When should I take the SAT or ACT?
The classic fairytale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, tells the tale of a cute little girl who, for reasons not fully explained, abruptly embarks on a life of crime, breaking into a residence occupied by a family of bears. Famously, as part of her caper, Goldilocks tastes three bowls of porridge finding one to be too hot, another too cold, and one to be “just right.”
The process of deciding when to sit for the SAT or ACT for the first time has parallels to eating pilfered lukewarm, grainy stew prepared by domesticated grizzlies: Taking the SAT/ACT sophomore year is likely “too early,” senior year is “too late,” and sometime in junior year is “just right”—the question is exactly when within junior year?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as it is dependent upon a number of factors. However, if you follow our advice below, you’ll be able to determine the right standardized test timeline for you.
When are they offered?
Let’s begin by looking at when the SAT and ACT are offered as it will give you an overview of your options:
The SAT is offered is offered seven times per year: October, November, December, March, May, June, and, as of 2017—August
The ACT is offered six times per year: September, October, December, February, April, and June.
How do I know which date is right for me?
At some point in the junior year of high school, college-bound students should sit for the SAT or ACT. 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 SAT or 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 either the SAT or ACT. Here is a quick glance at the breakdown of math content covered by both the SAT and ACT.
The SAT measures three major categories:
- Heart of Algebra
- Problem Solving and Data Analysis
- Passport to Advanced Math
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 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 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 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.
3. How much time do I need to study?
Research shows that studying for the SAT/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 Khan Academy’s cost-free SAT prep courses. In fact, a study released this year by the College Board found that just 20 hours of targeted practice through Khan Academy resulted in an average score gain of 115 points.
4. Will my plan let me take advantage of Superscoring?
Students who take the SAT in spring of their junior year and elect to retake the test the following fall improve their overall score by an average of 40 points on the SAT. 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.
The vast majority of colleges Superscore the SAT and some Superscore the ACT as well (for a complete list click here).
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 SAT in April of your junior year and score a 650 verbal and a 510 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.
- Take the SAT or 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 August 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 SAT produces results.
- Superscoring is your friend. Plan on sitting for whichever test you select two or three times.
- Don’t eat bears’ porridge—spend your time on Khan Academy instead!
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).