Figuring Out When to Take the SAT and ACT

This important decision for high school juniors requires accounting for several factors.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

The SAT and ACT are college entrance exams that measure a student’s expected level of academic success in college. Whether you agree with that theory doesn’t really matter, the fact is that most colleges require students to take one of these tests to qualify for admission.

Junior year is jam-packed and probably the most demanding of the four years of high school. With that in mind, you want to help your son or daughter prepare for next fall’s college application season by taking some stress out of the process now.

You’ll receive lots of advice on when to take these tests from the high school guidance counselor, parents of college students, relatives and friends. I have yet to see any evidence that supports a student taking either exam before the spring of junior year.

Here’s what I’ve learned about determining dates for the first round of the SAT and ACT.

Understand the difference The SAT measures aptitude, focusing on a student’s reasoning skills. The ACT tests a student’s knowledge, encompassing what’s been learned in high school. They’re very different tests—the SAT has a reputation for being tricky, the ACT for being straightforward. The SAT has three parts, math, reading and writing; the ACT has five parts, English, math, science, reading and an optional writing section.

SAT Subject Tests are offered in everything from World History to Spanish. Some, but not all colleges require these. A student can take up to 3 SAT Subject Tests in one day. Each test takes an hour.

Why take both It used to be that Eastern colleges preferred the SAT and Western schools the ACT, but now most accept either. The advantage of taking both is simply to see which one earns you the best score. Colleges tend to use the highest score between the two tests when making an admissions decision.

Test prepFactoring in test prep Keep in mind that your student will require some type of prep for each exam. I’ve written two posts on this topic, one on the types of test prep and the other on when to start prepping. The SAT generally requires more prep mainly because it’s less clear-cut. But even taking practice ACTs is important for students to familiarize themselves with the exam.

The time demands of a job and/or extra-curricular activities Spring activities and a part-time job require your child’s presence after school and on weekends. Though most programs work around SAT and ACT exam schedules, a weekly Saturday morning test prep class could be an issue. More importantly, you need to know how full a schedule your child can handle, accounting for homework time, too.

The AP and IB exam schedule Though some guidance counselors will deter students from taking SAT/ACT tests in May when AP/IB tests are given, it can be helpful for students interested in taking SAT Subject Tests. A student reviewing for the AP US History exam can use that as prep for the SAT Subject Test in US History they can take in the same month.

The end-of-year test schedule Some high school students are required to take state exams at the end of the year in specific subjects, like World History, Trigonometry, Chemistry, etc. Again, reviewing for these tests can overlap with prep for either the SAT or ACT, or an SAT Subject Test.

The point is, use what’s already on the schedule to help prepare.

PSAT scores The test results analysis provided by the College Board will show the specific areas where your student needs improvement. With prep time tight, focus on those areas.

calendarEnd of school dates In the Northeast, public school students finish final exams in June, but in other parts of the country, students finish in May. Will your son or daughter really be up for taking an exam once school is out?

Sample exam schedule My suggested spring test schedule, based on a June finish (move all up one month for a May finish):

For students taking AP/IB exams—ACT on April 12; SAT Subject Tests on May 3; and SAT on June 7.

For those not taking AP/IB tests—SAT on May 3; SAT Subject Tests on June 7 (if needed); and ACT on June 14.

Registration deadlines are about one month before the test.

Fall test dates Your child will likely retake at least one test in the fall. The ACT is offered in September and October, the first SAT in October, which should meet all admissions deadlines.

Share your thoughts on timing the SAT and ACT tests in the comments section below.

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