When should I take the ACT or SAT?

David Recine
Test Prep Expert

When you schedule your ACT and/or SAT, you need to balance three main things: available test dates, your own test prep schedule, and application timelines for universities. (And if you haven’t decided which test to take, you can compare the ACT and SAT here. But do not sign up to take both!)

Available test dates

The availability of the ACT and SAT is probably the easiest factor to research. Test dates for both exams are publicly available. This table of ACT test dates and this SAT test date calendar have all the info you need about test dates.

Related: Search for colleges/universities to find their average student test scores here.

Application timelines for your “target schools”

Make a list of your “target” colleges, the schools you’re planning to apply to. Then look carefully at their application deadlines. Bear in mind that your scores report won’t even be generated until three to five weeks after you take your test. And from there, it will take another two weeks to send scores to your target schools. You should also give yourself enough time to retake your exam if need be. Ideally, you should take your first (and hopefully only) ACT or SAT at least four months before your earliest application deadline.

Your test prep schedule

Think about how much study time you personally need to prepare and study for either test. To figure out how much you should study, take a practice ACT or SAT test. Look at your score for each section of the mock exam. If your scores are close to your target (here are some tips for setting a target score), you won’t need so much time to prepare. But if you’re still well below your target score—which is common in early practice—you’ll need more prep time.

Think of your standardized test prep first in terms of hours and then in terms of days and weeks. How many hours of practice do you think you’ll need in order to improve? Once you’ve got that estimate, figure out many hours you have to study per day and per week. But be realistic! Raising your scores by a modest amount—such as one or two points on the ACT or 30–50 points on the SAT—is an achievement. And remember you’ll need to balance your test prep with school and other responsibilities.

Most successful test takers give themselves between one and three months to study. So take the ACT or SAT on a date that allows you that much prep time—or more prep time, depending on your schedule and your baseline abilities.

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