When should I take the SAT (or ACT)?
There are a million different answers to this question depending on who you ask, but based on my experience the flow chart should look like this (Disclaimers include the following: these are just general recommendations, every student is different, talk to me or your guidance counselor for additional information, read College Confidential, etc.):
- Have you completed Algebra II before Junior Year?
If NO, then wait until at least the winter if not the spring of Junior year to take the SAT. I see no reason to take a test before one has completed study of the actual subjects tested, and a good chunk of the SAT Math consists of topics covered in Algebra 2.
So the December SAT would be the absolute earliest I would recommend taking the test, and even then this will likely not be the highest score as the material covered in Algebra 2 in the winter/spring should help yield score increases in later tests. Depending on a student’s schedule and confidence in math, I might even recommend waiting until the March SAT for the first testing. While this might seem late, the imprint of an early less-than-stellar score is not helpful. If a student really wants to know where they stand to start narrowing down college lists, they can just use their PSAT result, which will come out in December. The PSAT score is a pretty accurate prediction of where the SAT score will be (Many assume the first SAT score will come in a good bit higher than the PSAT, but in my experience this gain is overstated. ON AVERAGE from what I have observed, a student’s first SAT (without prep!) is usually ON AVERAGE about 20-40 points higher than the PSAT score. Many students actually end up with a lower score on their first SAT relative to their PSAT, so there is certainly some variability there.
If the answer to question 1 is YES, then you can take the test whenever you want – Precalculus/Trig/Analysis is also helpful with the test, so students who aren’t hitting 1400+ on their sophomore year PSAT may want to consider waiting until that Dec SAT just to get the added benefit of Junior Year math.
- Do you have a time- and energy-intensive activity during one part of the year?
If YES, then you should try to take the test in the off-season. For example, football players don't need to rush and test in the fall during the middle of the season. But students involved in baseball/lacrosse/other spring activities may want to think ahead and try to take the test in the fall or winter if possible.
If NO, then again it doesn't matter when you take it.
- Are you potentially a recruited athlete?
If YES, then you may want to take a test earlier in Junior year (like in the Fall) than might be otherwise recommended for the general student population. The reason for this is that in most cases coaches want to know if you can get in to a school before they start considering you as a recruit. For example, if you take a test (even without practice) and score 900/1600, it will be very hard for a Harvard to consider recruiting you, even if you are tops in your sport. Of course schools understand that test scores can be improved with practice, so a low-ish score will not rule anything out but again a test may be encouraged to help properly set your goals.
- On practice tests, are you scoring at a level that you would be happy with on the real test? (VERY IMPORTANT!)
If YES, then take the test whenever you want.
If NO, then WAIT and KEEP STUDYING!
There is no magical bump from practice test to actual test beyond some nominal amount (maybe 30-40 points) due to perhaps somewhat increased focus. But if you are scoring 1250 on practice tests and you need a 1400 on the real thing, those 150 points will not materialize just because you are sitting in a testing room. There are still math concepts you need to learn and practice, reading comprehension skills to practice, and grammar rules to study and internalize. Again, what you are scoring on practice tests from the College Board book is very likely to be approximately what you will score on the actual test. There have been rare exceptions (in both directions), but for the most part this holds true.
The corollary to this is that if you are a sophomore who has already completed Algebra II and Precalculus/Trig and are scoring ~1500 on practice tests and that is your target score, you could conceivably take the test Sophomore year and be done with it. On the other hand, some students have noted that the extra rigor of Junior year AP English added to their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills and thus gave a boost on the Reading section; however, high-achieving students may choose to get the SAT out of the way Sophomore year if Junior year is stacked with a lot of AP classes.