"I have no idea what to expect" is not a sentence you want running through your mind on your way to take the SAT or ACT. If you take control of your test prep and schedule, then you shouldn't have any surprises on test day.
Besides studying, part of your preparation should be strategically planning out your SAT/ACT test dates. Instead of closing your eyes and pointing randomly at a calendar, you can ask yourself some key questions to figure out when the best SAT/ACT test dates are for you.
The first question that every student should ask herself, of course, is, When are my college deadlines?
When Are My Deadlines?
Most, if not all, students taking the SAT/ACT are doing so are part of their applications to 4-year colleges. Knowing your deadlines is the first piece of important information for making your SAT test date choice and ACT test date choice. SAT/ACT scores might also be required for some scholarships, which also might affect your choice of test dates.
Deadlines for College
Most regular decision deadlines for college are around January 1st in your senior year. January 15 is another common deadline, and some colleges go even later, like into February and March. If you're applying early action or early decision, then your deadlines are probably sometime in November.
It takes about 2-3 weeks to receive your SAT or ACT scores, so you want to make sure you leave at least this much time between your test dates and your first deadline. For peace of mind, though, you'd be much better off getting your test done and ready to go before the last possible date. Leaving it to the last minute gives you no protection if you have a fluke testing day or are disappointed with your scores. Plus there's the rare chance you could get unlucky and have your scores delayed or even canceled, and then you'd be out of time.
The SAT is given 7 times throughout the year, in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December. The ACT is usually given 7 times, in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. One way to consider your testing schedule is the "1/3 - 2/3 rule." Depending on when you're starting to prep and plan, you could take the SAT/ACT 1/3 of the time between your starting point and when your applications are due, and the second time at 2/3 between "now" and your deadlines.
If you started in January of junior year, for example, you could take your first SAT/ACT in April or May and your next test in the fall, like in October. This "rule" assumes you're going to take the SAT/ACT twice, but a lot of students choose to take it three or more times. I'll delve into what a typical test-taking schedule looks like for students more below, but first let's discuss the other deadlines you might be meeting: scholarship deadlines.
Can't relate to this at all, right?
Deadlines for Scholarships
Your SAT/ACT scores might also be an important consideration for winning scholarship money. Most score-based scholarships come directly from colleges, so your scholarship deadlines will generally match your college deadlines. If SAT/ACT-based scholarships are important for you, then you might want to get your scores earlier to help determine your college list. If you are able to achieve qualifying scores for guaranteed SAT/ACT scholarships, then you can make sure to apply to those schools that will award you money.
Since application planning is a process that takes several months, you probably want to have your SAT/ACT scores by the end of junior year. That way you can plan accordingly, know which colleges you're applying to, and focus on the rest of your application.
As I mentioned above, one potential problem with taking your tests last minute is that you'd run out of test dates if you aren't satisfied with your scores. Many students take the SAT/ACT more than once or twice to prep between tests and improve their scores. How many times you want to take the test is the next important question to ask yourself when choosing test dates.
How Many Times Do I Want to Take the SAT/ACT?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the SAT/ACT more than once to achieve your target scores. In fact, I'd highly recommend taking it at least twice, if not three or more times. Almost everyone improves when they retake the SAT/ACT. This "real test" experience can be especially valuable if you use it as a launching off point to determine your strengths and weaknesses and do targeted test prep that will help you pull up your scores the next time.
If, like most students, you're taking your test more than once, then you want to make sure you leave yourself enough test dates and months in between each one to study. If you took the SAT in May and then again the next month in June, then you really wouldn't have time to improve very much. Instead, you want to leave several months in between test dates to prep effectively.
Given this strategic approach to hitting your scores on the SAT/ACT, what does a typical test-taking schedule look like for most students?
Typical Test-Taking Schedule
A typical SAT/ACT schedule for the majority of students involves three opportunities to take the test. Hopefully this guide helps you realize that there are several considerations when making your SAT test date choice and ACT test date choice. Just because this schedule works for a lot of students, doesn't automatically mean it's the best one for you.
