You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. -Zig Ziglar
It can be hard to decide when to take the SAT for the first time. Should you wait until junior year? Is the fall better than the spring? Should you only take it if you've had geometry or read the top 100 classics in English literature?
Since everyone's different, there's no blanket answer to this question of, When should I take the SAT for the first time? Let's consider the most important factors in this decision so you can determine when to sign up for your initial test. First, what do most students do?
Typical SAT Test-Taking Schedule
College Board offers the SAT on seven dates throughout the year, usually in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June. Many students prep for the SAT throughout sophomore year and/or the following summer, and then take the SAT in the fall of junior year. This means that popular test-taking dates for juniors are in October and November.
If your first test date is in the fall of junior year, then you realistically leave yourself with about two more test dates to retake the SAT if you want to improve your scores. This is because it takes time to prep and really see improvement, so you could take the SAT again in the spring of junior year (May or June) and then again in the fall of senior year, as long as your college applications deadlines allow. At this point, you've reached your last chance to take the SAT and achieve your target scores.
This testing schedule works well for a lot of students, but it's definitely not the only way to schedule your test. For some students, this schedule might feel too limiting. Because you only have two or three chances, you might feel a lot of pressure on testing day that you wouldn't feel if you started earlier. Plus there's always the possibility of a fluke testing day, where you got sick, tired, or unlucky with an essay question that left you stumped.
For these reasons, or if you're someone who's prepping earlier like in 9th or 10th grade, this typical schedule might not be the best one for you. Let's look closer at why some students would take their first SAT even earlier than junior year.
Why Take the SAT Earlier?
While the schedule mentioned above is typical for a lot of students, you shouldn't feel like it's the only way to approach the SAT. Even if this is how your friends or older sister or brother took the SAT, it may or may not line up with your own personal schedule or goals.
If it works with your test prep and leaves you enough testing dates to achieve your scores, then it's a solid and reliable plan. However, if any of these following reasons resonate with you, then you might want to sign up for an earlier test date. So why might you take the SAT earlier than junior year?
Why might the early bird catch the worm?
If You're Prepping Earlier
Everyone's test prep is going to vary based on their own strengths, weaknesses, schedule, and goals. At the very minimum, though, all students should try to put in 10 hours of focused test prep, at least to get familiar with the format and timing of the test. Realistically, you would need to put in much more time over a sustained period to do well.
A full study regimen might consist of around 100 hours. You could spread this out over a school year by prepping for 2 to 3 hours a week, or start small and gradually increase your studying as you approach your test date.
If you're prepping earlier than the summer before junior year and scoring decently on practice tests, then taking the real SAT would be valuable testing experience. You can get a sense of what taking the real test is like, from what exactly you need to bring to how you feel leading up to and taking the SAT.
On the flip side, I wouldn't recommend sitting for the real SAT if you haven't done any prep, in most cases. Some colleges want you to send all your scores, so it might look bad to admissions officers if you have one test with a much lower score than the others. Plus College Board is on the lookout for big fluctuations in scores.
If you treat the first test as a throwaway and then prep for the next one, you run the risk of increasing your score by too much and having College Board withhold your scores. This is rare, but something to consider in terms of the importance of taking every real SAT seriously and worthy of preparation.
To sum up, if you're prepping in 9th or 10th grade, or even middle school, then you might move this typical test-taking schedule up a year or more by taking the SAT in sophomore year or earlier. As mentioned above, another factor to think about when signing up for the SAT is the policy of your intended colleges towards Score Choice.
If You're Using Score Choice
College Board's Score Choice option lets you decide which score reports from which test dates to send. You can't send only section scores, but you can leave out certain score reports from a sitting if they don't reflect your best performance. If you're planning to use Score Choice when you apply to college, then you don't have to worry too much about how many times you sit for the SAT (as long as you don't have huge point increases or decreases, as described in the last section).
Just make sure you understand the policies of your colleges. While it's a bit of a gray area, some schools require you to send all your scores across all test sittings and expect you to be honest here. Some schools will "superscore" your results, or take the highest section score across all dates. So if you do well in English on one date, math on another, and Writing on a third, then these are the scores the colleges will take. Again, you don't want any big score outliers that could raise red flags.
Some students use this superscoring policy to build up their SAT scores section by section. Why might superscoring lead you to sign up for the SAT earlier than junior year?
You could build up your scores, section by section.
If You Want More Test Dates to Build Up Your Scores
If your colleges superscore your SAT score reports, then you could use this policy to your advantage. You could use one test date to prep heavily for the math section, another to focus in on Critical Reading, and the third to devote your energies to Writing, to give one example. For obvious reasons, you shouldn't totally neglect any one section, but this strategy can help you prioritize your prep and goals and hit your target scores by section one test date at a time.
