When should you start test prep?
You should start test prep for the ACT and/or SAT earlier than you think. All of your core academic courses from elementary through high school teach content and critical thinking skills. These are important components of your test-taking performance. Reading 20 minutes/day or more can also help you become a better test-taker.
When you start test prep in high school depends on several factors, including your college and career aspirations, your activities calendars, and your academic abilities. Start by taking a PreACT or PSAT test during the fall of your freshman or sophomore year to gauge your test-taking skills prior to beginning active test prep. The PSAT taken in October of junior year is also the entry point for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
Take both the ACT and SAT tests once during your junior year to see which is best suited to you, then take your preferred test at least four times: twice junior year and twice senior year. Ambitious students may want to prepare for and take either the June SAT or June or July ACT after their sophomore year. Remember—rarely does anyone get their best score the first time, which is why test prep matters.
Each year the ACT (September, October, December, February, April, June, and July) and SAT (August, October, November, December, March, May, and June) are offered seven times each. All colleges will accept either test. Aside from these national test dates, many schools offer a spring school-day test option, especially in states where it is the state-mandated test for juniors.
College application and scholarship deadlines. Many colleges and scholarships begin accepting applications in July or August of your senior year. Most colleges accept ACT and SAT scores through the December test of senior year.
School-day testing. Consider taking a school-offered spring ACT/SAT as your second test, if available. Take the ACT in December or February, or the SAT in November or December prior to your school’s test so you’re prepared for the test format, timing, and content. If you take the national test date closest to your school’s testing date, you get double the testing out of your preparation!
Other commitments. Look at your schedule to consider if you have a heavier sports season, music, debate, or other activities, or more difficult (AP, honors) classes in a particular semester.
Why start test prep early?
Junior year is tough. It’s generally the most rigorous academic year, and the one that colleges look at most closely for grades. Junior year is when you may be trying out for varsity athletics and activities, requiring more practice time. You also may be researching and visiting colleges, working, or job shadowing.
Plan for the unexpected. Tests can be cancelled for weather, administrative issues, Covid protocols, or other reasons. You might be sick on test day. Give yourself time in case you need to reschedule your test date.
Keep your options open. Starting sooner allows more time to test multiple times. As more colleges accept superscores, additional retakes may be more valuable. And if you decide to pick up a new extra-curricular, take a mission trip, study abroad, or another opportunity arises, you’ll be better able to adjust the timing of your tests.