When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

This is one of the college planning questions that has a straightforward answer: take the tests, so that even with re-takes, you are DONE by the end of your junior year.

Avoid senior year panic

Yes, students can take the SAT and ACT as high school seniors. This year (2017) SAT has added an August exam date and next year (2018) the ACT will add a July test. These early fall options provide a safety net for students wanting another attempt at a higher score.

But the reality is that having to test in the fall of your senior year is stressful. (Ask the parents of these students who have contacted me in the last couple weeks when they found the June ACT or SAT results weren’t good enough.) Senior year is busy– fall especially. You will thank yourself later when you plan ahead to do all testing as a junior.

When junior year?


I typically start with a student’s extracurricular obligations and try to work around competition season, major performances, AP exams, etc. Football players, cheerleaders, and members of the band are so busy in the fall that winter or early spring tests might be better. Spring sport athletes and students with a heavy AP class load might want to avoid spring tests because they won’t have as much time to devote to the ACT or SAT. Look ahead and block out the busiest times.

Allow for at least one re-take. Most students take their test of choice two or three times. (A lot will take the other exam at least once “just to see”, but that isn’t necessary.) Both the ACT and SAT offer June exams which are good for retesting, but I wouldn’t wait until June to take the test for the first time because re-takes spill into your senior year.

The current testing calendar includes plenty of opportunities:

ACT: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July (2018)

SAT: August, October, November, December, March, May, and June

There is very little students will learn in the classroom that will help them on the ACT or SAT with one exception– Algebra II. Read more here if you have a student who will be taking Algebra II as a junior or who has consistently struggled in math.

If all test dates are equal, find a time where your student will have the most motivation and free time to prepare. Some students are eager to dive into the college process and will be ready to start in the fall; others do better in the spring when all juniors seem to catch “college fever” as the idea of college starts to become more real.

Would sophomore year be even better?


No, it would not. There is no compelling reason for a student to take the ACT or SAT as a sophomore. If you want to practice, print out the official practice tests from ACT and College Board and take them timed at your kitchen table. There will be plenty of opportunities during a student’s junior year to take these tests.

My daughter is getting ready to start her junior year of high school. She did not take the ACT or SAT as a sophomore. In fact, we are just starting test prep with a goal of some fall exams (PSAT and SAT). If earlier or more was better, we would have done it. And we didn’t.

Keep in mind that the SAT and ACT are challenging. They are constructed with a mix of easier, medium, and hard level questions and the goal of the test writers is to make sure not too many students get high scores. (Why would colleges want scores if everyone had top marks?) Develop your plan to allow for the possibility that not everything will go right the first time. Planning makes this stressful process of college admission easier.


Is It Better to Take the ACT or SAT?

In 2017 it doesn’t matter which test you take. Any college that requires standardized test scores for admission will accept either exam– with no preference given to one over the other.

Old habits die hard.

There are geographical preferences for certain tests that go back decades. Traditionally the ACT was most popular in the Midwest while the SAT was popular here in Texas and on the east and west coasts.

When I took the SAT & ACT (in the 1980’s) some colleges didn’t accept the ACT. That practice died out over a decade ago when all schools — even the elite Ivy League schools– decided to accept the ACT.

The ACT may offer an advantage.

This is one of those little details that might tip the scales in favor of the ACT. Some highly competitive schools ask students to submit SAT Subject Tests in addition to the regular SAT or ACT. (More on SAT Subject Tests here.) However, some schools will accept the ACT in place of the SAT + SAT Subject Tests. In these cases, one ACT can take the place of two Saturdays worth of SAT exams.

So why do I only see SAT (or ACT) averages on XYZ’s website?

Colleges are subject to the same historic and geographical trends we’ve already discussed. You might see only SAT averages on a school’s website if a majority of its applicants submitted SAT scores for admission. That school may not have enough students applying with the ACT to publish those scores. Just because you don’t see ACT (or SAT) averages in printed material or on the school’s website doesn’t mean those scores aren’t equally valued for admission.

Focus on the test that’s best for you.

Because there isn’t a “preferred” exam for colleges, you should take the exam that showcases your strengths. Yes, you can take both, but in my experience students are busy and have better things to do than to prep for two different exams when one will do.

Not sure which one to take? Use the official practice tests from College Board and ACT. Compare scores by comparing your percentiles. You can use this chart.

There is no better test– no favored test for admissions. The best test to take is the one that will allow you to get the highest scores possible.

R. I. P. Old SAT


Tomorrow, January 23, we say goodbye to the old SAT as it is given for the last time. I will miss:

  • Math that emphasizes creative problem solving over long computation
  • The overt (and easily coach-able) emphasis on college-bound vocabulary
  • Short sections that never ask students to focus for more than 25 minutes on a given subject
  • Broad essay topics which allow multiple interpretations supported by any type of evidence

Going forward with the new SAT I think students will appreciate

  • The scoring system which no longer penalizes for wrong answers
  • A multiple-choice writing section based 100% on editing passages (like the ACT). Students won’t miss the Error ID sentences.
  • Changes to the written essay that move it to the end of the exam, remove it from the overall SAT score, and make it optional (like the ACT). Essay scores will now be “extra” and will not be factored into a student’s Evidence Based Reading & Writing score (again, like the ACT.)

