Year after year, the same crucial question is posed: “When should I start taking the SAT and ACT?” Our answer: “Early.” If you’ll complete Algebra 2 by the end of your sophomore year, then consider the June* ACT and August SAT at the end of your sophomore year. That leads to the next question:
After your first SAT (or ACT) experience, how many more times should you take that test? Perhaps twice more — for whichever test you believe will be better for you. If you are unsure which test to take, we have a handy infographic about the SAT vs ACT.
While sophomores could consider the June SAT date, there’s a caveat: we have two good reasons for suggesting a delay in testing on the June date.
First, the number one consideration for colleges when comparing applicants is grades, not standardized test scores. So concentrate on your current and future grades, and on nothing else. Second, under no circumstances should you take an official SAT or ACT without proper preparation.
So, we really recommend the August SAT, a test date that allows you to focus on your grades, but which gives you sufficient time after the school year ends to do the needed prep work – and which provides the “early” start opportunity for rising juniors. (Note: The August SAT is a popular test date, so register as early as you can to reserve a seat before testing centers fill up. There are fewer testing centers for the August test than there are for most other months. The College Board website announces when registration opens and closes for each test).
We’re recommending an early testing start because score gains data are compelling. Our friend and colleague Jed Applerouth shared these data on student ACT score gains based on early, regular, and late starts to official testing for 4,502 students (he reports similar findings for the SAT):
|First Official ACT||Average Baseline||Average Best Score||Change|
|Early (before January of junior year)||25.1||29.1||4.0|
|Regular (before April of junior year)||24.8||28.5||3.7|
|Late (after April of junior year)||24.1||27.4||3.3|
Applerouth admits selection bias in his group of students, because they’re all “students who are actively seeking out test preparation, whose parents understand the benefits of preparation, the importance of the scores to admissions and scholarships, [and] who have the resources to support preparation.” That’s OK, because that’s you.
Sophomores like you who follow our advice to take the August SAT after proper prep should be able to maintain momentum – with some additional preparation – through the junior-year November or December SAT, with the March* or May* SAT as a final SAT date. Likewise, sophomores taking the June ACT – who do some solid prep for it the week before (after Palm Beach County schools close) – will have the junior-year December* administration with which to improve their scores, and the April* or June* test as a final ACT date. And, yes, you can test again as a senior if you still need a higher score.
Students who don’t “knock it out of the park” on the first try should take additional tests for two reasons. First, there’s superscoring, which means they are using the best subscores from different sittings. Almost all colleges superscore the SAT (find out which ones don't superscore the SAT) and an increasing number superscore the ACT. You’ll have the opportunity to improve your total scores.
To sum up, if you’re a sophomore who will have completed Algebra 2 by the end of the school year, plan to start prepping a couple months before the June ACT as well as the August SAT. By getting a head start on planning, you’ll give yourself the best chance to do well on an absolutely key element in the college application process.
* Many of the test administrations mentioned are those for which you can get back a copy of the test, your answers, and the correct answers (SAT calls it Question & Answer Service; ACT calls it Test Information Release) — and they are the best times, in our opinion, to take these tests so you can learn from your mistakes.