When Should I Take the SAT for the First Time?
If there was a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, this blog would be one straightforward sentence in length. Yet, the decision on when to sit for your first SAT exam is context-dependent, and arriving at the correct answer for you involves considering a number of relevant factors. What follows is an exploration of the variables that all teens and parents must weigh, including:
- When the SAT is offered
- When most students take the SAT for the first time
- The timing of your courses—particularly math
- Do you have enough time to study?
- Superscoring and Score Choice policies at your prospective colleges
- Planning around AP exams
- Reasons to take the SAT early
Let’s begin by looking at the months in which the SAT is offered.
When is the SAT offered?
The SAT is offered is presently offered seven times per year: August, October, November, December, March, May, and June.
When do most students take the SAT for the first time?
The most typical maiden voyage occurs either during the fall or spring of junior year. For most teens, these will be two most sensible choices; however, some may have legitimate reasons to consider taking the test as sophomores (more on this later). For what it’s worth, the College Board, the organization that creates and administers the SAT, recommends Option B—waiting until the spring of 11th grade to take the test for the first time.
Here are the PSAT/SAT sequences that the overwhelming majority of high school students elect to pursue:
Option A: The fall of 11th grade testing path
PSAT: Fall of 10th grade
SAT #1: Fall of 11th grade
SAT #2: Spring of 11th grade
SAT #3 (if necessary): Summer or fall of 12th grade
Option B: The spring of 11th grade testing path
PSAT: Fall of 10th grade and/or fall of 11th grade
SAT #1: Fall of 11th grade
SAT #2: Spring of 11th grade
SAT #3 (if necessary): Summer, fall, or winter of 12th grade
No matter which path you choose, you’ll always have the option to take the SAT a fourth time, if absolutely necessary. Even if you apply early decision or early action, you could still take another SAT in December of your senior year as the results are generally made available prior to the date on which many school make their ED/EA decision.
Aligning the SAT with your high school coursework
This is one of the most important considerations for 11th graders in determining when to first sit for the SAT. Consider that the SAT measures your aptitude in three major areas of math as well an “Additional Topics” category. They are:
- Heart of Algebra (19 questions): Linear equations, systems of equations, and linear relationships.
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis (17 questions): Ratios, proportions, percentages, analysis of graphs, understanding quantitative data.
- Passport to Advanced Math (16 questions): Quadratic and higher-order equations, manipulating polynomials, more complex equations or functions.
- Additional Topics in Math (6 questions): Geometric concepts, fundamentals of trigonometry, arithmetic of complex numbers.
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 both the SAT and ACT. If you are taking Algebra II during junior year, you may want to wait until the late spring to begin your standardized testing journey.
How much time do I need to study?
Among seniors retaking the SAT, 55% see their scores increase; the average improvement is by 40 points. A mere 4% of re-testers see their reading or math score jump by 100+ points. However, the numbers are far more encouraging for those who study than those who do not, and this does not necessary mean paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for one-on-one tutoring or fancy SAT classes. In fact, a study released this year by the College Board found that just 20 hours of targeted practice through Khan Academy (which is completely free) resulted in an average score gain of 115 points.
If you are able to carve out sufficient time to study for the test in the summer after your sophomore year, and you are acing practice tests by August, then you may be ready for a fall SAT sitting. If you need more time (Christmas break, spring break, etc.), then waiting until the spring may be more advantageous.
Take advantage of Superscoring
Most American colleges “Superscore” the SAT (for a complete list click here). This means that they will take your highest reading and math scores from across multiple test administrations. This policy grants a major edge to those who take the test multiple times. If your prospective colleges have a Superscoring policy, you can sign up for as many exams as you like without consequence.
Some of the notable institutions that do NOT Superscore are: all schools in the University of California system, the University of Michigan, Penn State, UT-Austin, and the University of Wisconsin.
Do the colleges I’m applying to offer Score Choice?
“Score choice” policies allow you to only report the SAT scores that you wish to share with prospective colleges, eliminating the risk of a single low score . The vast majority of schools have such as policy (notable exceptions include Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Stanford, Yale and the University of California schools). For a complete list click here.
Am I taking multiple AP courses junior year?
If you are enrolled in multiple AP 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 SAT for the first time during the fall of junior year, or in March or April 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.
Reasons to take the SAT before junior year
There are a number of reasons that a student may wish to jettison the traditional SAT timeline and sit for the exam as a freshman, sophomore or even, in some extremely rare cases, a middle-schooler. These include:
1) Advanced math students who have already covered the geometry and algebra concepts needed to ace the SAT prior to 11th grade. For some, the material covered in the SAT math section may be most fresh in their minds earlier in their high school career.
2) Students who feel that they are 100% ready to tackle the test and know that next year (your junior year) is going to be jam-packed with six AP courses (and subsequent exams) and a boatload of time-consuming extracurricular activities.
3) Teens aiming to enter a gifted program like the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) or the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP) which require standardized test scores for students as young as 7th grade. If you wish to apply to a program of this ilk, you will need to take an SAT (or ACT) exam well before the rest of your peers.
Unless you fall into one of these uncommon categories of students, stick to one of the two junior year options discussed previously.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).