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When to Prepare for and Take the SAT/ACT (Including PSAT/National Merit Info): 3 Questions to Help You Decide

Posted by Kimberly Hewitt on Tuesday, May 03, 2022


10th and 11th graders: Your SAT or ACT scores will likely play a significant role in your competitiveness when applying to colleges, with 88% of colleges placing considerable or moderate importance on students’ standardized test scores for admissions purposes.1  Given the importance of your SAT/ACT scores, how should you develop your testing calendar and plans?  In this article, we’ll review three questions to help you decide when you should prepare for and take the official SAT or ACT—including what sophomores should do over the summer to determine whether they may be competitive for National Merit recognition on their junior year PSAT.


Here's everything covered in this post:


First, let’s start with a high-level overview of SAT/ACT testing strategy.


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How Should I Approach the SAT/ACT Testing Process? 3 Steps to SAT/ACT Success


Let’s begin with the basics.  Our 3 Steps to SAT/ACT Success  framework provides a summary on how you should approach the entire SAT/ACT testing process.


Step 1: Determine whether to focus on the SAT or ACT, and establish your baseline score


All four-year colleges accept either the SAT or ACT for admissions purposes. That means you should determine which test better suits your strengths, then focus exclusively on preparing for that test.  How do you make that determination?  Take a free practice SAT and ACT to establish your baseline score on both tests and learn which test better suits your strengths.


Step 2: Set your target score


Determine the score you aspire to reach based on your college admissions and scholarship goals. View average SAT/ACT scores of admitted students at a sample of nationwide colleges by downloading The Frontier 49 College Admissions Factbook.  You can also sign up for North to My Future, your free, individualized college admissions strategy session, where we can help you determine your preliminary target score.


Step 3: Select your study strategy

Evaluate your baseline score and target score in the context of your strengths and learning style preferences. Determine whether you should go pro with an expert test prep program, study on your own, or try both.  We can also help you make a decision about the best test prep plan for you during your North to My Future meeting.


With this overall strategy in mind, let’s now turn to timelines.



When Should I Take My Practice SAT and ACT?


When you should take your first practice SAT and ACT depends on your grade level and what level of math you have completed.  See where you land in this table:


190505 When to Take SAT ACT Table v2



When Should I Take My Official SAT or ACT? 3 Questions to Help You Decide


First, choose a preliminary official SAT or ACT test date.  Next, consider the following questions in the context of that official test date.  If you can answer "yes" to all three questions, then that official test date makes sense.



Does this official test date leave me with a buffer of at least two more official test dates before my college/scholarship application deadlines?


Here's some information to help you make sense of this question:


Why You Need a Buffer

If you have the option, it’s important to take the official test early enough that you have at least two additional official SAT/ACT dates in the future after your planned test date, and before your college/scholarship deadlines.  Having this buffer allows you to accommodate the potential need to retake the SAT/ACT if you don’t reach your target score on your first attempt (whether because you simply had an off test day or because you need additional preparation). The buffer also allows you to the opportunity to miss your originally planned date due to an unforeseen emergency, such as illness on the day of your test.


Determining Your Deadlines

Your official test scores must be submitted in time to meet college application and scholarship deadlines.  If you’re not yet sure where you plan to apply, assume the most conservative (earliest) deadlines for testing purposes.  The earliest deadlines are typically for early decision and early action applications.  For example, the early action application deadline at Lewis & Clark College is November 1, and SAT/ACT testing must be completed no later than the October test date.  Among the latest deadlines is that of the Alaska Performance Scholarship (APS).  With certain exceptions, the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education must receive your SAT/ACT scores before your high school graduation date.  SAT/ACT scores are generally released within about two weeks of the testing date, meaning the March or May SAT, or April ACT, are likely the latest eligible test dates for APS purposes.


When the SAT/ACT Tests Are Offered

Both the SAT and ACT are currently offered seven times per year.  Here’s a calendar indicating the annual testing cadence for the SAT and the ACT, along with sample latest test dates for 12th graders.


220908 SAT ACT Dates Deadlines Narrow



Are there enough weeks/months between now and the official test date to complete the appropriate prep program (including the post-instruction practice test) given my target score?


The more points you need to improve (from your baseline score to your target score), the earlier you need to start preparing.




For example, if you wanted to improve your SAT score by 120 points to be more competitive with the score norms for your target colleges or scholarships, you would be able to take our SAT Prep Class.  The SAT Prep Class typically starts about six weeks prior to each official SAT test date.  Our average student improves his/her score by over 100 points, with the top 25% of students improving their scores by over 170 points.


On the other hand, if you wanted to improve your SAT score by 250 points, we would likely recommend first taking the SAT Prep Class, re-assessing your score after the class, then completing 12-16 hours of additional one-on-one prep (in an SAT Individual Prep program).  The SAT Prep Class typically runs for five weeks, which includes both a pre-instruction and post-instruction practice SAT.   12-16 hours of SAT Individual Prep instruction (with two sessions per week of two hours each) would take an additional three to four weeks to complete, plus an additional week for a post-instruction practice SAT.  Altogether, therefore, this goal would require initiating preparation at least 10 weeks before your planned official SAT date.


Finally, you should always budget time for—and make sure to complete—the post-instruction practice test included in your SAT/ACT prep program!  We typically schedule your post-instruction practice test for approximately one week prior to your official test date.  Your post-instruction practice test serves as a predictor of your official test score, allowing you to postpone your official test date in the event your practice test score is substantially below your target score.  It also provides you with additional practice navigating the full-length format under timed conditions.  Finally, the practice test allows you to take advantage of our Rapid Review program, in which you can review your incorrect answers one-on-one with an instructor to resolve any final content or strategy issues before test day.


