When to Take the SAT or ACT?

Posted by Tom Rose on Sunday, February 15, 2015
Tom Rose

Tom is a career educator and technologist. He has been a professional test preparation tutor for over a decade and is the co-founder of Testive. Tom started Testive at MIT, after spending years as a highly paid private SAT and ACT tutor, to provide students with personalized, efficient and affordable test prep

The best time for most students to register for, wake up early, shake test-day jitters, and take a four-hour SAT or ACT is June before junior year.

But that isn't it. June before junior year is the best time for most students to take the test for the first time. It's best to take the SAT or ACT two or three times, within close proximity of each other. Here's what the timeline looks like:

Your first test sitting should be in June of the summer before junior year.

Your main prep window should be during the summer before junior year.

Your second test sitting should be in October of junior year.

Your third test sitting should be in December or January of junior year

*This is the ideal timeline for most students because preparing for the SAT or ACT requires a period of relative free time. For most students, that's the summer.

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How many times should I take the SAT or ACT?

Most students who are in a competitive college admissions process take the SAT or ACT two or three times. Regardless of how many times you end up taking the SAT or ACT, from a scheduling standpoint, you should plan time to take the SAT or ACT three times. This is very important for the following reason:

The main factor preventing students from performing at their peak ability level is stress due to external pressures, such as scheduling constraints. One external pressure that creates a tremendous amount of stress is taking the test at a late date such that this is the last or almost-last chance. This removes the option of retaking the test again. Even if you’re not going to take the test later, just knowing you have the option will typically improve performance, and it definitely improves quality of life.

When is the SAT offered?

The SAT falls in the college prep calendar seven times every year.

SAT Test Dates in 2016 and 2017

SAT Test Date Normal Deadline Late Registration* Online Scores Released
December 3, 2016 November 3, 2016 November 22, 2016 December 22, 2016
January 21, 2017 December 21, 2016 January 10, 2017 February 23, 2017
March 3, 2017 February 10, 2017 February 28, 2017 April 13, 2017
May 6, 2017 April 7, 2017 April 25, 2017 June 8, 2017
June 3, 2017 May 9, 2017 May 24, 2017 July 12, 2017

Projected SAT Test Dates in 2017 and 2018

SAT Test Date Normal Deadline Late Registration* Online Scores Released
August 26, 2017 July 28, 2017 August 11, 2017 September 14, 2017
October 7, 2017 September 8, 2017 September 22, 2017 October 27, 2017
November 4, 2017 October 6, 2017 October 20, 2017 November 23, 2017
December 2, 2017 November 3, 2017 November 17, 2017 December 21, 2017
March 10, 2018 February 9, 2018 February 23, 2018 March 29, 2018
May 5, 2018 April 6, 2018 April 20, 2018 May 24, 2018

*Late Registration is one week earlier if you are registering by mail.

**This is the last possible date for seniors applying to start in Fall of 2017 to take the test to have scores back in time to send to schools. Only if applying Regular Decision.

Click here to learn how Testive can help raise your student's SAT score.

When is the ACT offered?

The ACT falls in the college prep calendar six times every year.

Test Date Registration Deadline Late Registration Deadline (Fee Required) Multiple Choice Scores Released
December 10, 2016 November 4, 2016 November 5-18, 2016 November 12, 2016
February 11, 2017 January 13, 2017 January 14-20, 2017 February 22, 2017
April 8, 2017 March 3, 2017 March 4-17, 2017 April 18, 2017
June 10, 2017 May 5, 2017 May 6-19, 2017 June 20, 2017

Projected ACT Test Dates in 2017 and 2018

Test Date Registration Deadline Late Registration Deadline (Fee Required)
September 9, 2017 August 4, 2017 August 5-18, 2017
October 21, 2017 September 15, 2017 September 16-29, 2017
December 9, 2017 November 3, 2017 November 4-17, 2017
February 10, 2018 January 5, 2018 January 6-19, 2018
April 7, 2018 March 2, 2018 March 3-16, 2018
Click here to learn how Testive can help raise your student's ACT score.

Isn’t it bad to take the test multiple times?

