When should my daughter take the SAT?

Do we need to take the PSAT this year?

Are you sure juniors are ready take the ACT in the fall?

These questions and more fill my inbox this time each year. There are a lot of questions about what tests students should take and when. Here is a basic outline.

9th Grade

Freshman year is a time for students to adjust to the increased academic demands of high school. In addition to taking challenging classes, earning the best grades possible, and remaining involved in activities, students should work to build academic and organizational skills.

Many high school freshman will have NO testing to plan for this year. However, there are some exceptions.

Optional: PSAT (October) – The PSAT is purely for practice when administered to 9th grade students. Encourage your student to take it seriously and try his or her best so you can use the results to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.

Optional: PreACT, formerly known as the PLAN (scheduled by schools Sept- May) – The PreACT, like the PSAT, is used to help students identify testing strengths and weaknesses. These scores are never used for college admission, so the test is just for practice.

Optional: Advanced Placement (AP) Exams (May) – Depending on the course offerings and policies of your school or district, freshman may have the opportunity to take AP courses. Students enrolled in AP classes should plan to take the exam for their subject(s) in May.

Your school’s guidance counseling department will coordinate registration for PSAT, PreACT, and AP exams.

10th Grade

Sophomore year is the time to build on the lessons learned in 9th grade. Students who eased into high school should consider stepping up — in academics, activities, or development of talents and interests.

10th grade is also the time to collect key testing data. Here’s what you should add to your calendar:

Must do: PSAT (October) – Yes, it is the practice SAT and it doesn’t “count” for sophomores, but this is the year to determine what type of test taker you are. Super test takers will use the PSAT in 10th grade to determine whether they are potential National Merit contenders as juniors. On the other end of the testing spectrum, families who receive below average PSAT results in 10th grade may want to rectify academic weaknesses in math, reading, grammar, vocabulary, and analysis.

Optional: Pre-ACT – (see notes from 9th grade)

Optional: AP Exam(s) – (see notes from 9th grade)

Optional: SAT Subject Tests (suggested May or June) – SAT Subject Tests are required or strongly recommended by certain colleges. But most sophomores don’t have a clear idea of the schools to which they will apply as seniors, so those students who are completing an academic class for which they will NOT take the next course in the sequence next year may consider taking the SAT Subject Test while course material is fresh in their minds. For example, a student who completes AP World History or AP US History as a sophomore may want to take the SAT Subject Test in May or June when all the AP exam material is fresh. That same student should NOT take the Subject Test in English or math because those are classes he or she will take again as a junior. For more information on SAT Subject Tests see here.

Students need to register for SAT Subject Tests directly with College Board. All other registrations will be coordinated through your school’s guidance counseling office.

11th Grade (The Time To Test!)

This is THE year for college admissions testing. The calendar for testing has accelerated from the time I was in high school, so don’t feel bad if you keep thinking junior year is early. It may have been early years ago, but it is the new norm.

PSAT (October) — As a junior the PSAT is either absolutely necessary or mostly worthless. Use your 10th grade results to determine in which category applies to you.

Absolutely necessary— extremely high scoring test takers MUST take the PSAT because junior year only the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT.) Test takers who fall in the top 5% of PSAT results in their states may qualify for National Merit recognition. Read here to find out why you want this.

Almost worthless — for the remaining 95% of test takers the PSAT is just another practice test. Here’s why I have a hard time telling families another practice test is worth the time and effort– PSAT scores won’t come back for three months. That’s three months of waiting to find out how you did. Three months of wasted time and forgotten mistakes.

A non-National Merit contender can take a free full-length SAT from College Board, score it the same day, and immediately begin to work on a plan to maximize strengths and improve weaknesses. If your school offers the PSAT during school and wants all juniors to take it, go ahead, unless you have a student with testing anxiety (and you may choose to miss that “opportunity.”)

Must do: ACT or SAT (Sept – June) — I’ve got full articles on this issue, so I’ll give you the short version here and give some links for further reading.

  • Students can take either the SAT or ACT or both. Gone are the days when the hard to get into colleges only take one exam. Even the Ivy League schools allow students to decide which test to submit.
  • Students typically take their choice test two or three times. Colleges use best scores.
  • Students should take the test when it fits in their schedules. This may mean baseball team members take the ACT in the fall so spring is free for sports; marching band students wait until spring to test so they don’t need to worry about the football schedule keeping them out until midnight the night before the SAT.
  • Students won’t learn enough test content in school to matter. (Unfortunately!) Believe me on this one, juniors know enough in the fall to take the exam. If you need more help, look to a quality prep class, but don’t wait for English or math class to help you catch up.

For more detailed explanations see these past articles:

When Should I Take the ACT / SAT?

ACT or SAT: Which Test Is Better? 

Do You Need to Take the SAT for College?

SAT Subject Tests & AP Exams— see notes from 10th grade

Here’s where getting your calendar out now can make your junior year plan run smoothly. Pick your test: ACT or SAT. Pick your first test date for the year. Plan for a follow up test opportunity later this school year. Get your dates on the calendar. Register with ACT or SAT and you will avoid last minute panic caused by the May SAT conflicting with prom and the June test falling on the first day of your family’s cruise.

12th Grade

If you have worked through your 11th grade plan, senior year is all about college applications and acceptances and you are test free except for AP exams. Of course, some seniors feel like a final chance at the SAT or ACT could boost their acceptance chances and they will take the September or October tests.

A had a colleague whose mantra was effort spent on planning during a student’s junior year will save five times the amount of time, energy, and sometimes money senior year. Develop a testing plan now so you don’t need to panic or make last minute reactionary decisions later.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below.