One of the most frequently asked questions we receive involves the timing of the taking of the SAT and ACT. Should I take it as early as possible or wait until the end of junior year? Should I take it often or as little as possible? What do colleges think?
Juniors take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year (October) and receive the results usually right before winter break. We recommend that students wait to take the SAT until after receiving the PSAT results and having a chance to thoroughly analyze the results. If you did not do any prep before the PSAT, your result is your “baseline” and indicates how comfortable you are with the test. If you have a wide gap between your score and where you feel you want to be (or should be), you should do some preparation before taking the SAT.
Important: Studies repeatedly show that, absent preparation, your SAT composite score will not increase by more than 50-100 points no matter how many times you take the test. In other words, you do not gain familiarity and wisdom to master the test just by the frequency of taking it.
We usually suggest that a student who has prepared for the PSAT take the SAT for the first time in January of the junior year, wait to receive the results, and take it again in the spring (May or June). If the student has not not reached the desired score, the student may retest in October of senior year with plenty of time to prepare over the summer and also before college applications are due.
Colleges now “super score” the SAT, which allows the student to submit as many SAT test results as desired and the college takes the highest math, reading and writing scores. Some believe that “super scoring” means it is okay to take the test five or six times; however, colleges do recognize as stronger the ability to hit a high score on the first or second test without a super score combination. Also, colleges tend to discount students who take the test four or more times; rightly or wrongly, they feel that the earlier tests better represent the student than the later tests.
Ideally, a student would like to have the top SAT score by June so the senior year can focus on the college application process rather than another round of testing.
For the ACT, students take PLAN (the smaller and easier version of the ACT) as a sophomore. We have seen students take the ACT as early as December of sophomore year, even though they may not have had all of the math covered on the test. We have seen students take the ACT at least six times and not move very much. So, what should be the plan for the ACT?
We suggest that students wait until the second semester of junior year to start taking the ACT because it is designed as a test of skills learned at the end of junior year. A student can take the ACT twice that spring and, if the desired score is not achieved, the student has September and October of the senior year to test before sending in applications for early decision (and an additional December test for regular decision).
As with the SAT, ACT scores will not move much between tests without preparation. Frequency alone will not lead to improvement. At the moment, colleges do not “super score” the ACT, though we anticipate that will change in the next few years.
Another point we should mention: Frequent testing without preparation and little movement leaves the student feeling dejected and increasingly anxious about the test, which only makes future testing more stressful.
The best way to approach the SAT and ACT is with a solid plan in advance of testing — maximize preparation and minimize the number of tests. Students who do that leave the best impression for college admission.
If you have questions about when to take the SAT and ACT, contact us — Mackler Associates can help.