Even if you're not using this superscoring strategy to take the SAT, you might want more test dates than the three or so discussed in the typical test-taking schedule. Simply put, by starting earlier, you have more chances to take the SAT. This puts less pressure on each test date, so if you're someone who experiences test-taking anxiety, this plan could help relieve some of those nerves. Plus you don't have to freak out if you have a fluke test day by getting sick or having insomnia the night before.
Overall, I wouldn't recommend taking the SAT more than 6 times total. While you can technically take it as many times as you want, it could start to be a waste of time and money, as well as look bad to colleges that don't use Score Choice. If you find yourself taking it over and over, you probably would be better served readjusting your approach to test prep and figuring out to make it more effective for raising your scores.
Besides being strategic about building your scores, you might also have a strategy about lining the SAT up with your courses in school. Read on to learn about what I mean.
If You Want to Line Up the SAT With Your School Courses
A lot of people think the SAT is less about course content and more about strategy, and they wouldn't be totally off base. The test is pretty different from most tests you take in school. While the timing and wording of the questions is tricky, the concepts covered are really not all that advanced. You might have all the content knowledge you need to do well on the SAT well before junior year.
While strategy plays a large role in scoring highly on the SAT, I think that concrete academic concepts are also key for doing well. You have to have a grasp of algebra and geometry, for example. You should be practiced in analyzing a passage, understanding and applying key literary terms, and structuring a well-supported persuasive essay.
A lot of students cover the skills they'll need for the Math, Critical Reading, and Writing sections earlier in high school than junior year. Because of this, it could be helpful to study these skills in the context of the SAT and apply them to taking the test in freshman or sophomore year.
Some students even surpass the content they'll need for the SAT in school. Maybe you're taking pre-calculus and trigonometry in junior year and actually have to look back at concepts you learned in the past. Rather than get rusty with these skills, you might actually be better equipped to prep for and take the SAT in 9th or 10th grade, before your courses move beyond the content you need for the test.
In a similar vein, a lot of students might be in a good position to take an SAT Subject Test at the end of the 9th or 10th grade when they've just studied a corresponding subject for a year, like U.S. History or Biology. Besides lining up your test prep with your classes in school, you also want to consider and honor your own personal goals.
You want to line everything up just right.
If It Meets Your Personal Goals
Everyone's schedule and approach may vary depending on their personal goals and commitments. Let's say you're incredibly busy throughout the school year with homework, clubs, and community service. Or maybe you've made it to a varsity sports team in junior year, and it's going to take over your life.
You can reflect on your schedule and availability and decide what test dates make most sense for you. Besides your other commitments, you might also be motivated to finish taking the SAT before junior year and the busy college application season. If your goal is to hit your target scores before you finish junior year, then this might be motivation to design your own individualized test-taking schedule.
Overall, you are the best authority on your strengths, weaknesses, and goals, so you can feel confident that you're devising the best plan for you. Finally, the last reason why some students take the SAT earlier than junior year or even high school is to qualify for academic and talent competitions.
If You're Competing for Gifted Programs
The SAT is not just a test for getting into college. Some academic programs and talent competitions require the SAT or ACT as entrance requirements. These are usually for students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Some of these programs include BESTS at the University of Iowa, CTY at Johns Hopkins University, JBA at Truman State University, MATS at Northwestern University, and TIP at Duke University.
At this point, hopefully you have a clearer sense of how to answer the question, When should I take the SAT for the first time? You might be in great shape to take the SAT for the first time in the fall of junior year, and then again in the spring or following fall if you want to improve your scores. On the other hand, you might want to take the SAT even earlier. Let's quickly review all the reasons you might go with this option.
To Sum Up...
To review, you might take the SAT earlier to
- prep early and get the test done early.
- gain valuable real test experience and learn to manage time and stress.
- leave yourself more test dates to build up your scores.
- line up the content with your high school classes.
- fit into your schedule and meet your personal goals.
- qualify for talent competitions.
If you've considered all these factors, then you can make a well-informed decision about when to take the SAT for the first time.
The best way to study for the SAT is with official College Board SAT questions. Download and take official SAT practice tests here.
If you're taking the SAT in 9th or 10th grade, you want to set your target scores at this point. What's a good score for 9th grade? What about for 10th grade? Read about what scores you should be aiming for at this point in your high school career.
How far in advance of the SAT should you start prepping? Plan out your studying schedule with these important considerations.
Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.