When Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

The SAT and ACT both administer tests 7 times each year, which means you have 25 potential testing dates between Freshman fall and Senior winter.

So when is the best time to take the SAT or ACT?

Developing a thoughtful testing schedule requires consideration of many factors, but it’s a worthy exercise, and you’ll thank us later when you’re all done and your friends are cramming for several tests at the same time.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through:

When creating your own SAT and ACT testing schedule, use one of our 9 sample schedules as a starting point and feel free to adjust it to your own needs.

If one of these sample schedules doesn’t fit your needs, feel free to contact us and we’ll be happy to help you customize one.


8 FACTORS TO CONSIDER

#1) When is the Latest You Should Take the ACT or SAT?

While we don’t recommend waiting until the last minute to take your SAT or ACT for the first time, understanding the latest possible testing dates will help you plan out your testing schedule.

For most schools:

  • Regular Decision deadline = January 1st
  • Early Action/Early Decision deadline = November 1st

It usually takes about a month after your testing date before schools receive your scores, so these are the latest recommended testing dates:

  • December SAT or ACT… if applying Regular Decision
  • October SAT or ACT… if applying Early Action/Early Decision

Most schools will also indicate on their websites latest recommended testing dates.

For example, Princeton University suggests:

“Single-choice early action candidates are strongly encouraged to complete their testing before the Nov. 1 deadline. Students taking standardized tests in November should have their scores sent directly to Princeton… Regular decision applicants must complete all SAT testing by the December test date. All ACT testing must be completed by the December test date.”

OUR RECOMMENDATION – For planning purposes, assume that the October SAT & ACT will be your last potential testing date. If need be, you can also consider the November SAT, but you’ll have to send those scores directly to the school to be considered for EA/ED. Even if you don’t currently plan on applying early to any schools, these testing dates will keep your options open if you change your mind in the future.

 

#2) How Many Times Should You Plan on Taking the SAT or ACT?

The ideal situation is to crush the test on the first try and be done with it.

Realistically, you’ll probably need to take the test several times even if you’re hitting your target scores in practice.

We polled our tutors, who are mostly Ivy League undergraduates and graduates, and they took the test between 2 and 4 times on average.

Advantages of multiple testing dates:

  1. Reduces Test Anxiety – not everything is riding on just one test
  2. Mitigates Potential Unforeseen Circumstances – e.g. maybe you were sick or just having a terrible day, maybe a particular test wasn’t well-suited to you and felt especially difficult, maybe the College Board or ACT screwed up and made the test too easy (which means a much harsher “curve”)
  3. Take Advantage of Superscoring – many colleges will superscore your SAT or ACT. Your superscore consists of the highest section scores across of all your testing dates (e.g. if you scored a 500 in math on the June SAT and then a 700 on the August SAT, your math superscore will be a 700). This is only possible if you have multiple testing dates to choose from.
  4. Take Advantage of Score Choice – schools that offer Score Choice will allow you to select which scores to send (note: you can’t cherry pick section scores… you’ll have to send all section scores from whatever testing date you choose to send). If you bombed a test, there’s a chance that nobody has to know about it. A word of caution though – many schools will recommend or require ALL scores to be sent to them.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – Plan on taking the SAT/ACT multiple times. Make sure to schedule your first SAT/ACT early enough that you have time for re-takes before the recommended last testing date (a month before application deadlines).

 

#3) How Much Time Should You Plan Between Testing Dates?

After receiving your scores back, you might be super close to your target scores. In this case, you’ll probably want to sign up for the next available testing date.

If you feel like you still have a lot of improvement to make, you might want to give yourself a couple more months before re-testing.

If possible, avoid scheduling back-to-back testing dates if they are only a month apart. Ideally, you’ll first want to receive your scores back before figuring out the best strategy moving forward.

For example, if you aced the math section, then superscoring would allow you to focus your efforts on the other sections. If your testing dates are 1 month apart and it takes 2 weeks for your scores to be posted, then you would only have 2 weeks to implement your plan.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – Plan for several months between testing dates. After receiving your scores back, if you’re really close to your target scores, then feel free to move up the next testing date. If you’re starting late (e.g. fall of Senior year), you might not have this luxury and back-to-back tests would be your only choice. In this situation, don’t wait 2 weeks to receive your score report before studying again.

