This is probably the single most frequently asked question in test prep! And it certainly isn’t a dumb question, for reasons I’ll explain here.
There are some very good times to take the test as well as some very bad times. In general, the bad times fall into one of two categories: dates that don’t leave enough time for prep and dates that don’t leave enough time for college applications. College application deadlines will generally start appearing in the middle of the senior year, but remember that test results take about a month to receive. Further, some scholarship deadlines come before the middle of the senior year. That means the beginning of the senior year is probably the last truly “safe” test date — meaning a student can very likely have the results in before the big deadlines. For 2016-2017, the first SAT test date is October 1, and the first ACT test date is September 10. Remember, there are no summer test dates for either test! Students should view these two test dates — the first dates of the senior year — as their “backup” test date. Don’t rely on them for your best score because there is no plan B if things don’t go as well as planned.
Instead, follow our number one rule of test date selection:
Aim to have the score you want by the end of your junior year!
If you follow that rule, most everything else you need to think about can be figured out with common sense. If you need to have the score you want by the end of your junior year, you should sit for at least one test date that is closer to the middle of your junior year, or even the beginning of your junior year. This will allow you to do prep and bring up your score if you don’t do as well as you had hoped. If you do well on your first test date, you may realize that there are some better schools or bigger scholarships within reach, and some additional prep may help you reach those.
For most students, I would advise sitting for at least one test date that falls in the first semester of the junior year. That still leaves several months for prep before the last test date of the year, and it still leaves a super safety backup of the first test date of the senior year. This is a great plan for most students, assuming one doesn’t need a 10 point ACT jump or something similarly extraordinary.
How long does prep take?
At the heart of the timing question is another question: how much improvement is a student going to need? The number one reason I advise taking a first-semester test for the first time is that students who need big score jumps might need up to six months to achieve those improvements. For students who need only a few points on the ACT or a couple hundred points on the SAT, a couple of months is typically enough. For bigger improvements, or for improvements on scores that are already very high, more time is needed.
High school students are already busy, and there’s no need to complicate matters by waiting too long to take the biggest test of their high school careers. Start during the first semester of the junior year, and you’ll have plenty of time to make any necessary improvements.