The college admissions process is a long one, encompassing most of a student's high school career. One of the most important parts, the SAT or ACT standardized test, is also one of the most challenging. But you can really benefit from early planning and deciding ahead of time when you should take it.
It's always a good idea to begin early, but to decide on specific test dates, you'll need to factor in circumstances like your personal schedule, your admissions deadlines, and the classes you're currently taking. All of these make a big difference in when it’s best for you to take the SAT or ACT.
In this guide, we'll debunk a common myth about the best time to take the test, discuss the most important factors for determining when you should take the SAT or ACT, and go over the best testing plan for most high school students.
Myth: Some SAT/ACT Test Dates Are Always Easier Than Others
A common myth about the SAT and ACT is that specific test dates tend to be easier or harder than others. The (incorrect) logic here is that each test date is curved based on the students who take that specific test. Therefore, if you take the test with many ambitious, hard-working students, the curve will be harder and your test score will be lower. On the other hand, if you take the test with a lot of younger, unprepared students, the curve will be easier and your score will be higher.
This myth is factually untrue for several reasons.
First, both the College Board and ACT, Inc,. do not curve their tests based on student performance. In other words, whom you take the SAT or ACT with has zero impact on your final score.
Instead, both the SAT and ACT use an equating process to account for slight differences in test difficulty across test dates. For example, if the ACT you took in April was harder than the ACT given in June, your raw scores would translate into slightly higher scaled scores to account for this difference in difficulty.
Both test makers want to give students test scores that can be compared with scores from any other test date, on an equal basis. As a result, a score on one test will always indicate the same level of ability as that same score on a different test date. For example, a 1200 on one SAT will mean the same thing in 2016 as it does in 2020. This is the whole point of a standardized test!
Here’s another reason this myth doesn’t make sense: if test curves varied from test to test, then colleges would need to take into account the test date on your application. For instance, they'd need to treat a 30 on an April ACT differently from a 30 on a June ACT. To date, no college admissions office has given any evidence that they take specific test dates into account.
It is true that tests do vary in difficulty on a personal level. For example, when I was preparing for the SAT, some reading passages were just easier for me than other passages, especially if the passage topics were in my area of interest. However, you can't predict this ahead of time. As I mentioned above, many other factors go into choosing the test date that’s best for you.
4 Important Factors for Your SAT/ACT Date
Like most things in life, early planning pays off—in this case, in higher test scores. Don't wait until college applications are due in your senior year to take your first SAT or ACT—you'll perform nowhere near your best and might not get into the schools you apply to.
Beyond the general tip of planning early, you'll need to decide on the specific test date you’ll be taking the SAT or ACT. Each test now has seven test dates throughout the year, and your score can vary on each test date based on a few key factors.
In order of priority, here are the four most important factors to think about when determining when you should take the SAT or ACT:
#1: Deadlines for College Admissions and Scholarships
The most important factor for determining when you should take the SAT or ACT is your college admissions deadlines. As we'll explain later, you should begin preparing for the SAT/ACT a year before your first important deadline; you should also take your chosen test at least twice.
For most students, regular decision deadlines fall in December or January of their senior year, which means you'll need to take your last SAT or ACT by, latest, December. If you're applying early action or early decision and have a due date in November, your last possible test date will be the October SAT or ACT. As a result, you'll need to begin preparing for the SAT/ACT during your junior year.
There might be also other deadlines at play for you. For example, if you're recruited for athletics, you'll want to reach your SAT/ACT target goal by the end of your junior year. As we discuss in this article about how college recruiting works, college coaches won't want to spend time recruiting you if they don't think you have a good chance of getting into that school, which means your academics need to be on par with those of non-student athletes at the schools you're applying to.
You don't necessarily need to shoot for a top SAT/ACT score and GPA, but you should aim to hit 25th percentile SAT/ACT scores and around 80% of the average GPA. The specifics of what you can get away with will depend on the school, sport, and specific person. For instance, a volleyball player at Harvard will have to meet higher academic standards than a football player at FSU.
Deadline considerations also apply for academic merit scholarships. Several SAT/ACT score-based scholarships have deadlines well in advance of the January regular decision admissions deadlines. As a result, you might need to adjust when you take the test(s) to make sure your scores will be ready when you apply.
