Junior Year: What You Need to Know for the ACT / SAT
“My child is starting his/her junior year. Tell me what I need to know about SAT / ACT testing.”
I get this question, or variations of it, every year. Today I’m going to walk you through the steps you should consider as you prepare to take standardized tests used for college admission.
Let’s take a look at a few actual questions in my inbox and the answers I sent:
“My daughter is in ninth grade. How should she prepare for the SAT?”
Your daughter doesn’t need to prep for the SAT until her junior year. Maybe we can start the summer between 10th and 11th grade. Between now and then, she should do well in school and actually learn material (not just do well on the test and forget it.) This is particularly true with reading comprehension, math, vocabulary, and grammar.
“We just visited Texas A&M, my son’s top choice school. They said they aren’t requiring SAT or ACT scores this year. Will that be true next year when he’s a senior? Does he still need to take the SAT this year?”
It is possible they won’t require test scores, but he should take the ACT or SAT this year anyway. A lot of schools have extended their pandemic test policies (making the ACT and SAT optional) because access to the exams has still been limited in some areas— think international testing and some small pockets of the US. But I don’t expect many large state universities, like Texas A&M, are going to continue test optional admission. It is very likely your son will be asked to submit scores at one or more of the schools on his list. If it were my son, we would plan, prepare, and take the test this year. Then we can make choices about sending scores next year if some schools are still test optional.
“My daughter is going to be a junior, but she’s taking Algebra II this year. My friend said she should wait until the spring to take the exam. What do you think?”
Your daughter should take the ACT or SAT when she has most time and motivation. Don’t wait on her Algebra II class for a couple reasons:
- There is limited Algebra II on the SAT and almost none on the ACT.
- My prep class can teach her what she needs.
- There are more important considerations than Algebra II.
What You Need to Do
Current juniors should expect to send ACT or SAT scores to colleges during their senior year. This is the year to keep working on good grades, challenging classes, meaningful involvement, and standardized testing.
If you take care of the SAT / ACT this year, you can focus on your applications and essays next summer. Here are the steps you should take:
Step 1: ACT or SAT?
Your first step is to determine which test is better suited to your strengths, weaknesses, and testing preferences.
Colleges don’t care which test a student takes. The ACT and SAT are equally acceptable. One won’t look better or give you a leg up in admissions. (No, the science section of the ACT will not make you a stronger STEM applicant!)
This is a key decision. Don’t skip this step!
High school students are busy. They have limited time and don’t want to waste effort on one exam only to find out they should have been studying for the other test all along.
If you take the time to gather data and make this decision based on facts, there is no need to take both the ACT and SAT. (Worth reading that again!)
The “advice” to take both the ACT and SAT is based on the fact that some students do better on one test than the other. It is intended to cover all bases. However, if you follow the steps outlined here, you can save your registration fee and extra time by focusing on the exam best for you. (My daughter who is starting her senior year in college only took the SAT. She took it a couple times, but she never took the ACT.)
How to decide—
1. Ignore all the testing stereotypes you’ve probably heard. “This test is better for…” or “If you are good at math and science you should…”
You can use PSAT and Pre-ACT results if you took those tests at school last year. If you didn’t you can print a practice test from ACT and College Board (SAT). Sit down at your desk or kitchen table and take the test timed, just like the real exam. Grade your results.
3. Once you have scores from both tests, you are ready to compare. You can use a score conversion chart like this one to evaluate your results. If you are noticeably better on one test than the other, your choice is obvious.
4. If your results are comparable, one is slightly higher than the other, but only by a bit, you can consider other factors. Which test did you prefer? Did the timing or organization of one test feel better? If they are still equal in your mind you can pick either one. You might consider the testing schedule or whether one exam will be given at your school during the school day.
For more about ACT versus SAT: https://www.collegeprepresults.com/2022/02/14/act-or-sat-which-test-is-better-2022/
Step 2: When?
Both tests are given multiple times during the year. You want to test when you have the most time to prepare (and possibly the most motivation to do so.)
I usually start by identifying time consuming activities:
- Extracurriculars (sports season, competitions, shows, etc.)
- Academics (AP exams, end of semester projects / tests)
- Other challenges (spring break travel, scheduled medical procedures, etc.)
Here are the test dates for the 2022 – 2023 school year:
- ACT: Sept 10, Oct 22, Dec 10, Feb 11, April 15, June 10, July 15
- SAT: Aug 27, Oct 1, Nov 5, Dec 3, March 11, May 6, June 3
- PSAT: Oct 12
I don’t recommend students focus on the June exams because by the end of the school year, even my best students are exhausted. You can plan to retake the exam in June if needed.
Step 3: How Will You Prepare?
Once you know which test and which test date, you can make plans to prepare.
Do NOT take the test “cold” to get a baseline score!
First, you don’t need to do that if you already followed step one and used your Pre-ACT / PSAT scores or an at-home practice test.
Second, both ACT and SAT have been using algorithms to detect possible cheating. One factor is “too much score improvement.” Your baseline score can be used against you if you subsequently improve. More about this HERE and HERE.
I am in the test prep business and teach group classes tutor students for the ACT and SAT. Yes, classes and tutoring help, but you can also prepare on your own.
At a minimum, students should take two full-length practice tests as practice. Both SAT and ACT offer “Official Guides” that contain practice tests, answers, and explanations.
Be honest with yourself when deciding how to prepare. Are you normally the one who studies ahead of time, even if there isn’t an immediate deadline? Can you typically figure out why you are missing questions? Or do you do better when someone sets a clear schedule and checks in on your progress for accountability? Do you learn better if you work with a group of friends or by yourself?
Typically, students will need 6-8 weeks to fully prepare for the ACT / SAT. The more aggressive your score goal, the more time you will need. It is possible to cram for the test in 2-3 weeks, but there are limits to how much you can learn and improve in the shorter period of time.
Step 4: Take the Test
Unless your school has made an agreement with ACT or College Board to administer the exam during the school day, you will need to register to take your test on the Saturday national administration.
Register early because the deadline is a few weeks before each exam.
Prepare. Get good rest and take your test. Scores are usually available 2-4 weeks after your exam.
Step 5: What’s Your Retest Plan?
In an ideal world, students would take the test once, make their dream scores, and be done. That doesn’t always happen.
Most students take their exam of choice 2-3 times. Colleges always use your best scores and because you won’t automatically send scores when you take the test (read why here), you can control what each school on your list sees.
The important thing is to have a retest plan. When will you be able to take the test again? What test dates won’t work based on your school, extracurricular, and family schedule?
Plan for one or two retest dates your junior year. Then if you have to test in the early fall of your senior year, you can.
Junior year is the time to take the SAT / ACT. You don’t need both tests, so it is advisable to spend a little time determining which test is best for you. Never take the actual exam just for practice; there are plenty of official practice tests you can use. Some students can effectively study on their own, but others will benefit from a class or private tutoring.
The most important thing you can do is plan ahead. If you wait until the last minute you will have fewer options.