The classic fairy tale, 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. Upon breaking into a residence occupied by a family of bears,  Goldilocks famously 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 for the first time has parallels to eating pilfered lukewarm, grainy stew prepared by domesticated grizzlies: Taking the SAT 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 testing timeline for you. Of course, before launching in, we need to shift for a moment from grizzly bears to the 800-pound gorilla in the room–the COVID-19 pandemic.

Changes to the SAT due to coronavirus

When quarantine began in the spring, it immediately disrupted the March administration of the SAT in most locations. Next came a series of attempts to reschedule canceled exams and still offer the usual May and June tests–none of which were successful. The idea of an at-home exam was explored by the College Board but ultimately nixed. 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.

The College Board did add an additional test date in September. Seniors who wish to sit for the test for the first time (due to previous cancellations), or improve on an earlier score can register for that date. Whether this administration ever takes place is, of course, entirely dependent on the state of the virus at that time. Uncertainty abounds, a reality that is never fun. As such, we would advise seniors who are entering the college application process to try to sit for the exam, but also be aware of constantly-evolving test-optional policies at their prospective colleges.

When is the SAT offered in 2020-21?

As of July 2020, the SAT is slated to be offered eight times this year:

  • August 29
  • September 26
  • October 3
  • November 7
  • December 5
  • March 13
  • May 8
  • June 5

How do I know which date is right for me?

During more typical times, at some point during junior year of high school, college-bound students should sit for the SAT. 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 for the first time, a teen should ask oneself the following questions:

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. Here is a quick glance at the breakdown of math content covered by the SAT.

The SAT measures three major categories:

  • Heart of Algebra – mastery of linear equations and systems (33%)
  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis – quantitative literacy (29%)
  • Passport to Advanced Math – manipulation of complex problems (28%)

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? In essence, students need to at least get close to completing Geometry (less important than it used to be) and Algebra II in order to be fully prepared for the SAT. 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 on the exam

Am I taking AP courses junior year?

If you are enrolled in multiple AP classes 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 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.

How much time do I need to study?

Research shows that studying for the SAT yields positive results. Thus, it is critical for students to carve out time for concentrated study prior to taking the exam. Students should begin to study 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  by the College Board found that just 20 hours of targeted practice through Khan Academy resulted in an average score gain of 115 points.

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 (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.

Key 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 SAT test dates and test-optional policies at colleges.
  • When possible, take the SAT 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 in 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 the SAT two or three times.
  • Don’t eat bears’ porridge—spend your time on Khan Academy instead!