The college application process is complex and lengthy. Given this fact and the schedule of the average high school student — admissions essays, athletics, extracurricular activities and perhaps other standardized tests like end-of-year Advanced Placement exams — when should you take the ACT or SAT?
For many college-bound high school students, preparing for college entrance exams begins with the PSAT usually in October of their sophomore or junior year, or with the PreACT in tenth grade. The PreACT and PSAT do not have a direct impact on college applications, though the PSAT’s National Merit Scholarship is a sought-after award. A college-bound student, then, must still complete the ACT or SAT after sitting for the PreACT or PSAT.
Should You Test as a Junior or Senior?
Students who are interested in earning a college degree should take the ACT or SAT in their junior or senior year of high school. When deciding on a more specific exam date, they should adhere to a number of basic guidelines.
First, do not test until after you complete at least one practice exam with results at or near your goal score. If you are routinely seeing results under your target score, you are not ready for the “real deal.”
Second, aim to finish all the high school courses tested on the ACT or SAT before you sit for that particular exam. This is critical with advanced math topics like statistics and trigonometry.
Third, you should be comfortable with the involved testing processes and procedures, as well as confident that you are at a point physically and mentally where you can do well. If you are genuinely concerned about your performance rather than experiencing normal nervousness, waiting is probably a wise option.
Beyond these basic guidelines, there are four other steps to take when considering the timing of your SAT or ACT:
— Begin as soon as possible.
— Consider your PreACT or PSAT experience.
— Assess the scholarship implications.
— Retest as necessary.
Begin as Soon as Possible
The early completion of your standardized test-taking is a significant benefit as you create your short list of schools. Many aspects of the college application process will proceed far more smoothly once you know what test scores you will use.
While it is true that your admissions essay, grades and letters of recommendation play critical roles in your application, very high or very low scores can eliminate certain schools or make “stretch” colleges more realistic. Your exam results, then, can help narrow or broaden your higher education options.
This was the approach taken by Hailey Cusimano, a graduate of Rollins College’s MBA program and a professional test prep tutor. Cusimano sat for the SAT in the fall of her sophomore year “to understand what my score performance and potential looked like so that I could begin to plan my intended college choices early on and make an informed decision.”
Taking the SAT early was particularly important to Cusimano because she planned to participate in college athletics, and her SAT score partially dictated what her recruitment process would look like.
Consider Your PreACT or PSAT Experience
The ideal situation for a student is to do very well on the ACT or SAT on their first attempt. This frees you to then concentrate on other elements of your college applications.
Whether or not you will ultimately achieve your goal score on your first try rests on a number of factors, but one of the best early indicators is your PreACT or PSAT score. The PreACT and PSAT are useful barometers for your readiness for the full ACT or SAT.
If you did very well on the PreACT or PSAT, consider selecting the next available exam date for the ACT or SAT in your junior year. Act while your memory and test-taking skills are fresh. If you do well, you can move on. If you do not do as well as you hoped, however, you will have ample time to improve your results.
Assess the Scholarship Implications
As you consider when to take the ACT or SAT, be sure to think about scholarship opportunities as well. Certain states offer full or partial scholarships to state schools based largely on a combination of GPA and standardized test scores.
Residents of Arkansas, for example, are eligible for the Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship of up to $10,000 per academic year toward tuition, mandatory fees, and room and board at any college in the state if they score above a certain level on the ACT or SAT, have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, and meet other criteria.
Taking entrance exams early in your high school career — before senior year — allows you to better pursue such opportunities.
Retest as Necessary
There is no rule about how many tests are too many. Roughly speaking, however, sitting for the SAT or ACT more than three times indicates poor planning. Remember that most colleges and scholarship programs will consider your highest score, and that both the ACT and SAT now allow for superscoring.
If you completed either exam as a junior but fell short of the mark necessary to be a competitive applicant at your first-choice schools, retake the exam as a senior after further study.
Danica Todorovic, a junior at North Park University in Chicago, wishes she had considered this option as a high school student. She says that while she is happy at North Park and scored well on the ACT, she did not take the exam until her senior year.
“If I could go back,” she says, “I would…get tutoring for the exam so that I could try and get into one of the well-known universities that required a higher score than what I received.”
The best strategy for the SAT and ACT is to take your chosen test as early as possible. This enables you to better focus your time and resources on other parts of the college prep process.
However, remember that you can generally sit for the ACT or SAT through November or December of your senior year, if necessary. A high score as a senior is better than a mediocre score as a junior — and planning, as always, is key.
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Update 05/17/21: This article has been updated with new information.