Is This Fall the Right Time to Take the SAT / ACT?

Now is the right time for rising juniors and their families to start thinking about the SAT and ACT. While it is the perfect time to plan, fall may not be the right time for some students to take their college admission exams.

Overall Timeline

You’ve probably heard that everything in college admissions happens sooner than it did 10 years ago. Like many parents, I remember back to my own high school experience: taking the SAT in the fall of my senior year then typing my applications in the winter. These days, students are sending their applications in the early fall with many deadlines of November 1 and December 1, making senior year a time for applications, not standardized testing.

The new college admissions timeline places ACT and SAT testing squarely in a student’s junior year, reserving senior year for any final re-takes.

Students have all of their junior year to take and re-take the SAT / ACT. Some students will get an early jump on this task and complete all testing before Thanksgiving, but other students are wise to wait.

Here is how I help clients decide their best time to test.

PSAT— First Consideration

The PSAT drives the test taking timeline for a handful of high-scoring students. This year the PSAT will be administered nationally on Wednesday, October 16. (Some schools and districts may use one of the alternate test dates, so check with your guidance counselor.)

High-scoring juniors want to focus on the PSAT because it is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. These students must prep for the test in the fall because the PSAT is only given once a year.

The PSAT is so similar to the SAT that students who have prepared for the PSAT for National Merit reasons should be ready to take the SAT. Last year one of my high-scoring juniors began test prep in August, took the SAT the first weekend in October (think dress rehearsal for the PSAT), then took the October PSAT. He scored a 1560 on his October SAT and was completely done with all admissions tests before Halloween.

If you have a student with a selection index of 190 or above on the 10th grade PSAT, you will want to prep now with the goal of high scores on the fall PSAT and SAT.

I have more information on the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships here:

Frequently Asked Questions: PSAT & National Merit

The Good and Bad of the PSAT for Average Test Takers

PSAT Strategic Stepping Stone to SAT and College Scholarships

PSAT Review– National merit Scholarship Information

How to Plan for Junior Year Tests

Academic Readiness

Your next consideration should be academic readiness. Fortunately (or unfortunately) neither the SAT nor ACT specifically tests content taught in school. What that means is you don’t have to wait until spring semester to learn material— with one exception: math.

The ACT tests students on algebra, geometry, and general mathematical problem solving; there is no advanced algebra, trigonometry beyond what is taught in geometry, or pre-calculus on the exam. Most high school juniors have already taken enough math for the ACT, even in the fall semester.

The SAT, however, covers algebra in greater depth. A number of SAT math problems require students to use skills taught well into Algebra II. For this reason, juniors who are currently enrolled in Algebra II might consider taking the SAT in the spring once they have learned more math. (Or take the ACT instead!)

While students aren’t going to learn key content in other courses, some students need additional time to develop academic readiness. More work on vocabulary, critical reading, problem solving, and analysis always helps. For some students these skills will be promoted and developed through their junior year courses, but for others, a few more months of classroom work won’t significantly impact their SAT or ACT preparedness.

Available Time

Another consideration in planning for the ACT or SAT should be time. When will a student have the most time and energy to prepare for and focus on the exam?

Every year I work with students who are overwhelmed. They are trying to juggle academic demands, extracurricular activities, family and social commitments. Sometimes students push themselves to take the SAT or ACT when they are already overcommitted and too often the results are less than ideal.

I encourage families to sit down at the beginning of the school year and map out activities on a calendar. Do you need to work around a sports or competition season? Don’t forget to consider what will happen if the basketball team advances to the state finals or your student qualifies for the national tournament. Will your high achiever be busy in April and May preparing for Advanced Placement (AP) exams? Are there other calendar items that might limit a student’s available time?

Once you’ve blocked out the busiest parts of the year, compare your available times to the ACT and SAT schedule. You can find this year’s test dates [here]


My final scheduling factor is motivation. When will a student be most motivated to prepare for the SAT or ACT? Some juniors are already thinking about college and are eager to study for and take college admissions tests. Others may need a little more time.

What do you do if your junior isn’t motivated yet? I’ve found that making a campus visit or two can help make college feel like more of an immediate reality than an abstraction. Also, it seems every spring juniors around the country catch “college fever”— everyone at school starts thinking about college, other students are taking the ACT and SAT, and suddenly even reluctant students start talking about future plans.

I can’t guarantee students will be excited to take these standardized tests. But I’ve found that trying to push an unmotivated student before he or she is ready doesn’t yield the best results.

Making a Decision

Keep in mind that some students have to prepare for these exams in the fall. Don’t feel pressured to take the ACT or SAT in the fall unless you are among those few test takers who need to focus on the PSAT or National Merit reasons. You aren’t falling behind or missing out on opportunities by waiting until later in the school year.

Every student is different. Some are ready to take the August SAT at the beginning of their junior year and others are better served by waiting a few months and focusing on the April ACT. There is no right or wrong answer as long as by the end of a student’s junior year, he or she has  taken time to review for and take either the SAT or ACT (or both.) Customize your testing calendar to meet your needs.

Here is a graphic that can help you make testing decisions for your student: [click here]

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