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 studied geometry or read the top 100 classics in English literature?
Since everyone's different, there's no blanket answer to the question, "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?
2 Typical SAT Test-Taking Schedules
The College Board offers the SAT on seven test dates each year in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. Below, we'll be looking at two ways you can schedule your SATs during your junior and senior years.
Typical SAT Test-Taking Schedule #1
Here is a brief overview of the first SAT test-taking schedule:
- First SAT: October or November (junior year)
- Second SAT: March or May (junior year)
- Third SAT (if needed): August, October, or November (senior year)
Many students prep for the SAT throughout their sophomore year and/or the following summer, and then take the SAT in the fall of their junior year. This means that popular first-time SAT test 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.
You could take the SAT again in the spring of your junior year (March or May) and a third time in the summer/fall of your senior year (assuming you have time to get your scores in before your college application deadlines). At this point, you'll have reached your last chance to take the SAT and achieve your target scores.
Typical SAT Test-Taking Schedule #2
If you're planning to take the PSAT the fall of your junior year, you might want to move your first SAT to the spring. Although this schedule gives you less time between SATs, it can still work well if you are productive and know how to manage your time.
Here is an overview of this combined PSAT/SAT test-taking schedule:
- PSAT: October (junior year)
- First SAT: March or May (junior year)
- Second SAT: June or August (between junior and senior year)
- Third SAT (if needed): October or November (senior year)
In this case, you'll want to squeeze in a second SAT the summer between junior and senior year so that you can give yourself room for a third attempt in the fall, if necessary.
Other Options for SAT Test-Taking Schedules
Both of these testing schedules work well for a lot of students, but they're definitely not the only ways to work in the SAT.
For some students, these two schedules might feel too limiting. Since 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 (meaning you were sick, tired, or simply unlucky with a question that left you stumped).
For these reasons, or if you're someone who's prepping earlier in 9th or 10th grade, these typical schedules might not be the best ones for you. Let's look closer at why some students take their first SAT even earlier than junior year.
Why might the early bird catch the worm?
6 Reasons to Take the SAT Before Junior Year
While the schedule mentioned above is typical for a lot of students, don't feel as if 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 and 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 the following six reasons resonate with you, you might want to sign up for an earlier test date.
So why might you take the SAT earlier than junior year?
#1: You Want to Prep Early
Everyone's SAT 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 at least 10 hours of focused test prep; this allows you to get familiar with the format and timing of the test. Realistically, you'd 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 single school year by prepping for two to three hours a week, or start small and gradually increase your studying the closer you get to your test date.
If you're prepping earlier than the summer before junior year and scoring decently on SAT practice tests, taking the real SAT would be a valuable testing experience. Essentially, you'll get a sense of what taking the actual test is like, from what you need to bring to how you feel leading up to and taking the SAT.
On the flip side, I usually don't recommend taking the real SAT if you haven't done any prep. Some colleges want to see all of your SAT scores, so it might look bad to admissions officers if you have one SAT with a much lower score compared with those from other SATs you've taken.
What's more, the College Board is always on the lookout for big fluctuations in scores. If you treat your first SAT as a throwaway test and then prep hard for your next one, you risk increasing your score by too many points and having the College Board withhold your scores to ensure you haven't cheated. This is rare, but something to consider in terms of the importance of taking every real SAT seriously and spending time studying for it.
To sum up, if you're prepping for the SAT in 9th or 10th grade (or even middle school), you might move up this typical test-taking schedule a year or more by taking the SAT in sophomore year or earlier.
#2: You Plan to Use Score Choice
Another big factor to think about when signing up for the SAT is the Score Choice policies of the schools you're applying to.
The College Board's Score Choice option lets you decide which SAT score reports from which test dates to send to schools. You can't send only section scores, but you can leave out certain score reports from sittings if you feel that they don't reflect your best performance.
If you're planning to use Score Choice when you apply to college, 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 increases or decreases in your scores, as described in the previous 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.
By contrast, some schools superscore SAT results by taking the highest section scores across all dates. So if you do well in Reading on one date, Math on another, and Writing on a third, these are the section scores the colleges will use for admission consideration. Again, note that any big score outliers could raise red flags for schools.
Some students use this superscoring policy to build up their SAT scores section by section. But why might superscoring lead you to sign up for the SAT earlier than junior year?
You could build up your scores, section by section.
#3: You Want More Test Dates to Build Up Your Scores
If your colleges superscore SAT scores, you can use this policy to your advantage. How? You can use one test date to prep heavily for the Math section, another to focus on Reading, and the third to devote your energies to Writing.
For obvious reasons, you shouldn't totally neglect any one section, but this strategy can help you prioritize your prep and hit your target scores on each SAT 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'll 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!
Overall, I don't recommend taking the SAT more than six times in total. Though you can technically take it as many times as you want, it'll 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 the SAT over and over, work on readjusting your approach to test prep, and figure out how you can make it more effective for raising your scores.
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#4: You Want to Align the SAT With Your Classes
Besides being strategic about building your scores using Score Choice, you might have a strategy in which you line up the SAT with the courses you take in school.
A lot of people think the SAT is less about course content and more about strategy—and they're not totally off base. The test is pretty different from most tests you take in school. While the timing and wording of the questions can be 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.
Although strategy plays a large role in scoring highly on the SAT, concrete academic concepts are also key for doing well. You have to have a solid grasp of algebra and geometry, for example. You should also know how to analyze a passage, how to use key literary terms, and how to structure a cogent, well-supported essay.
Many students cover the skills they'll need for the Math, Reading, and Writing sections before their junior year of high school. As a result, it could be helpful to study these skills in the context of the SAT and apply them by taking the test during your freshman or sophomore year.
Some students even surpass the content they'll need for the SAT through their classes in school. If you're taking pre-calculus and trigonometry junior year, you'd have to look back at math concepts you learned in the past in order to do well on the SAT. 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.
You want to line everything up just right.
#5: It Meets Your Personal Goals
Besides lining up your test prep with your classes in school, it's important to consider and honor your own personal goals.
Students' schedules and approaches to the SAT will 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're on a varsity sports team that takes up a lot of your free time. Reflect on your schedule and availability to decide which test dates make most sense for you.
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 feel confident that you're devising the best plan for you.
#6: You're Competing for Gifted Programs
The last reason that some students take the SAT earlier than junior year or even high school is to qualify for academic and talent competitions.
In reality, 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.
Review: When Should You Take the SAT for the First Time?
At this point, you should have a clearer sense of how to answer the question, "When should I take the SAT for the first time?"
Most students are 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 (of senior year) if they want to improve their scores. If you plan to take the PSAT, too, you might want to shift this schedule slightly so that you're taking your first SAT the spring of your junior year instead.
However, some students might want to take the SAT earlier. Let's quickly review all the reasons you might go with this option:
- You want to prep and get the SAT over with early
- You'll gain valuable test-taking experience and learn how to manage time and stress
- You'll leave yourself with more test dates you can use to build up your scores as needed
- You can line up the content of the SAT with relevant high school classes
- You can better meet your goals and more easily fit in a test with an earlier schedule
- You're hoping to qualify for a talent competition
Once you've considered these six factors, you can then make a well-informed decision about when to take the SAT for the first time.
The best way to study for the SAT is to use official SAT practice questions. Download and take all official SAT practice tests here.
If you're taking the SAT in 9th or 10th grade, you'll want to set your target scores pronto. So 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 160 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.