When to Take the SAT or ACT

Almost daily, I get asked about when a student should take the SAT or ACT for the first time. My answer depends on a number of factors.

Here is a guide for all types of students:

The Naturally Strong Test-Taker

I work with a lot of high achieving students who took a standardized test to get admitted to their high school. They are the kinds of kids who need little preparation for standardized tests, yet they score in the 90th+ percentile without skipping a beat. If you are this type of student, you can take the SAT or the ACT for the first time as early as the beginning of junior year. This allows you to prepare for the test the summer before junior year and take the test in the beginning of the year before schoolwork starts to pile up.

If you want to see your score increase, you can easily take it again later in the year (December, March, etc.) and even for a third time at the beginning of senior year. To confirm your readiness to take the SAT or ACT for the first time, always make sure to do practice tests (for both the SAT and ACT) to determine which test to take and when to take it. 

The Student Who Plans to Apply to Highly Selective Colleges

Most students who apply to highly selective colleges (admit rate less than 25%) will take the SAT or ACT at least twice, sometimes three times in order to get the highest score possible. To do that, you have to plan ahead. Test preparation could begin the summer before junior year. Students can take the November, December or March SAT.

Just keep in mind that if you take the November and December SAT, you won't have your PSAT scores back before you take it. December and February are popular dates for students taking the ACT for the first time. Whether you take the SAT or ACT on the earlier end, you will still have time to possibly take the test one more time before the end of junior year, and possibly even a third time at the beginning of senior year. 

The Traditional College-Bound Student

If a student plans to apply to a four year college with higher admit rates, they can take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the second half of junior year. This will give them more time to prepare. March, May, and June are ideal for the SAT; April or June for the ACT. This still gives a student a chance to take one of the tests a second time at the beginning of senior year. The SAT is now offered in August. And the ACT is now offering a test in July, but the first test of the school year is in September. 

"If you are applying to #colleges with higher admit rates, plan on taking your first SAT or ACT the second half of junior year." TWEET THIS

The Recruited Athlete

If you are hoping to be a recruited athlete, collegiate coaches will start asking for test scores the first time they communicate with you. They want to get a sense of how competitive you will be in the applicant pool. Recruited athletes tend to feel the pressure and end up taking the SAT or ACT earlier than they sometimes want. These students may need to do a lot of test preparation during the summer before junior year to prepare to take an earlier test. Many athletes will end up taking a fall test in order to give a collegiate coach some scores to consider.

The longer you can wait, the better, especially if you are not a naturally strong test-taker. If you end up taking a fall test and plan to re-test, make sure to give yourself time to prepare. Students who take standardized test month-after-month don't see significant increases in their scores. The more time you have in between tests, the more your score will improve as long as you are continuing to prepare.

No matter what, here are a few reminders:
  1. Try to stick to one test: the SAT or the ACT. Colleges have no preferences, and they only require one of them. 
  2. To determine which test to take, plan on taking a practice SAT and a practice ACT. Compare the results by using a conversion chart. I like the one on prepscholar.com.
  3. It doesn't hurt to retake the test. Most colleges will take your highest score on each section of the SAT. More and more colleges are doing the same for the ACT. 
  4. Three is the magic number. Colleges don't like when a student takes the test more than three times. Granted, many times you don't have to report all of the times you took it. But the fact is that after three times, your score rarely improves dramatically. 
  5. The best scores I see are from students taking the test a final time at the beginning of senior year. It means that part of the summer before needs to be spent preparing, though.
  6. And when all else fails, there are hundreds of test optional colleges to consider


No matter what type of college a student plans to apply to, they should take the SAT or ACT at least once. Junior year is the best time to take it for the first time. That leaves the door open for the student to take it again which never hurts.