Many students take their first SAT/ACT in the fall of junior year, after spending the summer studying. After receiving their initial scores and reflecting on the experience, students can take the next few months to reinforce their understanding and improve areas of weakness. Then they take the test again in the spring of junior year.
At this point, you might have achieved your target scores and be satisfied with your results. If you want another chance to improve your scores, you still have several summer months to prep and then take your test again in the fall of senior year. At this point, you've reached your last opportunity to test and will be applying to college.
There are pros and cons to this schedule. The pros include
- 3 opportunities to take the SAT/ACT
- Advanced skills and content knowledge that you've developed throughout high school.
- Over a year to prep and improve your scores between fall of junior year and fall of senior year.
This schedule works really well for a lot of students, but there are also some cons to consider:
- Limited test dates. Once you reach fall of senior year, you don't have time to take the SAT/ACT for a fourth time.
- May overlap with busy times of year, like AP tests, college planning, and varsity sports in junior and senior year.
- May feel more pressure and stress on each test date, since you don't have extra time beyond these dates.
If any of these cons resonate with you, perhaps because of your junior year activities or anxieties around testing, then you might consider pushing back this typical schedule and registering for the SAT/ACT even earlier than junior year.
Juggling a lot junior year? Consider taking the SAT/ACT earlier.
If you push this typical schedule back about half a year, then you could take your first SAT test in the spring of sophomore year and then have about three more opportunities to test. If you wanted five test dates, then you could take it in the fall of sophomore year.
Depending on how much prep you put into the SAT/ACT, you could even be ready to take it freshman year. Technically, you can take the SAT as many times as you want and the ACT up to 12 times. Of course, this would be overkill, both a waste of time and money and a potential red flag to colleges. While taking the SAT/ACT up to 6 times is acceptable, you probably don't need more to leave yourself any more test dates than that. If you find yourself having to take it over and over to achieve your scores, that time and energy could probably be better spent on test prep.
Besides taking the pressure off and leaving you with more test dates, pushing this typical schedule back to sophomore year is a good option if you're trying to build up your scores section by section, or "superscore" your test. I'll explain what exactly I mean by superscoring below.
Superscoring the SAT/ACT
For anyone not familiar with the term "superscoring," it refers to the policy that some colleges use when they consider your standardized test scores. If colleges superscore, they take your highest section scores across all the dates you took the test and use those for your final test scores. If you take the SAT/ACT more than once, then superscoring is your friend.
If you know that your colleges will superscore your results, you can actually use this policy to your advantage. Rather than focusing on improving your scores in every section every time you take the test, you could focus intensively on bringing up your math score, for instance. Then you could take the test again and really focus in on Reading, or Writing, or ACT Science. Obviously you shouldn't completely neglect any sections, but this could be a way to achieve a really strong score section by section across numerous test dates.
Again, you would need to make sure your colleges superscore and don't look at all scores or your highest sitting. If you're using this approach, you would want to start taking the SAT/ACT in freshman or sophomore year to leave yourself enough test dates. Again, I wouldn't recommend taking either test more than 6 times.
This superscoring approach to taking the SAT/ACT leads us to the next important consideration when choosing your test dates - how much test prep you're willing and able to devote to meeting your goals.
Hard at work.
How Long Can I Prepare Before My Test?
Just as you don't want to neglect any sections of the SAT/ACT, you also don't want to treat any official test as a throwaway, even if it's just the first time you're taking it. At the very minimum, I would recommend putting in 10 hours of test prep before sitting for a real test. This will help you get familiar with the instructions and format, but won't help much beyond that for improving your scores. Your study schedule is a big factor in determining which test date you choose for your first SAT/ACT. So how long do you plan to study?
How Much Time Can I Devote to Test Prep?
To figure out your study schedule, you need to figure out how you can balance test prep with everything else you're doing in and out of school. I think the best way to make a schedule and stick to it is to write it down in a planner or calendar and create a routine. If you have free time on Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 to 8, then set that aside as your study time. Of course this can change if you get assigned a big project or essay, but being consistent about your test prep is the best way to ensure that you'll stick to your plan.
