Both the SAT and ACT are administered about seven times a year. That sounds like plenty of time for you to take a test whenever you want, right? Well, not exactly. Let's take a look at at several factors that might limit your test date opportunities:
1) What are the application deadlines for the colleges and scholarships that require your test scores? Are you applying early decision anywhere? Start with the earliest deadline and work backward to see when you actually need to take the test in order to get the scores reported on time.
2) How much time will you need to prepare for the test? Will you be taking a test prep course during the summer? Are you planning to work with a private tutor for a few months during the school year? If you're trying to reach a target score, you'll probably want to leave enough time to take the test once more before you need to send in your scores to colleges.
3) If you play sports, will you be occupied during a particular sports season? Do you have any upcoming family events (a wedding, reunion, etc.) that might interfere with your test prep schedule or testing dates?
4) Are you planning to take one or more SAT Subject tests? If so, remember that you cannot take the SAT on the same date that you take an SAT Subject test.
5) What Is Your Outlook on Testing? Wendy Segal, a college admissions consultant in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., also thinks students should consider their general willingness to take the test. "I often ask them to imagine a scale from 'I hate tests and I'll agree to take one or two, but whatever I get, I get' to 'I'm willing to test as often as necessary to get the highest possible score I can manage.'"
Could December Be Testing Sweet Spot?
Once you've considered all of the above factors, you'll no doubt have a more concrete idea of the test dates that actually match your schedule. However, if you just want someone to tell you their opinion of an ideal test date, Segal generally recommends that juniors test no earlier than December.
“Students who test too early risk a low score, particularly in the math section," she says. "Of course, they can test again as often as they like, but if a student gets a low initial score, he or she is likely to go into the next test feeling defeated and insecure. It's better for students to wait a few months until they've had more math and more reading and are fully in the swing of the school year. December tests (usually one SAT and one ACT) give students plenty of time to assess their strengths and weaknesses in time for a March SAT and/or an April ACT."
If you weren't able to take the test in your junior year or your score wasn't what you were hoping for, there are also summer dates you can take advantage of: July for the ACT and August for the SAT. This helps you get the test out of the way before you get busy with the start of your senior year.
Take Your Time to Prepare
Regardless of when you take the actual test, you can keep taking practice tests before your junior year rolls around. Those scores will help you hone in on the areas where you can improve.
This especially applies to sophomores who are getting itchy feet. Segal thinks it's best for sophomores to first take practice tests and work on weak areas, instead of registering for the real thing.
“Most sophomore scores aren't the student's best," Segal says. "Once a student does poorly, he enters the next test saying to himself, 'I'm crummy at this test.' Not a good attitude for success! Even more importantly, perhaps: Several schools still require students send all of their scores even though the schools might 'superscore' or look at the best score in each category. Why risk having a particularly low score that you'll have to send to a college?"
For some students, testing might be one of the last things in mind. In that case, fall of your senior year is typically not too late to take the test, as long as you still have time to send in applications to your target schools and scholarships.
Once you know the test date that best suits your schedule, register for it online so you can get that out of the way. Don't risk paying the late fee, which will cost you about 50 percent more than the regular registration fee.