 

#4) What Are Potential Scheduling Constraints?

You probably have important (and immovable) academic or extracurricular obligations that will make certain testing dates more or less attractive.  

Below are some common situations:

  1. Junior Year Crush – Junior year will usually be your most difficult year, and your workload will only increase as the year goes on. If doable, think about test dates earlier during the school year to avoid the end-of-the year crush.
  2. AP Tests – AP tests are always administered in May. If you’re signed up for multiple APs, you might want to avoid the May SAT testing date.
  3. SAT 2 Subject Tests – SAT 2 subject tests are offered throughout the year but the best time to take them is at the end of the academic year while the material is still fresh. However, you can’t (nor would you want to) take both the regular SAT and the SAT 2 Subject tests on the same date. You might want to avoid the June SAT if you plan on taking the SAT 2 Subject tests during the same year.
  4. College Applications – College application season ramps up Senior Fall and Winter. If possible, try to get your testing done beforehand.
  5. Summer Activities – Summer is the absolute best time to focus on test preparation, which makes the August SAT and September ACT attractive testing dates. However, if you’re traveling a lot or involved in intensive summer camps/projects with not much time to study, then these might not be the best testing dates for you.
  6. Extracurricular Obligations – Do you have a tough fall sports schedule, upcoming play, or important Model UN conference coming up? Plan around these obligations.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – Think about upcoming obligations and work around them. Not sure what to think about? Refer to the list above. With a little planning, you can create a standardized testing schedule that works for your specific needs.

 

#5) How Many Hours Do You Plan on Studying?

Having an understanding of how many hours you plan on studying will help you:

  1. Plan out your study schedule
  2. Determine how soon you can take your first test

Do you know how many hours you plan on studying? (most students don’t)

If not, check out our Ultimate SAT Goal Setting Guide and read Section 4.

In general, we recommend:

  • Minimum of 20 hrs
  • Target of 40 hrs
  • Ideal of 80 hrs
  • Superstars put in 120+ hrs

Let’s say you want to get in 80 hours of studying before your first test and want to to take advantage of summer break.

A 2-month study schedule might look like:

  • 2 hrs/day
  • 5 days/week
  • 8 weeks

80 hours sound like a lot, but it’s more than doable if spread out over a period of time.

In this scenario, you would be in great shape to take your first test at the end of the summer/ early fall.

We do NOT recommend showing up cold to your first test without any preparation.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – We do NOT recommend showing up cold to your first testing date without any preparation. Instead, check out our SAT Goal Setting guide, figure out a reasonable # of study hours, and create a study schedule that allows you to get the bulk of your hours done before the first testing date. It’s generally better to space the hours out over longer periods of time (e.g. 80 hrs over 8 weeks) vs cramming (e.g. 80 hrs in 2 weeks). However, if cramming is the only choice based on other scheduling constraints, then cram away.

 

#6) How Far are You From Your Goals?

Let’s say you’ve started prepping, and you’re already hitting your target scores (on OFFICIAL SAT practice tests or OFFICIAL ACT practice tests)…

Then you should sign up for the next available testing date.

While most students take their first SAT or ACT during junior year, if you’re already hitting your target scores as a freshman or sophomore, there’s no reason to wait!

What if you’re not anywhere near your target scores?

  1. Make sure your target scores are REALISTIC – If your baseline score is 900, but your target score is 1600, then you’ll probably need to adjust expectations. Check out our Ultimate Guide to SAT Goal Setting for additional guidance.
  2. Make sure you are studying EFFECTIVELY – are you using the right materials or tracking your missed questions and learning from your mistakes?
  3. Make sure you are putting in enough STUDY HOURS – generally, the more time you put in, the better the results. However, there are diminishing returns. If you’ve done every practice test under the sun and you’ve been studying for 2 years straight, you might have reached a plateau.
  4. Consider getting help from a CLASS or PRIVATE TUTORS – if you’re hitting a wall, you might want to seek help from a specialist. Feel free to contact us for a free consultation.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – If you’re hitting your target scores, sign up for the next available testing date. Otherwise, make sure you have realistic targets, are studying effectively, and putting the hours in. You might also want to consider SAT/ACT classes or private tutors.

