The typical standardized testing advice given to high school students is to take the SAT or ACT twice — either twice junior year or once junior year and once early senior year. But when and how many times should you really take these exams? Since there is no limit to the number of times you can take these tests, should you start during your first year of high school and keep taking them until you earn perfect or near-perfect scores? While we generally advise students sit for the SAT or ACT two to three times following a few months of focused preparation either their sophomore or junior year, we recommend creating an individualized testing timeline based on your skillset, goals, and schedule. Here are some factors to consider while crafting your SAT or ACT testing timeline.
Your Diagnostic Test Results
The first step to figuring out your testing timeline is to take a timed, full-length diagnostic test. We recommend using an official practice test from CollegeBoard or the ACT, which you can find here (SAT) and here (ACT). If you’re not sure whether to prepare for the SAT or the ACT, you can take both diagnostic tests and consider the differences between the exams. We usually suggest waiting until sophomore year to take a diagnostic test, as we find that most students’ verbal and math skills improve significantly over the course of their first year of high school. However, you can start this process sooner if you feel you can earn a high score early in your high school years. After taking and grading your diagnostic test, it’s important to look beyond your score and carefully analyze your answers in order to determine your strengths and determine which areas need improvement. This will help you create a personalized study schedule based on the content you need to learn or brush up on.
Your Goal Score
As you review your diagnostic test, you should also determine where you stand in relation to your goal score. To figure out what your goal score should be, you can research the SAT and ACT percentiles for accepted students at the colleges to which you plan to apply, which are available on colleges’ websites. Your goal score should be at or above the 50th percentile of accepted students’ scores at your top choice colleges. If you don’t have a finalized college list but are thinking of applying to some of the most competitive schools in the country, we recommend aiming for a 750+ on each section of the SAT or the equivalent on the ACT (around a 34+).
Once you have your diagnostic test score, an analysis of your strengths and areas for improvement, and your goal score, you should put together a realistic testing timeline that includes a weekly study schedule and concrete test dates. While we generally recommend preparing for two to three months before your first test date, your timeline could vary depending on the number of points by which you aim to improve and how many hours per week you can devote to test prep. With proper preparation, most students take these exams two to three times until they reach their goal score. Depending on how prepared you feel, you could plan to take the exam for the first time at the end of sophomore year or at the beginning of junior year.
Score Choice is a policy that allows you to choose which scores to share with colleges. With Score Choice, you can either send scores from all sections of a certain test date or not send any scores from a certain test date; you cannot choose to send scores from just one section of a certain test date, though. Between Score Choice and many colleges’ practice of superscoring — considering only the highest score from each section of the SAT or ACT across all test dates — it’s tempting to think that you could and should take the SAT or ACT as many times as possible. You can take these exams as many times as you want; however, one reason to stick to two to three test dates is that some colleges, including Yale and Georgetown, do not participate in Score Choice — meaning they will ask you to send them all of your scores. Unless you want colleges to potentially see scores that do not accurately reflect your skills and work ethic, a good rule of thumb is to only sit for these tests when you feel prepared for them.
Your Schoolwork, Extracurriculars, and Passion Projects
When planning your testing timeline, it’s important to remember that SAT/ACT scores are only one component of your application. Since you will be evaluated holistically by college admissions committees, you should try your best to balance standardized test prep (for the SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Tests) with schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and passion projects. We recommend refraining from investing so much time and energy into the SAT or ACT that your other activities — many of which you probably enjoy more than test prep — fall by the wayside. This is another reason why it’s important to create and follow a definitive testing timeline — you don’t want to drag out the standardized testing process and have it unnecessarily interfere with the rest of your schedule.
If you are having trouble making or following a testing timeline, we can help — our tutors are trained to guide you through every step of the standardized testing process, from evaluating your strengths and areas for improvement to earning your goal score. We know that navigating standardized testing requirements can be stressful, but with a little planning and focused preparation, we’re confident that you can sail through this process and earn the scores you need to get into your dream school!