The bottom line? Know your deadlines as you plan out your SAT/ACT testing schedule.
#2: Content Readiness and Classes in School
Much of the SAT and ACT tests general concepts you'll learn in high school, and your scores will be higher once you’ve taken the classes that cover material on the tests.
The best time to take the SAT or ACT is after you've taken Geometry and Algebra II classes. Both tests feature algebra and geometry (though the SAT places less emphasis on geometry these days). If you've never encountered these subjects, your knowledge foundation will cause you to do poorly on the Math section.
As for the Reading and Writing/English sections, most students will have had enough exposure to English and grammar to form a baseline understanding of the concepts tested on the SAT and ACT. To excel on these sections, though, you'll need to prep specifically for the SAT and ACT.
Now, this doesn’t mean that just because you took Algebra II and English classes, you'll do well on the SAT/ACT. The test questions are very different from what you've seen in school, and much of SAT/ACT prep involves learning special types of questions and becoming familiar with the test format.
That said, having the underlying content foundation will make you improve much faster. Plus, if you're in a state that requires juniors to take the SAT or ACT, you might also get some extra prep targeted at the SAT/ACT during class time.
#3: Personal Schedule and Stress
If possible, it’s best to take the SAT or ACT when you're not stressed about five other things in life. Many high school students struggle with balancing schoolwork, extracurriculars, a social life, and test prep.
Therefore, avoid taking the SAT or ACT when you have a lot of other activities going on. For example, May is especially busy for many students because of AP exams, finals, and end-of-year events. But for you, March might be a bad time because you're gearing up for state championships for your sport.
In my experience with thousands of students, students who plan to take the SAT or ACT during busy times like these get very stressed, don’t have enough time to prep, and unfortunately end up getting lower-than-expected scores on test day.
Try to choose a test date on either side of a busy period so you have more time in your schedule to prep and less stress and anxiety. Ultimately, this can make a big difference in your test scores!
#4: Prep Time
For most students, we recommend studying at least 40 hours for the SAT or ACT for a big score improvement. If you can study more than this—e.g., 80 hours or 120 hours—you'll likely be rewarded with higher test scores.
If you've already taken the test several times but don’t have time to prep for your next test, you’re unlikely to see a big score improvement. It's an unfortunate truth, but without learning more content and attacking your weaknesses, you're simply not going to improve your score.
In the end, try to schedule the SAT/ACT for a time when you can dedicate focused study time to test prep. For example, many students like scheduling the test right after winter break or summer vacation so they can take advantage of their free time by putting in serious study hours.
By thinking deeply about these four major factors, you'll be able to figure out which test dates are best for you. Next up, we show you the testing plan that works best for 95% of students.
A Reliable SAT/ACT Testing Schedule for Most Students
For most students, this SAT/ACT testing schedule will give you the best chance of getting the score you want. It makes sure you test early, gives you room to improve, and offers enough buffer time so that you can get the score you want before your college applications are due.
Here are the four steps you'll need to take:
Step 1: Take the PSAT as a Junior
If you’re aiming for a National Merit scholarship, you'll want to prepare for the PSAT (which is essentially a practice SAT) and take it your junior year. For most students, though, there's no need to prepare for it; rather, you should look at the PSAT as an opportunity to get early exposure to the SAT.
Step 2: Take the February ACT or March SAT as a Junior
These are the first SAT/ACT test dates after winter break, so use your break to prepare for the test. Make sure you have a study plan and take at least one or two full-length SAT/ACT practice tests sometime before the test so you can get used to the format.
As this will be your first official test, look at your score as a starting score to improve on later.
Step 3: Take the April/June ACT or the May/June SAT as a Junior
You’ll need to prep a little harder for this test. Make sure you have a long-term study schedule during the school year and are factoring in enough time to study. When deciding between April/May and June test dates, consider your personal schedule and aim to give yourself as little stress as possible.
In truth, you're likely to improve your score just by taking the test a second time! Thus, at this point, it’s very possible that your SAT or ACT score will be good enough for the colleges you want to apply to.
If you still want to improve, however, move on to step 4.
