While you're doing a lot to prepare for the SAT, you probably haven't given that much thought to the physical location of your test. However, that location could definitely affect your performance.
Think about it – have you ever had to take a test in a cramped classroom or in room without air conditioning? It probably didn’t exactly help your performance. So why would you take the SAT in sub-optimal conditions?
Read our guide to choosing the best possible test location so you can do as well as possible.
Two Search Methods
Before we worry about choosing locations, you have to find out what those locations are. We will go over two methods to finding SAT locations – one that’s easy to use but less informative, and one that’s harder to use but contains more info.
Method One: College Board’s Test Center Search
College Board’s Test Center Search lets you look up test centers by state or by city. Depending on where you live, this may give you all you need to know.
The Test Center Search page allows you to search for SAT locations by state and city. Image via College Board.
For example, I’m from Utah. In the entire state, there are just nine testing locations for the next SAT, mostly at area colleges. So just seeing these nine locations will give me all I need to know. Likely any student in Utah will have just one or possibly two options based on location.
Some of Utah's nine SAT locations. Image via College Board.
However, if you live in a state like Massachusetts with dozens of potential test sites, you may want to do a more fine-grained search. You can search by city, but remember to look up towns and suburbs near to you to see the most options.
If you’re in a state with tons of choices, the second search method, which allows you to look by zip code, will likely be easiest…
Method Two: Begin to Register for the SAT
For whatever reason, College Board’s test location search within its registration process is more informative than its basic test search option. So to get access to the most efficient SAT location search, you have to go through the SAT registration system. Move through College Board's SAT registration process until you get to step 3, "Select Test & Center."
Image via College Board.
You can enter your zip code (rather than search by only city or state) and see the options closest to you, including neighboring cities. This is much more efficient if you there are a lot of potential test sites near you.
Image via College Board.
You can also see who still has seats available for the test, which is important info if you know you need to register soon. You don't have to complete the registration to use the search tool.
Also, live close to a state line? Consider options over the border, especially if rules/laws are different (some states require scores be reported to talent searches).
Choosing a Test Site
Now that you know how to search for a test center, you probably fall into one of two camps. In the first camp, let’s call it the Utah camp, your test location is entirely determined by proximity. This means that you have only one or two options based on where you live, so unfortunately you can’t optimize your test center beyond location.
But if you’re in the second camp, let's call it the Massachusetts camp, you have many choices. So how do you make sure you pick the best possible test center? Your choice of test location depends on a few important factors, which we will cover in order of importance.
How Far Do You Have to Travel?
Basically, the closer you live to a test center, the better. You don’t want to risk having a morning-of traffic or weather crisis.
Many students test at their high school if they can, but if you live far away from your high school, it might actually be better to see if there is a location closer to your home.
Also consider that parking and drop-off around the center is likely going to be congested on the morning of the test, and plan accordingly. Add at least 10 minutes onto predicted travel time to account for this.
Are You Familiar With the Test Site?
Once you’re inside the center, you’ll be less stressed if you know how to get around. For example, if you’re testing in your own high school, even if you’re headed to a room you’ve never had a class in, you’ll likely be able to find it easily.
However, if you’re in a university building and have to go looking for the room, or take a wrong turn, that could add unnecessary stress the morning of the SAT. If you’re heading to a new building on test day, either scope it out before test day or arrive early to give you ample time to get to your test room.
Getting lost and ending up in a lonely hallway that looks like something out of The Shining probably won't help your test day jitters.
Who's Going to Be There?
Don't just think about where you're taking the SAT. Think about who is going to be there, too.
If you’re taking the SAT at your high school or at a location with students from your high school, that could be good or bad, depending on your personality.
Will seeing friends or classmates relax you, or stress you out? For some students, seeing their friends could help calm them down. Seeing familiar faces and having a moment to joke around before the test could alleviate stress.
But for others, seeing their classmates could remind them of their competition for college and make them more stressed. Or seeing friends could be more distracting than helpful.
There’s no right answer here. Just take your personal preferences into account. If you know that having your friends around will help, don’t worry about heading to your local high school. If you think it will be stressful for you, consider going to a test center more out of the way so you can focus better on the test.
Any Test Center Problems?
You should also consider some of the more nitty-gritty details of the testing center before making your choice. There are many factors that could make the test center itself good or bad.
Are there windows in the test rooms? For some students, sitting by a window is distracting. For others, being in a windowless room feels suffocating.
Are there heating/cooling issues? Taking a test in the sweltering June heat without A.C. would be miserable, but so would taking it in a freezing room in November. If you’re signed up for a winter or summer test date, in particular, make sure you’re in a room with decent temperature control.
Any there issues like nearby construction? For example, if there is a noisy construction project going on by your high school, you might elect to go to farther location to make sure your test center will be quiet.
Finally, think about desk size. Generally, the more space, the better, because you’ll be balancing the test book and the answer sheet. This can be tricky on those tiny desks some college rooms have. If you’re sensitive about your work space, try and sneak a peak at the test room before you sign up.
Should I Just Test at My High School?
After reading through all these possible factors, you might be thinking you should just test at your high school, since you know the most about it. For many students, this is a great option. Make sure to consider the following factors, though.
Will familiar faces distract you? Like we discussed above, for some students, seeing friends and classmates on test day can be stressful. If you would prefer to be with a crowd of strangers, look into different locations.
Is there a closer location you could go? Keep in mind the Saturday morning SAT commute is typically earlier than your high school commute. There might be unexpected traffic and parking issues at the school. If your high school is a ways away, see if there are closer testing locations.
Are there known issues with your high school, like small desks or a nearby construction project? If anything about your high school is distracting for you, think about other locations.
Finally, do you tend to lose focus in environments you’re used to? Some people prefer the “blank slate” environment of a new testing center. Others like being in familiar environments for stressful, high-stakes testing.
If none of the above are true, your high school could be the best option since you’re familiar with the location. You’ll be less likely to run into morning-of problems simply because you know the building well.
Be aware of test center closings. Sometimes College Board has to close test centers due to weather or other reasons. Check your email carefully in the weeks and days leading up to the test in case something happens to your location.
Drive to the testing location before the morning of the test if you’ve never been there. Make sure the route you’re using (or the route Google Maps is telling you to use) is accurate and gets you there. You don’t want to risk getting lost the morning before the test.
If you have a long drive the morning of, pack breakfast with you to save time. You can also listen to music in the car (relaxing music if you need to calm down, pump-up music if you want to get amped) or review some notes to get your brain in gear. (But don't review notes if you're the one driving!)
Finally, recognize you can change your location after registering, but there’s a $28 fee and locations fill up the closer you get to the test.
Not feeling 100% ready for the SAT yet? Consider reading our guide to a 1600 by our full scorer. Even if you’re not going for a perfect score, the skills described in this post will help you in your last studying push.
We also recommend doing full SAT practice tests, with strict timing, to get used to SAT pacing and help build your stamina. Get access to free, official online practice tests here.
Curious about what else you should do the morning of the test? Get our advice on the best routine.
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:
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.