Score Choice changes the strategic dynamic of the number of tests you take.

Score Choice is a policy change the College Board made in 2009, allowing students to pick and choose which tests scores they send to colleges. Score Choice changes the dynamic such that it makes sense to take the test as many times as needed to maximize score. These days, there is no penalty for performing badly, so the dominant strategy is to take the test early and often.

One thing that’s great about Score Choice is that you can now set the bar pretty low regarding how much work you have to do before taking the SAT or ACT for the first time. You can just sign up and go for it. It’s not reckless. Don’t like your score? No worries, just don’t send that one. Problem solved.

Condense your test-taking as tight as possible

You might look at the above schedule and say that it seems like the sittings are pretty condensed. The spread only covers eight months. I like to condense the test spread because I like to condense the prep effort. Prepping for the test is really hard and really stressful and really expensive. It’s also a huge pain in the keister.

Because prepping is so cumbersome, you’ll want to do it one time, do it right, do it hard and fast, and be done with it.

If you need any help with proper preparation, take a look at act preparation and sat prep services we offer.

Your goals when you take the take the SAT or ACT Test the first time

The first time you take the test you’re doing a couple of things.

Get rid of your denial that this is going to be a cake walk or that you’ll get the score that you want to get on the first go. Neither of those things is going to happen.

Give yourself battlefield experience. Veterans perform better on the test. Focusing on the material requires that you not be surprised by anything else. There are too many details about location, pencil type, bubbling strategy, travel, and more to worry about. Just do it once and you can dispense with all of those details.

Set a baseline score. This is really important for defining the scope of work you have in front of yourself. Maybe you’re almost there, or maybe you’re really not almost there. Either way, it’s super relevant to know that information.

Your goals for your main test prep effort

Your goal for your main prep effort is to get yourself set up to hit your act target score on the next sitting. It generally takes about 100 hours of total work for a student to reach their natural potential for performance on the test. If you practice for ten hours every week, this will take … ten weeks! That’s a summer. If you’re already underway in junior year and don't have ten hours every week to spare, don’t panic. You can prep then too. Cut back to five hours per week and take a little bit longer.

Your goals when you take the test the second time

The main purpose of your second sitting is to rock the test. This is the main event. You should know what you’re doing and you should have logged as close to 100 prep hours as possible. You should have a good idea of how you are likely to perform. This is a competitive, athletic event, and you should walk into this sitting without any expectation of surprises. You should see and hear only things that you have seen before. It’s go time!

Your goals when you take the test the third time

Take the pressure off

The main purpose of the third test date is actually to take pressure off the second test date. Think about the psychology of this. We want to lower pressure on the second test date as much as possible and having a third, planned test date does this beautifully. The only limitation on setting your third test date is the looming application deadlines, so that’s why it’s so important to understand when college application deadlines are and work backward.

Get a higher score

If you have already completed a major prep effort with time-on-task somewhere near 100 hours, then you probably don’t need to do much prep before your third test. There is a ton of score variability on any sitting for the test. The 95% confidence interval on scores is a whopping 50 points per section, meaning you very well could score almost a hundred points better on the test without improving your actual ability at all. So before you go all out on another huge prep-effort, make sure you run the same game plan again and get another score.

Start with college applications dates and work backward.

Early admission deadlines for competitive schools start to occur in November of senior year. That means your last opportunity to sit for the test is October of your senior year Put that date on the calendar and start to work backward. Don’t forget that you need to leave approximately three weeks to wait for scores to be tabulated after you sit for the test. (That’s why December of senior year isn’t always a reliable option.)

There aren’t any easier or harder test dates.

This is a persistent myth that is based on a misunderstanding of how the test works. The SAT is probably the single most rigorously normalized standardized test in the world. Every sitting has normalization criteria and procedures built-in that make it so that performance on one sitting yields the same results as performance on another sitting. An in depth discussion of this is beyond the scope of what we’re covering here except to say that you should place no emphasis on test-date selection that has anything to do with the hope that the competition will be easier or harder in any particular test.

For more info about the SAT Exam we have developed an in depth SAT Test Overview and for the ACT Test take at our ACT Starter's Guide.

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