouldn’t!

So if we can pull that SAT or ACT just a little bit earlier, all the better.  Less stress!  Take it in the fall of your junior year, or in the winter.  The SAT is offered in August, October, November and December, then again in March, May and June.  The ACT is offered in September, October and December, then again in February, April and June.  May and June are HORRIBLE timing!  Let’s avoid those dates, if at all possible.

The other, very important reason to pull the ACT or SAT earlier is a psychological one.  Most of the time, students and parents overestimate what they think their score will be.  If you start looking at colleges in the junior year (our team spends the entire junior year with clients on what we call “Phase 1: The College Search!”), you are likely to start associating yourself with colleges whose scores are higher than yours might end up being.  We call them “reach schools.”  You could spend your entire junior year falling in love with Georgetown, or Penn, or another super-top school that requires super-top grades, test scores and even with those, there's no guarantee.  You’re less likely to want to research colleges that are much more likely to admit you; we call them “target” and “likely” schools.  And if we don’t have your score till the end of the year….and it’s not as high as you thought it would be…..then you’re going to end up in a pretty stressful place.  You’ll put tremendous pressure on yourself to raise that score, while also trying to study for AP exams, finals, have an interesting summer, get essays started, etc.  And even if you DO bring the score up, remember that these top colleges reject as many students with perfect scores as they admit.  There’s just no guarantee that a top score will bring you that acceptance letter you so desperately want.

Bottom line, we’d rather know what range your score is in early, and work slowly to bring it up, while being realistic about creating a balanced college list.

If you don’t take Algebra 2 until 11th grade, you should wait until at least the middle of the year to start prepping, and take it towards the end of the year, maybe the summer.  Remember, you can take the SAT or ACT in your senior year!  It’s just that we love to spread out these stressful pieces whenever possible.

There can be special circumstances, of course.  If you take Algebra 2 in 9th grade, it’s unlikely that your verbal/grammar/reading comprehension skills are going to be as strong as your math skills.  In this instance, we recommend finding ways to retain your math knowledge, while sharpening your reading skills through 10th grade.  You could prep towards the middle or end of the school year and take a first SAT or ACT in the spring of 10th grade, although you could also wait and prep over the summer, on the same timeline as students who take algebra 2 in 10th grade.  No need to rush this!

If you’re an athlete, or if you have a seasonal activity that is all-consuming for a few months.  So the reality is that your testing timeline is a very personalized matter.  When someone tells you that the “right time” to take the SAT or ACT is spring of junior year, think about whether or not that’s the “right time” for YOU.

* When you sign up for a practice SAT or ACT exam, make sure it’s a real, retired exam, one that was actually used by the College Board or ACT.  Some unscrupulous test prep companies cobble together their own set of questions and call them practice exams.  We’ve seen tests made from the toughest SAT and ACT questions, which depresses the initial test score, making it seem like your improvement after prepping is higher than it really is.

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