“Time is an illusion,” asserts writer Stefan Emunds, “timing is an art.” Anyone facing a hard deadline might dispute the former, but who could argue against the latter? Timing is an art that allows its masters to accomplish great tasks with maximum success and minimal stress.
High stakes tests like the SAT and ACT exemplify exactly why timing makes such a big difference. Schedule your test at the wrong time–when you’re unprepared, over-scheduled, or distracted–and your performance will suffer. The right time, on the other hand, puts the proverbial wind at your back by improving your ability to bring your best to the task. So what is the right time for a high school student to take the SAT or ACT?
Sophomore year is usually too early.
Many students haven’t even started algebra 2, which is tested on the Math sections of the tests. Also, many teens benefit from a bit more seasoning before they are truly test ready. Exceptions do occur, and I typically see a handful of students every year who manage to test successfully by the end of 10th grade.
Senior year is usually not early enough.
While the traditional testing paradigm has teens taking the SAT and/or ACT through the fall of 12th grade, senior year testing comes with disadvantages. For one, the lack of definitive test scores makes the college search process speculative at the point when students should be narrowing down their choices. Senior year testing becomes particularly pernicious for students targeting Early Decision or Early Action. This problem underscores the second and more important argument against waiting so long to test: stress. Test anxiety can undermine even the most prepared test taker, inflicting a host of unhelpful physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. The closer to application deadlines you test, the more susceptible you will be to text anxiety.
Junior year is just right.
Once sophomore year ends, high schoolers have a 12-month window for optimal testing. The SAT and ACT are administered nearly every month of the year, with compelling cases to be made for testing in winter, spring, summer, or fall (but especially summer!) With such a wealth of options, high schoolers should consider testing as early in junior year as makes sense, based on their schedule and goals.
Goals matter, because a student who wants to earn a perfect math score should be sure to have learned as much math content through Algebra 2/Trig as possible. Schedule, however, matters more, as students who seek their best scores need to come to the tests with as much focus, commitment, and preparation as possible. Not many teens can do that when they’re gearing up for the state championships in their sport or rehearsing every day for a big performance.
Therefore, the very best time to take the SAT and/or ACT is as early in junior year as a student can plan and prepare for, allowing two to three months for effective preparation and practice testing. Consider your goals, your academic commitments, your extracurricular activities, and everything else that might impact your ability to arrive on test day at the peak of performance. Block out the time necessary to prepare and give the process your all with the intention of making your first official test your last.
Master the art of timing your tests, and your scores will soar as a result!