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.