 

#7) When Are You Taking Algebra 2?

The highest level of math tested on the SAT and ACT is Algebra 2.

Ideally, it makes sense to wait until after you’ve completed your Algebra 2 course before your 1st testing date.

If you complete Algebra 2 in your sophomore year (most students)… then you should consider testing dates in your Junior year or summer right before Junior year.

If you complete Algebra 2 in your freshman year (and assuming you’ve already completed Geometry)… then you can start considering testing dates as early as Sophomore year or summer right before Sophomore your.

If you complete Algebra 2 in your junior year… you CAN wait until Senior year fall or summer before Senior year, but we would probably recommend a Spring testing date. You will not have covered all of the topics yet, but you can learn those on your own (or with some help) and there are benefits to starting earlier so you can give yourself more chances.

Perhaps you have other reasons for wanting to start test prep before completing your Algebra 2 course (e.g. future scheduling constraints, wanting to get a head start because of processing issues). You can still do well but you’ll have to learn the Algebra 2 material on your own (or with help). There are a limited number of Algebra 2 topics tested and they are not conceptually that difficult, so it’s certainly doable.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – In most cases, you’ll want to finish Algebra 2 before sitting for your 1st test. However, if you prefer to start sooner, then you should learn the material on your own.

 

#8) When Are You Taking SAT 2 Subject Tests

Many selective colleges require students to submit at least two SAT 2 subject test scores.  

Except for the August SAT date, the SAT Subject Tests are held on the same dates as the regular SAT.

Keep in mind that you cannot take the SAT and SAT 2 subject tests on the same date.

OUR RECOMMENDATION – Don’t forget about SAT 2 Subject tests! Plan these dates into your schedule to make sure there are no conflicts with your SAT/ACT/AP testing schedule.

 


WHEN DO THE TOP STUDENTS TAKE THE TEST?

In December 2017, we polled 89 of our tutors, the vast majority of whom were Princeton undergraduates or graduates. Below are two takeaways.

How Many Times Did Our Tutors Take the SAT & ACT?

75% of students took the test between 2 to 4 times.

 

When Did Our Tutors Take the Test for the 1st Time?

80% of students polled took the test for the FIRST TIME sometime in Junior year, with Fall and Spring the most popular times*.

*The SAT offered an August testing date for the first time in 2017. We suspect more students will take the test in the summer after sophomore year and the summer after junior year moving forward

 


SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? 9 SAMPLE TESTING SCHEDULES

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule.

Take into account the considerations above and learn from what top students do, but create a testing schedule that works for you.

Most students should consider taking the SAT or ACT for the 1st time between August and March of their Junior year.

Below are 9 sample testing schedules to help start you off.

 

Testing Schedule #1: Ideal

Recommended Schedule – SAT: Aug/Oct + Dec + March
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Sep + Dec + Apr

When to Start Preparing: Summer after Sophomore year

Most students take the SAT/ACT for the first time during their Junior year.

If you’re able to plan ahead a little bit, then this is an example of an ideal schedule.

Starting earlier allows you to FINISH earlier, which is especially attractive since Junior year gets tougher throughout the year.

Take advantage of the summer before your Junior to prep for the August/October SAT or September ACT. An added bonus is that you’ll be all set for the PSAT as well.

Since the workload is lighter in the fall, you’ll more easily be able to maintain test prep momentum through the December test (if needed).

If you need to take the test a 3rd time, you can take advantage of Winter Break in preparation for the March SAT/ April ACT.

Finishing up by March/April means you can focus on AP and SAT subject tests in May and June.

If needed, you still have several other options for re-takes (August and fall of Senior year).

