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9 Things to Consider When Making Your SAT or ACT Testing Plan

Blair Tyse


A year in, the global coronavirus pandemic continues to impact high school students preparing to apply to college.

Applicants in the 2021-22 admission cycle (current juniors) face a continuously changing landscape — especially when it comes to standardized testing. 

Last year, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on standardized testing, hundreds of colleges and universities joined the test-optional movement, not requiring 2020–21 applicants to submit scores, and many plan to remain test optional for at least another year. Also in 2020, the University of California system announced that it would suspend ACT/SAT test requirements and would not consider test scores when making admissions decisions or awarding merit scholarships. (UC intends to develop a new test that aligns better with its expectations for college readiness.)

College Board’s recent announcement that it will discontinue both the Subject Tests and the SAT Essay for test dates after June 2021 will both streamline students’ testing requirements and force colleges to give greater emphasis to applicants’ transcript, extracurricular commitments, essays and SAT/ACT scores (if required). 

Junior year in high school tends to be a blur of difficult classes, competitive sports, extracurricular activities, PSAT and ACT/SAT tests, and campus visits (virtual or in person). For that reason, helping your student decide the best time to take the ACT or SAT test can be complicated. 

Looking at when the tests are offered, when your student will need test scores, and the answers to these nine questions (which we look at in depth below) will help!

9 Questions to Ask to Make the Best Testing Plan

  1. What math class are you taking as a junior?
  2. What was your PSAT or previous test score?
  3. On which test, ACT or SAT, do you perform best?
  4. Do you want test preparation?
  5. Are you an athlete needing early scores for recruitment?
  6. What is your sports season or music/theater/dance performance schedule?
  7. If you qualify, have you received testing accommodations from ACT or College Board?
  8. To which colleges are you applying?
  9. Are you taking AP or IB exams in May?

The ACT and SAT tests are offered in the spring and fall each year. Some states offer either the ACT or SAT as a state requirement (or high school exit exam in April) for juniors, but either test is also offered on specific Saturdays throughout the school year.

In general, here are the Saturday dates for the ACT and SAT:

ACT

Spring: Early February, mid-April, mid-June

Fall: Mid-July, mid-September, late October, mid-December

Click to view 2021 ACT registration dates and deadlines >

SAT

Spring: Mid-March, early May, early June

Fall: Late August, early October, early November, early December

Click to view 2021 SAT registration dates and deadlines >

Colleges will take either an ACT or SAT score from any of the above test dates. If you are submitting Early Action or Early Decision applications, however, your  October or November test scores fro senior year are the latest scores accepted.

Okay, now it's time to talk over the nine questions with your junior.

1. What math class are you taking as a junior?

Since the math sections of the ACT and SAT evaluate students’ mastery of concepts from Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2/Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus, early spring test dates for some students are not recommended. 

If you are in Algebra 2 as a junior and are planning to take a February, March or April test, there will be a significant number of test questions on material you have yet to learn. May or June tests are the earliest test dates recommended for juniors in Algebra 2 to ensure they can maximize their ACT or SAT math score.

2. What was your PSAT or previous test score?

Comparing previous test scores to your test score goals can help you decide how much testing you might need to do to maximize your college acceptance opportunities. Many students incorporate time for ACT or SAT retakes in their testing plan, allowing for either a bungled test score or a test score goal not yet achieved after their first attempt. Past PSAT scores can also let students know whether or not they'd like to take a test prep course before they take a full SAT or ACT.

3. On which test, ACT or SAT, do you perform best?

Since colleges don’t have a preference between an ACT or SAT score, pick the test you prefer and prepare for and take only that test. There is truly no benefit to taking both tests. They are both difficult exams and yet different enough from each other that mastering one is much easier than trying to master them both. 

The best way to determine which test is best for you is to take a practice ACT test and compare your results to your PSAT scores. Free practice tests can be found on both the ACT and College Board websites.

