What’s the best time to take the SAT? What about the ACT?
There are seven SAT test dates and six ACT test dates throughout the calendar year. And colleges accept test scores from any test date, taken at any point in high school.
So how should you schedule test dates and test prep so that your child will reach his or her full potential without interfering with the other pieces of a college admissions profile like grades and extracurriculars?
You should schedule SAT or ACT test dates and test prep using these guidelines:
- Schedule two or three test dates within three to four months of each other
- This span of three to four months should occur when your child is relatively free so that he or she can commit to consistent prep
- Most students should wait to take the SAT or ACT until after Sophomore year. Both the SAT and ACT test content that students don’t learn until sophomore year, including Algebra II and Geometry.
- Most students shouldn’t wait to take the SAT or ACT for the first time until the winter of Senior year. Most students should give themselves the leeway to take the SAT or ACT two or three times
Now, let’s talk specifics.
The best time for many students to take the SAT or ACT for the first time is June before Junior year.
However, students should plan to take the SAT or ACT two or three times, within close proximity of each other. Here’s what the complete 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 the fall of Junior year.
Your third test sitting, if necessary, should be in the winter 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. To create a test-taking timeline according to your specific schedule, use our Guide to Choosing Test Dates.
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
|SAT Test Date||Normal Deadline||Online Scores Released|
|March 14, 2020||February 14, 2020||March 27, 2020|
|May 2, 2020||April 3, 2020||May 15, 2020|
|June 6, 2020||May 8, 2020||June 19, 2020|
|August 29, 2020||TBD|
|October 3, 2020||TBD|
*Late Registration is one week earlier if you are registering by mail.
ACT Test Dates
|Test Date||Registration Deadline||Online Scores Released|
|February 8, 2020||January 10, 2020||February 18, 2020|
|April 4, 2020||February 28, 2020||April 14, 2020|
|June 13, 2020||May 8, 2020||June 23, 2020|
|July 18, 2020||June 19, 2020||July 28, 2020|
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.
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.