 

Testing Schedule #2: Ideal (stretched out)

Recommended Schedule – SAT: Aug/Oct + Mar + May/Jun/Aug
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Sep + Feb/Apr + Jun/Jul

When to Start Preparing: Summer after Sophomore year

Compared to Schedule #1 above, this schedule allows for a little more time between tests.

The extra time could be helpful if you’re too busy or if you think you need more time to improve scores to hit your targets.

This schedule is also a good option if you’re not planning on taking AP tests in May.

You’ll still want to take advantage of the summer after Sophomore year to study.

 

Testing Schedule #3: Common

Recommended Schedule – SAT: Dec/Mar + Mar/May/Jun + Aug
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Dec/Feb + Feb/Apr + Jun/Jul/Sep

When to Start Preparing: Fall of Junior year (or earlier if possible)

The reality is that most students won’t start thinking about the SAT until Junior year. This is also when most school counselors will recommend taking the test.

If you’re planning on taking the SAT (vs the ACT), consider the May or June testing dates only if you’re not overwhelmed with APs or SAT Subject Tests. Otherwise, consider taking a break and prep in the summer for the August test. The October test during Senior year can be a backup.

 

Testing Schedule #4: If You’re In the Spring of Jr Year

Recommended Schedule – SAT: May/June + August + October
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Apr + Jun/Jul + Sep

When to Start Preparing: As soon as possible

If you’re in the latter half of Junior year and you missed the March SAT and February ACT, sign up for the next available test (e.g. May/June for the SAT, April ACT).

Try your best to get some studying in before your 1st test. Aim for at least 20 hours of studying.

You’ll still have plenty of time for additional re-takes.

 

Testing Schedule #5: If You’re Currently a Senior

Recommended Schedule – SAT: Oct + Nov + Dec
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Sep + Oct + Dec

When to Start Preparing: As soon as possible

Let’s say you’re late to the game. No worries. You still have some options and will still be able to take advantage of Early Action/Early Decision.

While not typically recommended, you’ll want to sign up for back-to-back tests.

Because of time constraints, you won’t have the luxury of receiving your scores back before deciding whether to take another one.

If you have younger siblings, make sure they start sooner than you did 🙂

 

Testing Schedule #6: If You’re Taking Algebra 2 in Junior Year

Recommended Schedule – SAT: Mar + May/Jun + Aug
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Apr + Jun/Jul + Sep

When to Start Preparing: Fall/Winter of Junior year (or earlier if possible)

If you’re taking Algebra 2 in Junior year (vs Sophomore year), consider taking your 1st test in March (SAT) or April (ACT).

By then, you’ll have covered most of the concepts in Algebra 2.

The math concepts are not tested in-depth, so you can easily learn the rest of Algebra 2 on your own or with the help of your teacher or tutor.

By starting before your math class ends, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to take the test several times by the end of Junior year.

 

Testing Schedule #7: If You’re Advanced

Recommended Schedule – SAT: Aug/Oct + Mar + August (Sophomore Year)
Recommended Schedule – ACT: Sep + Feb/Apr + Jun/Jul/Sep (Sophomore Year)

When to Start Preparing: Summer after Freshman year

If you’re an advanced student (e.g. you’ve already taken Alg 2/Trig), you might want to consider taking the SAT/ACT in 10th grade (or even earlier).

To determine whether you’re ready, take an official SAT or official ACT practice test and see how far you are from your target scores for the schools you are potentially applying to.

If you’re hitting your target scores or are close, do some prep and sign up for the next testing date.

If you still have some work to do, push back your testing schedule accordingly.

 

Testing Schedule #8: If You’re a Recruited Athlete

The earlier you hit the SAT/ACT minimum thresholds for your desired college athletic programs, the more confidently coaches can pursue you. Consider Schedules 1, 2, or 3 above.

If you’re in the latter half of Junior year, then sign up for the next feasible testing date that also allows you to get some prep in (Schedule 4).

 

Testing Schedule #9: If You’re a 6th/7th/8th Grader Applying for Talented & Gifted Summer Programs

Talented and gifted programs like Johns Hopkins CTY or Duke TIP require qualifying SAT or ACT Scores.