4. Do you want test preparation?

Some juniors struggle with test anxiety or perform poorly on tests in school and would do well to have some ACT or SAT test preparation before their scheduled test date. Test preparation gives students the chance to practice the tricky types of questions found in either the ACT or SAT test, practice the timing required to finish each section confidently, and master the grammar and math content of either test.

Other students would rather just see how their spring test goes before they spend the time and money for test preparation, and are not worried by taking the ACT or SAT cold. One important aspect of standardized tests to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to do some test prep is that the tests are written so that students who repeatedly take them will get similar results each time, unless they do some form of test prep.

5. Are you an athlete needing early scores for recruitment?

Student athletes going through the college recruitment process often need test scores as early as the fall of their junior year.

College coaches sort through potential recruits based on athletes’ academic and standardized test performance as well as their athletic ability. These coaches need students’ scores early so they can identify which athletes qualify for official visits and have high enough academic qualifications to get both admitted to the college or university and be academically successful throughout their college career. 

For these athletes, taking an ACT or SAT in October of junior year, even if they are currently taking Algebra 2, is essential (if not ideal). Planning to retake the ACT or SAT in the fall of their senior year so they can boost their math score is a great way to maximize their final score.

6. What is your sports season or music performance schedule?

For student athletes or musicians/performers, there can be a conflict between tournaments, games, concerts and performances and ACT or SAT test dates. You will need to know your schedule ahead of time so you can work your testing plan around it. Athletes on traveling teams can also consider taking their ACT or SAT in the towns to which they travel, minimizing the number of games they will need to miss in order to sit for their standardized tests.

7. Are you taking AP or IB exams in May?

Juniors taking AP or IB exams in May should keep in mind that a mid-April ACT or early May SAT could conflict with their AP exam preparation as well as adversely affect both testing outcomes. 

Since you won’t be able to use your Subject Test scores to stand out for colleges any longer, your AP or IB test performance is that much more important.  Planning to take the ACT or SAT in June, July or August, completely avoiding your AP exam schedule, will allow for optimal performances on both the AP exams and the SAT or ACT.

8. If you qualify, have you received testing accommodations from ACT or College Board?

Many juniors have 504 plans or IEPs in high school which allow for extra time or other accommodations on tests. The purpose of accommodations for high school and college students is to give each student the same opportunity to excel in school, regardless of whether or not they have a learning difference. Testing accommodations DO NOT give an unfair advantage to some students, so it is logical for you to apply for accommodations for the ACT or SAT if you qualify. 

The application process, however, is time consuming and must be started early (August before junior year) in order for the College Board or ACT to grant the accommodations before a spring exam. 

It is not helpful to test without accommodations while you wait for your application to be processed and approved. Instead, wait and take your first exam in June or July, or even in the fall of your Ssnior year, once your accommodations have been approved.

9. What colleges are you applying to?

Knowing which colleges you'd like to apply to, and whether or not you will apply Early Action or Early Decision, greatly helps in planning when to take your standardized tests.

Some colleges super score either the ACT or SAT tests for your application. That means they'll consider your best scores for each part of all the ACT or SAT tests you take and combine them to get the highest total score possible.

Since super scoring raises your overall test scores, you might decide to focus on the test (either the ACT or SAT) your top college choice super scores. If you plan to apply early, then you will also want to be done with all your testing by the October ACT or SAT test dates.

Once your student has considered all nine things detailed above, you will surely be able to help them make a great testing plan for the ACT or SAT during their junior and senior years. And as they plan and schedule their tests, they're moving that much closer to life as an undergraduate — which is a wonderful thing.

Blair Tyse of Tyse Tutoring & Test Prep has helped thousands of students improve their testing performance since 1994. With a background in both aerospace engineering and literacy intervention for dyslexics, Blair is able to help students with the math and reading aspects of either the ACT or SAT. Her test prep courses are offered remotely and in person. Blair and her husband live in Boulder, CO and regularly travel to visit their college graduate sons in Utah and Norway.

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