For the vast majority of teens, the year 2020 likely won’t be one that they look back on with extreme fondness. Okay, that may be an epic understatement for anyone outside of precocious entrepreneurs who made timely investments in either double-ply Charmin toilet paper or Zoom stock.

In ordinary times, one of the greater concerns in a college-bound rising junior or senior’s life might be when to sit for standardized tests. While a number of “real-life” challenges and a heap of uncertainty have been plopped on our plates in recent months, high schoolers must still get a handle on the tasks that lie ahead in a fast-changing and fluid college admissions landscape. The ACT test, with close to two million annual test-takers, is one such task for which those applying to college in 2020-21 or 2021-22 must develop a plan of attack. Let’s begin by catching you up on all of the pandemic-induced standardized testing drama that has dominated the spring and summer months:

How has coronavirus impacted the ACT?

Among countless other disruptions, the pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to the standardized testing industry and its millions of teenage customers. For the ACT specifically, attempts to administer the test in March, April, and May were thwarted by the pandemic. Many June testing centers also had to close and the attempt to give the test in July was an unmitigated disaster.

In response, a great number of colleges, including most of the Ivy League and many other prominent institutions announced a shift toward a test-optional policy for the Class of 2021 and, in some cases, also the Class of 2022. A complete list of Test-Optional Colleges can be found in our Dataverse.

When is the ACT expected to be offered?

The ACT is offered in seven different months for the 2020-21 school year:

  • September
  • October
  • December
  • February
  • April
  • June
  • July

Due to the spring and summer cancellations brought about by COVID-19 and the resulting extraordinary backlog of students eager to sit for the exam, the ACT will be offered on the following Fall 2020 dates:

September 12, 13, 19

October 10, 17, 24, 25

How do I know which ACT date is right for me?

During typical, non-pandemic times, college-bound students should sit for the ACT at some point during 11th grade. The goal is to maximize your exposure to a standardized test-relevant curriculum while also leaving yourself time to retake the test once or twice.

Before deciding when to take the ACT for the first time, a high schooler should ask oneself the following questions:

1)What level of math have I completed?

This is one of the most important considerations for 11th graders in determining when to first sit for the ACT. Here is a quick glance at the breakdown of math content covered by the ACT.

The ACT has the following breakdown:

  • Number & Quantity: 7-10%
  • Algebra: 12-15%
  • Functions: 12-15%
  • Geometry: 12-15%
  • Statistics and Probability: 8-12%
  • Integrating Essential Skills (applying middle school-level math concepts): 40-43%
  • Modeling (questions are co-categorized with one of the above areas): 25%

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? In essence, students need to at least get close to completing Geometry and Algebra II in order to be fully prepared for the ACT. If you are taking Algebra II during junior year, you may want to wait until the late spring to begin your standardized test journey. If you are an advanced math student who already has these courses under their belt by the commencement of junior year, you could consider sitting for a fall test date (of junior year). However, exposure to trigonometry and statistics will also help with some of the more advanced questions featured in both exams.

2) Am I taking AP courses junior year?

If you plan on taking multiple AP courses/tests junior year, then early-to-mid-May is going to be a hellish time already full of intense prep-work and exam-taking. Students in this situation are wise to sit for the ACT for the first time during the fall of junior year, or in April or June to avoid standardized-testing overload when AP tests are administered. This typically works out fine for such individuals because those on the AP track have typically covered the vast majority of the math subject matter by this juncture.

3) How much time do I need to study?

Research shows that studying for the ACT yields positive results. Thus, it is critical for students to carve out time for concentrated study prior to taking the exam. Students should begin studying during the summer prior to the start of their junior year, brush up on skills over winter break, and then use the summer prior to senior year to engage in targeted practice on any areas of relative weakness.

We recommend fully utilizing the ACT Academy which is offered free of charge by the company that makes the test.

4) Will my plan let me take advantage of Superscoring?

Students who retake the test end up with Composite scores 2.9 points higher than their single-test counterparts. Fifty-seven percent achieve a higher Composite score upon sitting for the test for a second time; a much higher percentage see an increase in at least one subject area. This can be immensely beneficial, especially in light of what is known as Superscoring — where colleges take the best combined subject scores across multiple test administrations.

While the vast majority of schools Superscrore the SAT, ACT Superscoring policies are more variable (for a complete list click here). When accepted, Superscoring gives you a great strategic advantage because it allows you to focus solely on the areas where you want to improve. For example, if you take the ACT in April of your junior year and score a 30 one the English test and a 23 on math, you can, in effect, “bank” your verbal score and focus 100% of your attention on sharpening your math skills.

Those who wait until senior year miss out on the opportunity to maximize their opportunities to sit for the test, engage in meaningful study, and retake the test, thus missing out on the full benefits of Superscoring.

College Transitions’ Takeaways

  • COVID-19 has changed the standardized testing landscape for the 2020-21 school year. Much uncertainty remains.
  • Stay on top of pandemic-related shifts in both ACT test dates and test-optional policies at colleges.
  • Take the ACT for the first time during the first or second semester of your junior year
  • Factor in AP and SAT Subject Test requirements to avoid standardized testing burnout
  • Leave yourself room to take the test again summer before senior year and a third time, if necessary, the fall of senior year.
  • Put in the time studying. Research shows that studying for the ACT produces results.
  • Superscoring is your friend. Plan on sitting for the test two or three times.