What does the best testing timeline look like? We speak to so many families and students about this exact topic every year, with many families wishing they had started earlier. The better you plan the process, the less stressful the process is. Many things have changed over the years, and we’re sure many parents remember a time where students would only take the ACT or SAT once, either at the end of their junior year or during their senior year. But times have changed! 

Today, the ACT and SAT’s national data finds that most students see some level of improvement from their first to second test administration. Anecdotally, we see many students each year who need time and preparation built in between their first and second tests to achieve their best score. Taking the ACT or SAT 2, 3, or more times can take several months, though, so it’s critical that families are beginning the process with time to spare. When we think about the college application process, so many deadlines have moved up in recent years (e.g., early action deadlines, early decision deadlines, FAFSA applications, etc.), and even the timeline of college visits has crept into students’ sophomore and junior years. Students are starting to fall in love with certain colleges and universities earlier than ever, which means that students need to be prepared to understand what it’s going to take to get into those colleges.

Today’s most ambitious high school students have such busy lives that trying to fit preparation into their schedule without other distractions can be challenging. For many families, a student will often have the most free time for test preparation over the summer going into their junior year. The fall can be a challenging time for preparation for our student athletes, and the spring can often be worse for our students engaged in activities, sports, AP tests, prom, and final exams. We know how common it is for students to be pulled in multiple directions depending on how many priorities they’re currently juggling. Practice during test preparation can require at LEAST 3-5 hours a week, so you have to ask yourself, when during the year will a student have that kind of availability in their schedule? We know that most students will not or cannot give up time in their schedule devoted to athletics or part-time jobs, so we highly recommend finding a time of year for test preparation that involves the least number of activities. If you’re going to put time (and sometimes money) into preparing for one of these tests, it’s wise to pick a time of year when the student can devote significant attention to the process. Otherwise, it’s not likely you’ll be able to see the kind of test score or score improvement you’re looking for. Our recommendation? Test as early in junior year as makes sense for you, based on your goals and activities.

We also encourage students to test on dates where the ACT and SAT allow you to purchase a copy of your test and answers. The ACT calls this their “Test Information Release” or TIR, and the SAT refers to it as the “Question-and-Answer Service” or QAS. You can find more information about these services on our blogpost “The ABCs of the TIR & QAS.” Many students benefit from being able to see their test questions and answers after the fact, so it may be wise to schedule a student’s first or second test around these services. The ACT and SAT do not offer these services on every test date, so it’s important for families to know which test dates to take advantage of. For the ACT, it’s their national Saturday testing in April, June, and December. For the SAT, it’s the national Saturday testing in March, May, and October. Taking one of these exams can often launch preparation in a more meaningful way if a student has a set of scores and a better understanding of their areas for improvement. 

You might ask, are there any obstacles to preparing as early as possible in junior year? The answer often lies in what Math class a student is taking as a junior. Taking a standard Mathematics track in high school means that many juniors are only beginning Algebra 2 at the start of their junior year. If a student has not completed all of Algebra 2 when they take an ACT or SAT, there is a chance they will be unable to answer certain questions in the Math section. How much will that matter, though? On an ACT, maybe not as much as you think. An average ACT Math section might only ask 5-8 questions that require Algebra 2 experience because almost 40% of the test relies on Geometry knowledge. In most cases, that doesn’t warrant pushing back a student’s initial testing experience. SAT, on the other hand, does include more advanced algebra, although they are particularly interested in a student’s understanding of basic arithmetic and algebraic concepts. Specific Algebra 2 questions are, in some cases, about as few and far between as the ACT. For students not taking advanced or accelerated Math courses as juniors, it’s also a reality that these students are less than likely to be in the running for achieving a perfect 800 or 36 on the SAT or ACT Math sections, so missing this Algebra 2 piece may not have as large an impact as you think. It’s critical to consider setting realistic goals before a student’s first test. 

Overall, it’s much more important for families to find a time of the year where students have a 2-3 month window for preparation. Taking an SAT or ACT right after the state championship or after the run of the fall musical may not be the best time for a student to try and balance 3-5 hours in their weekly schedule with ACT or SAT prep. For highly competitive students, that may mean utilizing the summer before junior year to prepare and then taking the August SAT or September ACT. If they continue with any kind of PSAT preparation for National Merit consideration, they could also take the October SAT and/or ACT. For a less ambitious student, we might recommend taking the October SAT and/or December ACT as a student’s first test, especially because both offer a TIR or QAS opportunity. In Ohio, almost all high school students will take a free school-day ACT or SAT, paid by the state, in February or March of their junior year. Testing prior to this exam allows students to set realistic goals for their second test, and it prepares families for what kinds of expectations they may need to set for the future.

Overall, the biggest factors to determine a specific student’s testing timeline? 

  • Current academic curriculum
  • Athletics or activity schedules
  • Student’s personal motivation 
  • Student’s realistic test score goals

If you have any questions or want to discuss your student’s situation with a Seeley Test Pros’ test specialist? Email us at info@seeleytestpros.com. Considering registering for an upcoming ACT or SAT? Register with your student account at ​​mysat.collegeboard.org or myact.org.