Step 4: Take the August SAT or September ACT as a Senior
From steps 2 and 3, you'll know how much room you need to grow to hit your SAT goal score or ACT goal score. During the summer, it's important to work really hard at improving your scores—even at the expense of your social life and personal fun. (It's well worth it, though, as a higher score will get you access to better colleges and scholarships!)
Step 5: Still Dissatisfied With Your Score? Take the SAT/ACT in the Late Fall
Late fall your senior year is typically your last chance to take the SAT/ACT and still get your scores to your schools in time.
That said, if you've already taken the test multiple times, you're unlikely to see more than incremental change without a lot of dedicated prep. To really raise your score, you'll need to set aside plenty of time to study. This might mean spending less time with friends or even easing off some of your extracurriculars to give you more time to fully concentrate on the test.
Why is this five-step plan so effective? For one, it gives you early warning signs for your starting score so you know how much you have to improve by. It also offers enough flexibility for you to schedule your prep time as needed. Finally, it gives you several chances to take the test in case you have a bad day and don't score as highly as you want to.
As a final tip, remember to register well in advance of the deadline so you can pay as few fees as possible.
SAT/ACT Testing Schedule for Intensive Studiers
If you're a student who's hoping to aim for the highest scores on the test, you'll want to structure your test taking a little differently. The schedule below ensures that you start early and spend more time studying for each test.
Step 1: Take the PSAT as a Sophomore
While you can't qualify for National Merit as a sophomore, taking the PSAT in 10th grade will give you valuable insight into how you're doing and where your weaknesses lie. Since you're mainly taking the PSAT to get more information about your skill level (rather than to qualify for a scholarship competition), there's no need for any extra preparation.
Step 2: Take the PSAT/NMSQT as a Junior
This advice is the same as for our regular testing schedule above: if your goal is to qualify for National Merit, you'll need to spend some time prepping for the PSAT (at the very least, by taking an official PSAT practice test).
Step 3: Take the September/October ACT or October/November SAT as a Junior
Take advantage of your summer vacation and the beginning of fall semester to prepare for this test. Plan to spend at least a few hours prepping each week. As always, follow a study plan and take a few full-length SAT/ACT practice tests so you can get more accustomed to the format of the exam.
Remember, this is your first official test, and your score on it will be the starting score you'll try to improve on. Take it seriously!
Unfortunately, you'll also have the PSAT around this time, so try to balance your study time wisely. Since the PSAT is so similar to the SAT, you can really just study for the SAT and apply what you've learned to the PSAT as well. If you're taking the ACT, on the other hand, the only difference is that you'll probably want to brush up on your science knowledge.
Step 4: Take the March SAT or April ACT as a Junior
A spring test is a solid time for a second attempt as you'll have winter vacation (and possibly spring break, too) to study for it. As you did the first time around, make studying part of your routine. This time, however, you should have a better understanding of what specific weaknesses to focus on.
Since you'll have gotten back your PSAT scores and your SAT/ACT scores from your fall test, make sure to incorporate any insights you can glean from your performances on these and apply them to your prep. For instance, if your Writing/English score was a lot lower than you expected it to be, you should dedicate more time to reviewing critical SAT/ACT grammar rules.
Step 5: Take the August SAT or September ACT as a Senior
If you still haven't hit your goal score, this is a good time to take a third SAT/ACT.
You'll absolutely need to prep for this test. The scores you got in step 4 will tell you how much you need to improve by. By giving yourself four to five months to study, you'll have a far better chance of making big score gains (than if you were to opt for the earlier June SAT/ACT).
Make full use of the summer to work really hard, even if it comes at the expense of your social life. Remind yourself that a higher score will ultimately give you access to better colleges and even scholarships.
Step 6: Unhappy With Your Score? Take the December SAT/ACT as a Senior
This is your absolute last chance to take the SAT/ACT and still have your scores meet your college application deadlines.
As we recommend for our regular schedule above, if your score is lagging behind the target you've set, it's best to drop as many other activities as you can to improve it. In particular, reduce your extracurriculars and your social life so you can concentrate more on the test.
However, you also need to be realistic. Compare your desired score increase with our recommended study time for the SAT and ACT. Can you realistically put in that much study time? More importantly, are you willing to do this? If not, consider adjusting your target score and the schools you want to apply to.
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:
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.