Need help determining which SAT/ACT prep program is right for you? Sign up for North to My Future, your free college admissions strategy session, and we’ll help you devise an individualized test prep strategy.




Will I be able to devote sufficient time (hours per week) to my prep program’s instruction and homework?


Students achieve optimal score improvements in our SAT/ACT prep programs when they: (i) come to instructional sessions prepared to engage with the material, and (ii) complete targeted practice at home using our online SAT/ACT prep portal to reinforce content and strategy learned during class.  Complete your SAT/ACT prep program when you will realistically have time to commit to both of these priorities.  We recommend against initiating intense SAT/ACT prep during times of the year when you have significant conflicting demands, which include high-intensity extracurricular activities (such as traveling sports), along with preparing for final exams, AP®/IB® exams, and SAT Subject Tests.  Many students prefer to complete their SAT/ACT prep during the summer, when they have no conflicting demands from homework and school exams.


Note that, in our SAT/ACT Prep Class, the expected amount of homework per week is approximately 30 minutes per day, if you space out your SAT/ACT homework to work on it every day of the week.  If you work on your SAT/ACT homework only four days per week, expect to spend about 50 minutes on homework on each of those four days.  Students with greater content knowledge gaps or less-developed test-taking skills can expect to receive more homework assignments, which will consequently require a greater time commitment.


Plan to end your prep program within 1-3 weeks prior to your official test date to maintain recency with the content and skills you have practiced, with time for a final full-length practice test.  If your prep program ends significantly earlier (e.g., your SAT Prep Class ends in April, but you don’t take the official test until August), you risk sacrificing some of the performance gains you made during your prep program.



Next Steps: Checklists for Rising Juniors and Seniors


Here's a step-by-step guide for deciding when to take the official test, as well as when to start preparing, depending on your current grade level and profile.


If You Are a Rising Junior (Current 10th Grader as of May 1, 2022)


Rising juniors should follow the 3 Steps to SAT & ACT Success outlined above, with one additional consideration: It’s a good idea to see if your current level of performance might make you competitive for National Merit recognition on the PSAT you’ll take in October of your junior year. Here are the steps:


  • Step 1: Take a practice SAT and ACT before August 15, 2022, to determine whether you may be competitive for National Merit recognition on the PSAT (learn more about the PSAT and the National Merit process).

  • Step 2: If you score at least a 1250 on your practice SAT, prepare for the October 2022 PSAT by taking the SAT Prep Class starting in August 2022 (or complete SAT Individual Prep over the summer).  Otherwise, go to Step 2B.  If you score below a 1250 on your practice SAT, use the three questions above to determine when to take the official SAT or ACT:


If You Are a Senior (Current 11th Grader as of May 1, 2022)


If you’re a senior, you should simply follow the 3 Steps to SAT & ACT Success outlined above.  Specifically:


  • Step 1: If you don’t yet have baseline scores for both the SAT and the ACT (through practice or official SAT/ACT tests), then take a practice SAT and/or ACT as soon as possible.

  • Step 2: If you don’t already know your target SAT/ACT score (for both college admissions and scholarship purposes), check out The Frontier 49 to get a sense of the SAT/ACT score norms for the colleges and scholarships you may be interested in.  You can also sign up for North to My Future, your free, individualized college admissions strategy session, where we can help you determine your target score.

  • Step 3: Determine when you would like to take the official SAT/ACT using the three questions above, and select your study strategy.  We recommend taking the SAT/ACT this June, August, or September.  Taking the official test in June/August/September will provide you with the opportunity to test again before nearly all college application deadlines if you wish to further improve your scores.  Also, our SAT/ACT prep programs preparing for the June/August/September official test dates allow you to prepare after school is out, when you’ll be able to devote your focus to test prep without the distraction of regular schoolwork.



Getting Started


We've covered a lot in this post.  To recap, for most students, step 1 is to take a free practice SAT/ACT at our Anchorage Center or any of the schools where we offer them.


Sign Up for My FREE Practice SAT/ACT


After you take your practice SAT/ACT, you can sign up for a North to My Future meeting, your free, individualized college admissions strategy session for students in Anchorage.  We’ll sit down with you and a parent for 45 minutes and discuss how your GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and overall profile compare relative to the norms for the colleges and scholarships you’re considering.  In addition, we'll develop an action plan of specific priorities for you between now and when it’s time to apply.  If our SAT/ACT prep, academic tutoring, or college admissions consulting programs are appropriate to help you achieve your goals, we will also provide recommendations on how you can best use these professional resources.


And as always, please feel free to contact us directly.  We are happy to answer questions regarding your individual academic, test prep, or college admissions strategy.


Additional Resources:

Take a Free Practice SAT/ACT

North to My Future - Free College Admissions Strategy Session

The Ultimate Guide to Designing Your SAT & ACT Prep Strategy

PSAT & National Merit Scholarship Guide for Alaska Students

SAT Subject Tests: Six Things to Know



1NACAC 2014 State of College Admission Report


Topics: SAT Subject Tests, ACT, SAT, 11th Grade - Juniors, 10th Grade - Sophomores, 12th Grade - Seniors, College Admissions: Test Well, Anchorage, PSAT