Stephen A. Johnson
Bright Minds Tutoring Inc.
That’s a great question! The fact that you’re thinking about this most likely means that you’re the type of person who likes to be prepared. And that’s great, because preparation is the key to doing well on either the ACT or the SAT. Since most college and university application deadlines arrive during fall of senior year, most students take their chosen test spring of junior year and/or fall of senior year. This is so common, in fact, that it is rarely questioned. But I think there’s a better way to mitigate the already stressful junior year and first semester of senior year by starting the test prep process much earlier.
I suggest that you start to at least think about these tests as a freshman in high school. Becoming familiar with the tests before it really “counts” will only help you in the long run. Many test prep companies offer free proctored tests throughout the year, and you can always try taking the test on your own using a test prep book. (There are lots of inexpensive options out there.) Taking a practice test the summer before you start ninth grade is a great way to be exposed to the level of knowledge you will need in the future and may even help motivate you to pay closer attention in your relevant freshman course work. Taking another practice test halfway through the school year and again at the end of your freshman year will provide some momentum going into your sophomore year as you see your familiarity with the test format and the test content improve.
During your sophomore year you should definitely opt to take the PSAT. I also recommend ramping up your testing frequency to approximately every three months. Sophomore year is when most students learn the majority of the content needed for both the SAT and ACT, and it is possible that you could be ready to take a real exam by the end of your sophomore year!
By following this plan you will have great insight into your strengths and weaknesses by the summer before your junior year. This is a great time for you to start exploring the colleges and universities you may have an interest in attending. Learn about their GPA and test score averages for admitted freshmen and compare these numbers to your own. If your practice test scores are consistently above the average for your top schools of interest, then go ahead and take a real test. If not, reduce your testing schedule and reach out to teachers, friends, and professional tutors for help strengthening your weak areas. Take the time in between tests to review and relearn content that you are consistently answering incorrectly. Focus on one weakness at a time until you feel that you’ve mastered those concepts.
Test Prep Expert
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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