You’ll want to identify registration deadlines in order to develop a testing schedule

For example, CTY summer 2019 application deadlines are:

  • Early Registration, Session 1 or 2: January 25
  • Regular Registration, Session 1 or 2: April 12
  • Late Registration Ends, Session 1: June 7
  • Late Registration Ends, Session 2: June 14

Given these deadlines, you’ll want to consider the December and March SAT testing dates / December and February ACT testing dates.

If you hit qualifying scores in December, then you can apply early.

If you don’t do as well on the December test as you hoped, then take the February/March test and apply Regular Decision.

You’ll want to start prepping in the summer or fall prior to the test.


CONCLUSION (AND SOME TIPS)

Being thoughtful and proactive about your testing schedule will result in higher scores and can make Junior year a lot more manageable (by avoiding the common mistake of cramming for the SAT, APs, SAT2 Subject Tests, and finals all at the same time).

When developing your testing schedule, consider the factors above and use one of the 9 sample schedules as a starting template.

Good luck!

As a bonus for making it all the way through, below are a couple of important tips.

 

Tip 1: Do NOT take the SAT or ACT “cold”

Many families come to us with the intention of sitting for their first SAT and/or ACT without doing any prep.

At first glance, this strategy seems to make sense. Sitting for formal SAT and ACT tests can help you determine your baseline and provide insight into whether you prefer the SAT or ACT. Furthermore, with Score Choice, you won’t have to submit your test scores if you don’t want to.

However, we strongly advise against sitting for an official test without any preparation.  

Why? For many reasons:

  1. You’re not going to do as well as you hope – Some students think that maybe they’ll get lucky and get a great score. If you don’t prepare for the test beforehand, this is not gonna happen.
  2. Waste of money – It costs money to sign up for the SAT and ACT. You can easily take free official practice tests at home (use these proctoring instructions)
  3. Score Choice – Not all schools accept score choice, so you might be forced to submit ALL your scores. However, this isn’t as big a deal because most schools will Super Score.
  4. Your scores might get flagged – Large score fluctuations from one test to the other might result in your score being flagged by the College Board and ACT. This does not happen very often, but large score fluctuations are much more pronounced when you sit for the 1st test cold.

 

Tip 2: Start By Deciding Between SAT or ACT

Another common inefficiency we notice are students who flip flop between the SAT and ACT.

There’s no need for that.

Take an ACT Diagnostic one weekend, take an SAT Diagnostic the next weekend, determine which one you perform better on, and stick with that test moving forward.

If you don’t have time (or the desire) to take 2 full-length tests, then answer these 5 questions.

If you still insist on taking both tests, first focus your prep on one test (e.g. SAT), take that multiple times, and when you feel you’ve plateaued, go ahead and take the other test (e.g. ACT).

 

Tip 3: Start Early… But Not Too Early

We recommend getting familiar with the SAT and ACT early in your high school career.  

Starting early has many benefits:

  1. It takes time to master certain concepts, especially reading comprehension
  2. Less anxiety/pressure because there are multiple additional opportunities
  3. Starting early means you might be able to STOP earlier as well, ideally before the crush of 2nd half Junior year or Fall of Senior year with college applications.

However, you don’t want to start too early:

  1. It’s easy to forget a lot of SAT/ACT strategy, especially those skills you don’t regularly use in your academic classes
  2. You are still developing critical reading and writing skills that improve each year

We recommend starting test prep during the summer after your Sophomore year. Take advantage of this time to do intense prep.

Remember, once you start prepping, you’ll want to continue on a weekly basis so you’re not regressing (doesn’t have to be a ton, even just 1 hr a week to maintain if that’s all you can fit in).


NEXT STEPS

Still not sure when to take the SAT or ACT? Contact us and we’ll help you develop a customized testing schedule.

Please also feel free to contact us if you’re interested in our highly-rated small group SAT MasterClasses, private 1-1 tutoring, or if you simply have a question!

Thanks!

 


Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation and test prep process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.