When to Start Prepping for the ACT or SAT

A frequent question we get from parents and students is, “When should I start prepping for the SAT and ACT?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a “set in stone” timeframe that works for everyone, so before giving an answer, let us ask you a few questions.

What grade are you in?

The window you have for taking the test is determined by the grade you are currently in. Ideally, you’ll have completed any/all standardized tests by the end of your junior year.  You should absolutely NOT wait until the start of your senior year of high school to take a test (it’s not fun having to do extra work during the summer before your senior year, you need to have test scores so that you can get a sense as to whether or not to submit and if a school should stay on your list or not.) Additionally, most ED and EA colleges require test scores by November. Tenth graders and eleventh graders have more time to prepare, but keep in mind that it’s best to be finished by the end of your junior year, so this means taking your first test in December or February/March of junior year, and a final test in June/July. Sophomores who have completed Algebra II or a higher Math class should consider taking a test at the start of their junior year.

What math class are you in and how are you performing in that class?

To maximize your score on both the ACT and SAT, you need to have completed at least Algebra II. There are a few concepts from Trigonometry, especially on the ACT, that you’ll need to know, but if you’ve completed Algebra II, then you’ll at least have seen the majority of the content on both tests. Another factor to consider is your comfort level with that material. If you’re confident and earned a solid grade in the class, you’ll need less time to prepare and can focus more on time management skills, but if math is a weird language that you struggle to understand, then add a few extra weeks to prepare.

What were your PSAT, PreACT, or SAT/ACT Baseline scores?

If you have solid scores on the PSAT (>1300 composite and no section score below 600) or PreACT (>28 composite and no section score below 27), then you’re probably pretty comfortable with both the content and time requirements. We recommend that you still take an actual baseline as both the PSAT and PreACT are not quite the same as the actual test. Depending on your score goals (see question below), you’ll probably need less time overall than someone who scores lower.

What is the average score of accepted applicants to the colleges you are applying to?

Test scores are not the only thing admissions officers look at, but it is good to know what the average score is for accepted students at every college/university you are interested in applying to. Look up the freshman profile for the university and you’ll see the 50th percentile score for accepted students. This will give you an idea of what score you need to aim for. Ideally, you’ll be over the 50th percentile, but keep in mind, the average score means that there are students accepted that score lower, so don’t lose hope if you’re not at that 50th percentile. Using that score as a reference or goal is important because you can determine how many points you need to get. If your baseline scores are far away from that level, you probably need more preparation and should start earlier.

Do you have accommodations for standardized testing?

Accommodations affect how much time you have to take the test, and knowing this helps you practice and adapt time management techniques.

Are you a confident or anxious test-taker?

Practice, practice, practice! We find that one of the best ways to manage test taking anxiety is to practice regularly under timed conditions. This doesn’t take away any/all anxiety you might feel, but it does usually eliminate surprises that might throw you off. If you are an anxious test taker, you’ll probably need to spend more time practicing.

What is your weekly schedule like?

We know that you have a busy schedule, and there are lots of non-academic activities that actually help you with standardized tests (exercise, eating healthy, etc.)! Unfortunately, you still need to spend some time preparing for a standardized test. You want to create a regular schedule (two or three days/week) in which you can put at least an hour of your energy and focus into prepping. This might mean starting months in advance if you know that your after-school schedule will be busy (think about starting in the summer if you are playing a fall sport).

After answering these questions, you might have a better idea of what you need to do, how much total time you have, and when you should take the test, but that still doesn’t exactly answer the “When should I start prepping for the SAT or ACT?” question. Here are a few student profiles that might help.

Student #1: Just finished grade 10; completed Honors Algebra II with a grade of 97%; PSAT score of 1320 (700 Math, 620 English); looking at colleges that have a 1400 as the 50th percentile

Potential First Test Date: December of sophomore year

When should this student start preparing? Late September for the December test (a little more than two months)

This student has proven to have a solid foundation, particularly in Math, and should consider taking the test in December of 2021. She should start preparing for the test at the end of September or the beginning of October IF she can set aside 2.5 hours/week devoted entirely to preparation. This will allow her to find and eliminate any gaps in her understanding of the Math concepts and review and practice the English grammar and Reading skills sufficiently enough to boost her score above her target of 1400. Another benefit to taking the test in December is she will have more time to analyze her results and prepare for her second attempt in March of 2022.

Student #2: currently in 11th grade (October 2021); currently in Algebra II with a grade of 80%; PreACT composite score of 18 (16 Math, 18 English, 20 Reading, 18 Science) ; looking at colleges that have a 28-32 composite as the 50th percentile

Potential First Test Date: February of junior year

When should this student start preparing? September of junior year for the February test (a little over five months)

While the PreACT is not an exact representation of a student’s ability to score well on the ACT, it is a good indicator of what content the student still needs to review going forward. Because this student is currently enrolled in Algebra II, there is a lot of content he will be learning during the school day that will help him prepare for the ACT, but he will need to practice testing strategies and new skills regularly (2.5-3 hours/week) to take that knowledge and apply it successfully to the test. Direct instruction of English grammar skills and reading strategies for both literary and informational texts will help him improve on the English, Reading, and Science sections. Finally, the lengthy time period (5+ months) allows for plenty of practice time to help him gain comfort and confidence taking the test.

Student #3: currently in 11th grade (October 2021); currently in Calc with a grade of 81%; SAT Baseline score of 1130 (580 Math, 550 English); looking at colleges that have a 1300-1400 as the 50th percentile

Potential First Test Date: March of junior year

When should this student start preparing? November for the March test (four months)

The good news for this student is that she has, at the very least, seen all of the Math content that will be presented on the Math section of the SAT because she is currently in Calculus. The 580 that she earned on her baseline points to the fact that she may have a few gaps in her understanding, and this may require her to spend more time preparing for the test, either by reviewing content or practicing under timed conditions. Taking the time to review English grammar rules and reading comprehension strategies will also take up a significant amount of time.

Student #4: currently in 11th grade; currently in PreCalc with a grade of 84%; ACT Baseline score of 23 (24 Math, 19 Science, 22 English, 27 Reading); looking at colleges with a 32+ as the 50th percentile

Potential First Test Date: April of junior year

When should this student start preparing? End of September for the February Test (a little over 6 months)

The biggest factor in determining how much time this student needs to prepare is the score goal. Earning a 32+ composite score requires a student to master all of the math and English content as well as eliminate any/all mistakes he makes on the Reading and Science sections. This means that he will need to spend at least 2.5 hours/week reviewing content and take 4-5 practice tests before taking his first official test in April.

General Recommendations

Remember, the student examples are general and may not match your profile exactly, but you may notice that all of them provide recommendations to start preparing months (plural) in advance. This doesn’t mean spending every free waking moment preparing, but it is important to schedule at least 2.5 hours/week if you want to achieve a specific score. Plus, spreading out the time over the course of a few months doesn’t make it as draining leading up to the test.

Resource guide created by Brian Purcell