When Should My Student Take the ACT (SAT, PSAT)?

Recently, a good friend from Chicago with two sons in middle school wanted to know when he should have them start preparing for the ACT. This is a popular question, and we thought it would be great fodder for a blog post.

First of all, please know that the ACT/SAT score is a critical component of any student’s college admission package. A number of schools use the GPA and the ACT/SAT score as preliminary filters for admission and scholarship. Every point matters. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

In a recent survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, over 88 percent of the respondents said that the standardized test score was of considerable or moderate importance in admission decisions. While some colleges have decided to de-emphasize – or even discard – the test score in the application process, the vast majority of schools still views the test score as a vital component of every student’s admission profile.

When it comes to taking standardized tests, there is such a thing as starting too soon, and, correspondingly, starting too late. Starting too soon would mean that the student may not yet have studied a lot of the tested math material as part of the school curriculum, resulting in anxiety, prep that spans an extended period of time and costs more money in registration fees, tutors, classes, etc. (A quick comment on test anxiety: Students who are nervous test takers are strongly encouraged to take a number of practice tests at home under timed test conditions; just as with sports, success on the ACT comes with practice and repetition – no tennis player wants to double-fault at match point.) Starting too late would lead to unnecessary stress, compressed deadlines, conflicts with other important target dates from the college application process, and a possible miss on the target score. This last outcome can seriously compromise the list of colleges that students are eligible for as well as hurt scholarship potential.

We know firsthand and hear from a number of students that junior year is entirely too busy with extracurriculars, co-curriculars, IB and AP classes, SAT Subject tests, and a number of ad hoc commitments. While students generally adapt quickly to this strenuous schedule, the first element that gets postponed is the ACT/SAT cycle as there is always another test date in the future… so why sit for this one? Before the busy student realizes this, while maneuvering through band, sports, and a variety of other obligations, procrastination has claimed its first victim: ACT/SAT prep gets moved to the back burner.

We at PrepAccelerator believe that the optimal time for any student to start ACT, SAT, and PSAT prep is no later than spring of sophomore year. The first formal deadline for students is October of junior year, when they may opt to take the PSAT, thus launching the official National Merit Scholarship process. The recommended sophomore spring start date works perfectly for ACT/SAT prep as well, giving students ample time during the summer to hone their test-taking skills and fill any content gaps.

As a first step, PrepAccelerator encourages students to take a practice test at home under timed test conditions; this gives them a baseline score and an early signal on what they will need to do to fix any gaps. Students are encouraged to use only official tests for ACT/SAT practice. Since English (grammar) and Math are content heavy, students will need plenty of time to master any new material. Reading and Science, on the other hand, are technique heavy and require a different kind of preparation, also manageable in the same time frame.

Students should sit for their first official ACT/SAT in the early fall of junior year. No, this is not too soon but rather spreads out the same amount of test ‘pain’ over a more reasonable period, giving students more time and flexibility in case their starting score is too low. Where possible, students are encouraged not to wait to take the school-sponsored ACT/SAT in February-April as their first attempt; it should serve as one of their final attempts. We applaud the schools and state for doing a terrific job in bringing the test to every junior; however, we would like to remind you of what happened earlier this year: snow emergencies caused a delay, sometimes substantial, in the administration of the ACT, and, furthermore, scores for some school districts took well over a month to be reported. Murphy’s Law appears to have a stranglehold on the standardized test-taking cycle. Most students are therefore working with a compressed time frame to achieve their target score. (See our recent blog post on how to make the best use of the remaining time.)

As always, we at PrepAccelerator are eager to help students achieve and even surpass their target scores. Register for our popular group classes, the free 4-hour ACT Crash Course and the paid 13-hour ACT Boot Camp. Contact us about our private 1-1 tutoring approach and pricing, where we work on helping students fix their specific gaps. Lastly, consider subscribing to our free, no-spam mailing list for tips and early announcements about upcoming events.