The new SAT looks more like the ACT than its outgoing counterpart. Having two competing exams that share an increasing number of similarities is not good for students, many of whom benefited from having a real choice in admissions tests.

As the new format SAT moves from prototype to full implementation phase this spring, we will see how many students prefer it to the ACT and life will be simpler with two known choices and less speculation.

I guess it is time to recycle my old SAT books. I’ve had the new format book since it was released by College Board last summer, but it doesn’t have the same familiar dog-eared pages and worn cover held on by layers of packing tape.


Will A New SAT Benefit Students?

Will A New SAT Benefit Students

Yesterday Inside Higher Ed announced College Board’s plans to update the SAT making it better reflect the work students will do in college:

“An improved SAT will strongly focus on the core knowledge and skills that evidence shows are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college and career. This is an ambitious endeavor…”

It is somewhat ironic that this announcement comes less than eight years after the major overhaul of the SAT in early 2005 when the writing section was added and analogies and quantitative comparison questions were dropped.  At that time, we were told the new format would better assess “skills needed in college” with an emphasis on written communication to be evaluated by through the written essay.

There’s a lot of speculation about the recent news.  Maybe these changes are in response to the growing popularity of the ACT.  I live in a traditionally “SAT state” and I’m seeing more and more students turn to the ACT as an option.  Perhaps continued criticism of high stakes testing from parents and educators has had an impact.  Maybe the SAT is finally responding to a world in which more colleges and universities are questioning how standardized test should be used in admission.

While the causes and history are interesting, I want to focus on those who will feel the impact – students.

How Will the New SAT Benefit Students?

College Board’s announcement won’t bring any immediate benefits to students.  All benefits will seen in the slow evolution of the admissions testing process.

Greater Scrutiny on Admissions Tests

Any change to the SAT will necessitate further examination and discussion of the purpose, role, and effect of standardized tests for college admission.  The SAT was developed as a tool to help level the playing field for college-bound students who did not have the luxury of attending prestigious prep schools.  Today, debates continue to point out potential biases and flaws in standardized testing.  A reevaluation of the SAT may not lead to an overhaul of the admissions testing industry, but it will further conversations on the role of these exams.  Change may be slow, but these discussions will benefit students long term.

Reevaluation of Content

When my grandfather took the SAT in the 1940’s, he had to translate statements from Latin to English.  Clearly we’ve determined that is no longer a necessary skill to earn a college degree.  What skills do students need in college?  How can we assess them?  Will a new test have any reliability or validity in assessing what it claims?

I’ve helped students prepare for the SAT for two decades.  I’ve seen the SAT change.  I know the SAT is an imperfect tool.  I’ve had bright, hard-working students who struggle to earn an average score – far below their ability or potential.  But overall, I can say that tests like the SAT and ACT have some use.

The student with an SAT Reading score of 400 will perform differently in the classroom than the student with a 700.  Yes, test taking savvy may play some role, but the student with the 700 will have a stronger vocabulary and better reading comprehension than her low scoring peer.  The challenge is to develop a test that can consistently assess student abilities in key areas.

My Predictions

Not Much Will Change

This story will blaze through the testing and admissions crowd then fizzle out.  College Board is not going to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.  The SAT is not going away.  We will just see the new model and most of us won’t be able to tell the difference from one version to the next.

When the SAT introduced the Writing section in 2005, it took colleges a couple years to gather data before they began using scores for admission.  The College Board has to be careful to remain consistent enough that universities can still rely on scores to be standardized.

The Process Will Be Slow

No one should get excited and think they will finally be released from the torture that is the SAT.  These changes will take time.  My daughter is in sixth grade; it is possible she may see a new version of the SAT.  But for those of us who were around before the changes of 2005, we remember how long the process was as new questions were tested, discussed, and the changes were finally introduced to the public.

Changes May Not Be What Students Want

I start my SAT classes by explaining that the SAT (and ACT) are graded on the traditional bell curve with few students scoring at the top or bottom.  I joke that if everyone could earn a high score on the SAT, how would Harvard know who to let in?  If students expect a kinder, gentler SAT, they may be disappointed.  In order to serve its purpose in college admissions, the SAT will have to continue to generate results that fit the bell curve.  No matter what types of questions College Board decides to add, students should expect a balance of easy, medium, and hard problems.


College Board’s desire to create a new SAT is an interesting development.  Hopefully it will spark further discussion on what skills students need in college and how tests like the SAT and ACT can effectively assess those skills.  But for now, students will find it is business as usual for the SAT and its role in college admission.