We get a number of emails every week from parents of juniors asking about the best time to take the ACT. Here are our thoughts on the matter.
Ideally, juniors should have started on ACT prep no later than last June and taken a baseline practice test at home at the start of summer, but if this is not the case, here are some thoughts on how to stay competitive with the remaining time.
With the state-sponsored, school-administered ACT scheduled for February in most Central Ohio high schools, we strongly recommend that students commence their ACT prep work immediately if they have not already done so. A number of students and parents view the February test as the baseline and take it with no preparation, which we believe is an incorrect strategy. There are multiple reasons why starting today is the superior strategy:
- Second semester vs. first semester: The second semester of junior year is typically busier and more challenging than the first semester, so there will be less time to prepare for the ACT then.
- ACT is much more challenging than school tests: We often see students with high school GPAs of 4.0 or higher struggle through the ACT process as ACT tests high school and middle school content, a lot of which may already have been forgotten by students.
- Test-taking speed: The ACT is a speed test. By section, the average time to answer each question is: English: 36 sec, Math: 60 sec, Reading: 52.5 sec, Science: 52.5 sec. So students are expected to make an accurate decision once every 30-60 seconds over 215 questions, which is not an easy feat. The point behind these statistics is that students are expected to be not only knowledgeable but also efficient with their content knowledge. This takes repeated practice.
- April and May are busy: Juniors will be busy with finals and AP prep and testing in April and May, and it is extremely important to do well on these tests as universities do pay close attention to these scores.
- Away from academics: Not to mention volunteer work, extra-curriculars, and part-time jobs. The time allocated to these pieces really adds up.
- Sports: The time consumed by sports is substantial and should be properly factored into ACT prep time allocations. And kids would rather be out on the field than sitting at the kitchen table with their ACT materials. Expect to largely write off sports days from the student's ACT prep calendar.
- Importance of ACT scores in the application process: Despite the hoopla over the recent test-optional stance by the University of Chicago, most universities do take the ACT and SAT scores very seriously. The 2019 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that 83% of all college admission counselors consider test scores to be of considerable or moderate importance. Since most juniors are still undecided about which universities to apply to and which majors to focus on, it is best to be conservative about this decision and take standardized testing seriously. Remember, too, that students who do not submit standardized testing scores to universities will have the rest of their application scrutinized more closely. This may be a good thing or a bad thing.
- More time to try out the SAT: Taking the ACT in December gives students the opportunity to switch to the SAT if the ACT score is underwhelming. This is often a viable strategy that leads to a better overall outcome for some students. However, changing tracks only succeeds if students give themselves adequate time to study for the SAT and recover from a subpar ACT outcome.
- Lower stress and spend: Spreading the ACT workload over a longer period of time has an important benefit: you get any bad news early and have more time to fix any issues. Solutions may include more time on the student's calendar being allocated to test prep, taking a class or finding a tutor earlier in the cycle, and getting the score up steadily without making undue sacrifices along the way.
- Summer commitments: There will be a number of commitments during the summer after junior year. These include travel, volunteer work, college visits, full-time jobs, and the application process. Adding ACT prep to these commitments is not a trivial exercise. Student inertia around testing in summer is also a real phenomenon.
- Murphy's Law: Things do go wrong: your student wakes up on test day with a 100-degree fever, the proctor shaves off 5 minutes from the Reading section, or scores don't get reported on time. It is best to avoid these and get the ACT experience wrapped up satisfactorily and out of the way quickly and not let it linger through the fall of senior year.
Our recommendation? Sign up to take the December ACT with or without preparation, ideally with. Make this the baseline attempt. Have your student work really hard between December and February to make the state test administered by the school a successful experience. If there are any points remaining to achieve the target score after February, create a plan to accomplish this by June. Note, however, that results for state-sponsored tests are usually reported over a month after test date; please plan accordingly.
If your student does plan to register for the December test:
- Register immediately as the late registration deadline is November 22, 2019.
- Do pay for, and register to receive, the Test Information Release (TIR): a copy of the test booklet and a question-by-question analysis of your student's performance that is mailed to you about 4-6 weeks after the test. This TIR is an excellent forensic tool that lets your student assess and fix any content or technique gaps quickly.
- PrepAccelerator has free crash courses and paid boot camps running throughout the year. Both have excellent track records for improving student scores. Details and registration are here.