For some students in ninth and tenth grade, the college planning process can never start too early. But should you really take your first SAT or ACT when you're not even halfway through your high school years?
Most college prep experts agree that ninth and tenth grade students haven't yet covered enough academic material to fully prepare them for the questions on the SAT or ACT. Your first two years of high school are essentially spent learning the entire math curriculum that is tested by the SAT and ACT. Not only that, but taking the test before your junior year also doesn't give you enough time to enhance your vocabulary or reading comprehension skills.
Practice Tests Could Be Optimal
Shelley Levine, a Certified Educational Planner for College Bound in Potomac, Md., advises that junior year is the ideal time to take the SAT and ACT — and ninth and tenth graders should focus on taking a practice PSAT or practice ACT.
“The practice tests should be used to give students exposure to the test so that, when they take their junior year PSAT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), they will be familiar with the format and content," she said. "I would stress the fact that students should not take an official test as a 'practice' test. Instead, they should take full-length mock tests for practice,” Levine explains.
But maybe you were thinking that registering to take an official SAT or ACT before your junior year would be the same as or better than taking a practice test? Well, you might want to reconsider. Levine gives three reasons why taking an official test as a practice test may not be such a good idea:
- A low score is upsetting and can cause anxiety. Students should practice on "practice tests" that are not officially part of their testing record.
- If you experience a dramatic increase in scores between your first and second test (let's say you put major effort into test prep after the first test), this could trigger a score review, and score challenge, by the ACT or College Board. Best case scenario is a delay in scores and an anxiety-producing issue. Worst case is challenging the scores and running the risk of having your scores canceled.
- For colleges that don't participate in the SAT Score Choice, students will have to submit all test scores as part of the application process. There's no point in submitting low scores.
Know When You Should Test
Okay, so if you aren't going to take the SAT or ACT in the ninth or tenth grade, when should you take it? The answer depends on the student's schedule and commitments. But it will also be to your advantage to take the test soon after you've completed your test prep so the information is fresh on the brain, Levine advises.
Have time to focus on some test prep during the summer before your junior year? Then you could take the August SAT or September ACT. If you'd rather keep the summer for yourself and study in the fall of your junior year, Levine suggests a winter SAT or ACT. Or if you have time to study over the winter break or before spring break, you can register for the March SAT or April ACT. In case you want to take an SAT Subject Test and you are taking an AP class that aligns with it, you might consider taking the Subject Test in May or June of your sophomore year, when the class is over.
“Bottom line, students should take their first official test when they are prepared and their other commitments (sports, theater, job, service) do not interfere with test prep,” Levine says.
Last but not least, you'll have to figure out how much time you really need to put into test prep. Levine recommends that for an ideal test prep strategy, students should allow for three to four hours per week over three to four months of test prep and also take three to four full-length practice tests.
Of course, this approach depends entirely upon your starting point and your goals, so think about what makes the most sense for you before you come up with a study plan.