Even with the upcoming changes to the SAT, the answer to “when should I take the ACT / SAT” remains the same: sometime during junior year. Here’s why.
Complete Testing As A Junior
Your goal should be to complete all admissions testing prior to senior year. If you can take (and retake) the ACT or SAT and any Subject Tests during your junior year then you are free to devote 100% of your attention to college applications as a senior. The seniors who decide to retake either the ACT or SAT are left in a state of limbo– working to complete applications, but at the same time studying and waiting for the updated test scores. Simplify your application process and finish testing during your junior year.
Find The Best Time For You
Now that we’ve narrowed the testing window down to sometime junior year, you need to find the time that is best for you. There are two major factors to consider:
When will you have the most time to focus and prepare?
When will you be most motivated?
For most students, junior year of high school is the most academically challenging. There may be times during the school year when you are so bogged down with school that you don’t have much time or energy left for anything else. Take these times off your potential testing calendar.
Also try to avoid peak times for any sports or activities. I always joke that I teach all the baseball guys in the fall because in the spring they belong to coach. Trying to prepare for a major test at the same time you are spending nights and weekends practicing for marching band, the big theater production, the national qualifier debate tournament, or the basketball playoffs, isn’t your best option.
The ACT is given six times a year: September, October, December, February, April, and June. The SAT is given seven times a year: October, November, December, January, March, May, and June. I’ve crossed out those last test dates because starting in March of 2016 the SAT is changing and you don’t want to take the redesigned SAT this spring while the College Board is still figuring itself out.
You may not be able to wait until you feel perfectly ready, but you will study and test better when motivated. Studying because you have to or because mom says to isn’t usually motivated studying. My best students come to class with a purpose– “my goal is to get into Noter Dame and I want to improve my ACT by 4 points” or “the coach said I need a few more points then he will offer me a place on the team (and full scholarship!)” or “I need to study before competition season begins.”
You don’t have to have a specific school or score in mind, but when you can start connection your actions to your future college plans, you will do better. At the beginning of junior year many students still think of college in general terms as something that is still a far off dream. Usually by spring the junior class catches college fever and you will hear friends talk about taking the ACT or SAT, visiting campuses, and making plans to turn that dream into reality.
Allow Time to Retake
As you plan your first attempt at the test, understand that most students take the ACT or SAT more than once. You should factor in time to retake the test. For me, this means the June test dates are reserved for retakes; I wouldn’t suggest a student take the test for the first time in June.
I’ve outlined the key factors for planning to take the ACT and SAT. Notice what I didn’t mention? I didn’t suggest you give any thought to what you might learn in school this year. Why? Because a couple more months in English and math isn’t going to make much difference. The material covered on both the ACT and SAT has a basis in the concepts taught in school (grammar, algebra, vocabulary, geometry, etc.), but five more months in Ms. Binkley’s Algebra II class is unlikely to help your scores.
Do not think that you need to plan your testing around your school calendar. You would be better off finding a quality test prep program and spending four to ten weeks specifically reviewing for the exam.
The Decision Is Yours
Once you eliminate conflicts and find a time when you are motivated and ready to study, the choice of test date is yours. There is no easier or harder test. There is no better time to take the ACT or SAT. Scores are NOT based on the group who tests on a certain date, so you don’t need to play mind games trying to figure out when you can avoid the smart people. You test when you are ready. Period.