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Standardized Test Timeline for High School Students: What to Take and When?

From the SAT and SAT Subject Tests to the ACT and AP tests, you can encounter a lot of exams throughout high school.

From the SAT and SAT Subject Tests to the ACT and AP tests, you can encounter a lot of exams throughout high school. So when do they happen? And when should you study? And when should you register? Oh, and when do you schedule a time to freak out?! (Don’t freak out.)

Don’t we all love the standardized tests you need to go to most colleges? Students obviously have nothing better to do on the weekends than to spend their beautiful Saturday mornings locked in a room with other anxious students dying to take the lovely ACT, and parents absolutely adore spending their hard-earned money on their children’s amazing SAT prep classes. (She said, dripping with sarcasm.)

If you are yet to take these tests, I know you can’t wait to get started. This timeline will help you plan ahead and ace the standardized tests you need for college. (Although, maybe you’re lucky and your colleges are all test-optional? That’s a thing! You just don’t want to hang your hopes on having all test-optional colleges. It’s good to be prepared.)

Related: SAT & ACT Important Dates

Here’s a breakdown of each high school year and what you should be doing on the standardized test front.

Freshman year

You just began your high school career, so take it easy. Don’t worry too much about preparing for standardized tests like the SAT or ACT because you still have plenty of time to study for them later on. Instead, focus on starting your high school life on the right foot! Look into the various classes, clubs, and sports your school offers and really dive in and do the best work you can in the hardest courses you can handle. You need not fret about the standardized tests just yet.

Sophomore year

October: Take the PSAT if you’re ready or it’s required

Most high schools offer the PSAT in October, and some even require that sophomores take it to get an idea of where they stand. The PSAT is a “preliminary” test that provides a rough estimate of your potential SAT score, so you don’t need to invest too much time or energy in worrying about it. It is a practice test, after all. But more on the PSAT in a minute—er, year…

May: Take AP exams if applicable

Depending what classes you’re in this year, you might be ready to take some Advanced Placement (AP) exams. (Students generally take AP tests after completing the corresponding AP class offered by their high school.) These tests are offered over two weeks in early May, but you should start preparing for them as early as you can. If you are taking more than one of the exams, give yourself at least one month to review all testing materials.

June: Take SAT Subject Tests if applicable

Again, whether you should take the SAT Subject Tests depends on the classes you took during the year. For example, students who are in a pre-calculus class as part of their accelerated math program should definitely consider taking the SAT Math II, since all essential concepts of pre-calculus are covered in the test. Same follows for other subject tests, such as chemistry. Knock the exams out of you way when all the materials are still fresh in your mind.

Summer: Start your SAT and ACT prep

The time has come. Now you actually need to buckle down and seriously begin preparing for the dreaded SAT or ACT. Look at your PSAT score, and decide which standardized test to take: Is your PSAT score near your target score for the SAT? Or does it not quite meet your expectations? If you aren’t pleased with your PSAT score, consider taking the ACT. Go through one or two practice tests for both exams, and see which one you feel more confident taking. Once you have made your decision, do what you need to do to prepare for it; standardized test boot camps, summer classes, and self-prep books and websites are all viable options.

Junior year

August: Register for the ACT

Go on the ACT website to register for the test if you plan on taking it early in your junior year.

September: Register for the SAT

Taking the SAT instead? Register online on the College Board website.

September Through August: Take the ACT or SAT

School is usually the least hectic at the beginning of the year. Use this relatively calm time to your advantage and take a shot at either the ACT in September or the SAT in October. Wait for the score reports released later in the months to decide whether you want any retakes. 

October: Take the PSAT/NMSQT if you haven’t already

It’s possible that you’ll take the PSAT after you have taken the actual SAT. What’s the good in taking the PSAT then, you ask? The PSAT is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholars program (hence why the PSAT is sometimes referred to with the acronym NMSQT, or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test). All you have to do is take the PSAT to be considered, and if you score above cutline (the top 1% of test-takers), you become eligible for the National Merit Scholarship. Needless to say, becoming a finalist or even a semifinalist looks extremely impressive on your college apps, so give the PSAT a shot in your junior year—and don’t treat it as a total throwaway test!

October Through August: Retake your SAT or ACT if needed

In case you are dissatisfied with your first score (which is true for most students), there are multiple chances for you to retake the SAT or the ACT throughout the school year. Be sure to check out each company’s website for registration and their corresponding test dates.

A note about retaking your standardized tests: Though you definitely want to get the best standardized test scores you can so you have a better shot at scholarships and getting admitted to your top colleges, make sure you have realistic expectations about your retakes. You will need to double-down on your studying and really target your problem areas to improve your score. Keep in mind that you probably won’t see any huge jumps either; the average score increase for SAT retakes, for example, is 40 points. There’s also a chance your score might even go down with a retake; the College Board reports that 55% of students increase their SAT score, 35% see a decrease, and 10% stay the same.  

October Through August: Take SAT Subject Tests if applicable

Back to the SAT Subjects Tests! Maybe you took Biology AP last year, but missed your chance to take the Subject Test. It would be wise to review over the summer and take the exam in October, before you forget everything. And if you plan on taking any language exam that includes a listening portion, be ready by November because they are offered only once a year. Finally, of course, take any Subject Tests on the classes you took during your junior year.

May: Take AP exams if applicable

It’s that time of the year again. Study intensely, and show off your knowledge on the day of the exams!

Summer: Get back to test prep mode

It’s easy to get caught up in the rigors of school and miss your opportunities to score well on the cumbersome standardized tests. But don’t worry! You still have at least one more chance to ace the SAT or the ACT during the beginning of your senior year. So gear up, and plunge right back into prepping for those exams.

Related: How to Make Studying for Standardized Tests Fun 

Senior year

October: Last ACT for early birds

If you are applying to colleges Early Action or Early Decision, the latest you can take the ACT is in October—though that might be too late for some early deadlines. So you can take the September test to be safe. Remember: you’ll need to register a month in advance too.

November: Last SAT for early birds

When applying Early Action or Early Decision, the last opportunities for you to take the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are in November. But, again, that may be too late, depending on where you're applying early. So you might want to take the SAT in October just to be sure.

December: Last SAT and ACT for forever

For Regular Decision applicants, the very last test dates for both of these standardized tests are in December. This is the absolute last resort for anyone who is still unhappy with their scores if they’ve already taken the test—or if they haven’t taken them at all. Though, again, keep in mind it takes a few weeks to get your scores, so you may be cutting it close with even your Regular Decision deadlines. It may be worth shooting for an earlier test date. At any rate, after December, congratulations: you are forever done with the SATs and ACT!

May: Last AP exams

Ready to blast off into the college of your dreams? Well, hold your horses! Take any AP exams you have from your senior AP courses, and strive to score high so that you can earn some college credits before you even arrive on campus.

If you manage to survive this crazy schedule (which, I promise you, we all can with some diligence), you are done with standardized testing. Enjoy the summer after your senior year, and you are ready to go off to college!

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