Before taking your first SAT/ACT, I would also recommend taking a practice test. You can time yourself, score it, and see if you're performing near your target scores. If you're much lower than you think you can achieve and still have several available test dates, then you might want to hold off on taking the real test until you study some more. If you start early enough, then you can have more flexibility in your study schedule and which test dates you choose. Either way, it's a good idea to consider your test-taking schedule in conjunction with your test prep schedule.
As academic tests, the SAT/ACT also line up with your classes in school, but when they line up might differ from student to student. Before signing up for your test, you should consider how it coincides with your current high school classes.
How Does It Line Up With My Classes?
In order to answer this question, you want to familiarize yourself with what's actually tested on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections of the SAT and the Reading, English, Math, and Science section of the ACT. While the content on each test is not all that advanced, there are certain concepts that are helpful to have studied in school. Both tests cover geometry, for example, and the math section of the ACT even covers some trigonometry.
If you're taking geometry freshman year, then your best SAT test dates might be earlier than junior or senior year, since by then you'll have moved onto more advanced math. Conversely, if you aren't studying geometry or trigonometry until junior year, then you might be better off sticking to the typical schedule mentioned above and taking the SAT/ACT for the first time junior year.
Similarly, you might benefit from one or two more years in high school writing persuasive essays and developing your reading comprehension skills before taking the SAT/ACT. If you're strong in English, however, you might be well prepared to score highly before you're an upperclassman. Plus studying early could help you cultivate your existing skills and get a headstart on learning new knowledge.
The best way to gauge your level is to try official practice problems for the SAT and ACT and see how familiar you are with the material. If you're already studying the concepts you need in freshman or sophomore year, then you might strongly consider signing up for the test early and even getting it finished with before you're a junior or senior. Getting your scores all set and ready to send to colleges early may also be a relief if your schedule gets busy in 11th and 12th grade.
What Else Is On My Schedule?
When choosing the best SAT test dates and ACT test dates, you might also think about what other activities and responsibilities you have coming up. Junior year might get busy with AP classes and finals. You might lead Student Council or an Amnesty International campaign. Maybe you're exhausted everyday from varsity football practice.
If your life is looking hectic junior year, then you might want to get your SAT/ACT done earlier than junior year. Even if it seems easier to push off the tests and let Future You deal with them, you could do yourself a favor by prepping early, taking the tests, and then having more time as your schedule gets more and more packed.
On the flip side, maybe you're busy with summer camps before freshman and sophomore year and have more time before 11th and 12th grade. In either case, you can really personalize your testing schedule to fit your own goals and find balance with your other activities and interests.
These might sound like a lot of questions to answer before signing up for the SAT/ACT, but they are meant to help you take control of the process and maximize your ability to find balance and achieve strong scores for your college applications. Read on for a summary of the most significant factors in determining the best SAT/ACT test dates for you.
Choosing Your SAT/ACT Test Dates
As I mentioned above, the typical test-taking schedule for the SAT/ACT is to take it for the first time in the fall of junior year, again in the spring of junior year, and, if so desired, for the final time in the fall of senior year (as long as your college deadlines allow). Students who are prepping earlier might move this timeline ahead to leave themselves extra test dates or get their scores all set and ready to go early.
The most important questions you should ask yourself when planning your test-taking schedule are the following:
- What are my deadlines for college and scholarships?
- How many times do I want to take the SAT/ACT?
- Am I trying to improve my scores in all sections with each retake or using a "superscoring" strategy?
- How long do I plan to study?
Besides these primary considerations, you might also consider your classes and other pursuits as factors. In this case, ask yourself
- How does the SAT or ACT line up with my high school classes?
- What else do I have in my schedule and how can I balance test prep with my other assignments and activities?
By answering these questions, you can devise a test prep and test-taking schedule and have a strong rationale behind your choices. Take control of the college application process by having a strong sense of where you're starting out, where you want to go, and what you need to do in between to get there. By articulating clear reasons and a strong sense of purpose, you can answer any questions you have about the SAT or ACT and achieve your goals.
Confused pug answered all his SAT/ACT questions.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test 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.