How to Plan for Junior Year Tests (PSAT, ACT & SAT)

Hi Megan, Your newsletter is helpful as always! I had questions about your test prep schedule.

  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year? Or a different time?
  • Is August too early for a junior?
  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes?
I guess I’m just trying to figure out what is an ideal class and exam schedule and how to work it all in around marching band. I don’t want my daughter to be overloaded but I don’t want her to be behind either.   Great questions! A lot of sophomores and their families need to work through this same ideas before school starts next year. Here’s a quick visual of the decisions you need to make: (Click here to see full size image.)  

The PSAT Is the Deciding Factor

Why? The PSAT is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. (That’s why all the paperwork has NMSQT on it!) Only juniors can qualify for National Merit recognition and it is worth the time and effort to prepare if your student can score high enough. For more information on National Merit read “Frequently Asked Questions About the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships.”  

For National Merit Contenders

Those high scoring sophomores who might score well enough to earn National Merit recognition as juniors NEED to prepare before the October PSAT. The PSAT is only given once a year. Students only have one chance to qualify which is why I offer some advice that often sounds backwards. Students preparing for the PSAT should plan to take the August or October SAT. (August 27 is a new test date added in 2017!) Yes, you heard me right. Students should take the SAT to prepare for the PSAT. The SAT can be taken multiple times and colleges look at a student’s best scores, so this first test is more of a dress rehearsal for the PSAT. Even before scores are released, the student will know how he or she did with pacing and what, if anything, he or she needs to study before the PSAT. Just a note: In general students should not take the SAT (or ACT) without preparation. This can have some serious implications (read here). But when I tell my PSAT students to take the SAT a few weeks before they take the SAT, I know a few things:
  • The student has already been studying for the exam (the SAT and PSAT are almost identical)
  • The student has proven test taking skills
  • The student will take the SAT seriously and try for a top score
Following this “practice” SAT dress rehearsal, students may alter some aspects of their study plan to be 100% prepared for the PSAT in mid-October. PSAT scores won’t be back for months, so after the PSAT, it is wise to finish with college admissions testing. (Don’t wait on PSAT scores.) Most of my PSAT clients like to retake the SAT. These are often kids who are just a few points away from their next goal—a perfect score, a 750, or a 700. One more crack at the test is often enough to make these small (but important) score improvements. Then these students are D.O.N.E! They don’t need the ACT. They don’t need to spend all year chasing a perfect score. They need to reach a point where scores are “good enough” so they can get back to the important work of school, sports, extracurriculars, community service, family, etc.  

Not a National Merit Candidate?

Great news: you have a lot of flexibility. Unlike the National Merit crowd, you get to make the decisions for your testing plan. I strongly advise students to finish all SAT and ACT testing by the end of their junior years. Yes, it is possible to re-test as a senior. SAT and ACT are even making that easier by adding earlier test dates; SAT added a late August test starting in 2017 and ACT is adding a July test in 2018. But seniors need to focus on applications and that is so much easier when the SAT and ACT are out of the picture.  

ACT or SAT? How can we decide?

I could write a series of articles on this topic. You can start by reading this one. The short answer is to take the official SAT and official ACT practice tests at home and compare scores. (Just a quick reminder to NEVER take the real test for practice. Here’s the link from above and an episode of my podcast explaining the risks.) Compare scores using the ACT / SAT concordance table here. Which one did your student like better? Are the scores clearly higher on one test? Are there any other factors to consider (extended time for learning differences, strengths or weaknesses, schedule conflicts for one exam)?  

Fall or Spring? When is the best time?

The best time is a personal decision. There is very little a student might learn at school that would improve his or her results on the SAT or ACT—with one exception. When the SAT changed in March 2016, they began testing concepts that are found pretty far into the Algebra II curriculum. This means juniors who are taking Algebra II should wait until the spring semester to take the SAT. Or, better yet, give serious consideration to the ACT. There are two factors I consider when planning the best time to test:
  1. When will a student have the most time to prepare?
  2. When will he or she be most motivated?
To answer the original question above, a student involved in marching band may not have any extra time to prepare for fall exams. Once she finishes practice and does her school work, she may not have any time or energy left. Additionally, I’ve heard of many uncompromising band directors who prohibit students from taking the ACT or SAT on certain Saturdays in the fall because of conflicts with a major performance. And it is not a good idea to stay out with the band until midnight because of a high school football game and expect to be thinking and processing at your best by 8:00 am the next morning. A lot of my clients begin by eliminating their busy season for sports, activities, competition, performances, etc. Then they pick an exam date where they will have a better chance of studying and getting to the test day before they burn out from exhaustion.  

My Two Cents

I was a fan of the SAT for decades. I preferred it to the ACT and found it more interesting and coachable. I do not like the new SAT. It is a necessary evil for the ultra-high test takers who seek National Merit Scholarships. But they are already great at test taking basics and know the content backwards and forwards, so when I work with these students we are just perfecting their understanding of the questions, trying to master the three to eight questions that stand between them and a perfect score. Regular and struggling test takers aren’t so lucky. The new SAT often “feels” easier to these students. It doesn’t help that the scores on the new SAT are inflated. Most students need to score 100 points higher on the new test (you need a 1200 now to be like a 1100 before.) To me this is sales trickery—like the high-end boutique selling dresses with a smaller size on the label just so I can flatter myself because I got a “better number” when I purchased that dress than the one down the road with a bigger size on the tag. In the past 12 months, I’ve found that most test takers can get better improvement if they study for the ACT. The format of the test is less exhausting. And most students do better on math when they are allowed to use a calculator. (That no-calculator section of the SAT / PSAT is not good for the typical test taker.) So I’ve been teaching more ACT classes and encouraging more of my private clients to consider the ACT.  


There is no simple answer to the question about when a student should take the SAT or ACT. So to give a brief response to the original questions:
  • I know we’re still finishing up this year but should my daughter plan to start the August classes when you offer them next school year or a different time? It depends. I will start classes in August. If your daughter needs to take the PSAT, I’ll see her then. If not, you might wait until early spring when band season is over.
  • Is August too early for a junior? Absolutely not! Each year I have dozens of students who are 100% done with testing in the early fall (September, October, November.) There is no better feeling than crossing this off your college to-do list.
  • Are you really only offering one PSAT/SAT class and more of the ACT classes b/c that’s what more people are taking these days due to the SAT exam changes? I’m offering one PSAT class because only the super-high scoring students need to take that class (top 5% by scores) and that isn’t a majority of the test prep market. I’m offering more ACT classes through the year because I like it better, see better results, and think it is the more coachable test. I’m also finding demand for ACT classes outpaces demand for SAT review.

Comments (2)

  • I am helping my son and his friend prepare for The PSAT, SAT and ACT and would like some suggestions as to how to organize the study sessions and where to find strategies for dealing with “trick” questions?
    Thank you!

    • Michele,
      The best way to identify common question types on either the SAT or ACT is experience with official exams. Use the books and released tests to become familiar with the patterns in questions and answer choices that appear tricky.

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