In my opinion, cookie cutter answers to the question "When should you take the ACT?" should be banished. Preset timelines that don't take your individual academic considerations and activities into account do more harm than good. If you're planning well, determining the proper timeline takes a little effort and consideration for the constraints that are unique to you.
It takes some time to do this properly, but a bit of smart timeline planning can help significantly reduce your testing stress and shorten your testing journey.
It's a win-win.
By the end of this article, you will know exactly when you should take your first SAT on a date that is strategically chosen for massive success, so let's get started!
What's the ultimate goal of SAT testing?
The goal of ACT testing is to take the fastest test prep path you can find to earn the ACT scores you need to gain admission to the colleges you like and earn the scholarship dollars you deserve so you can get back to doing the things you love.
In order to achieve this goal, you'll need to:
- Select the better test for your personal strengths.
- Follow the Higher Scores' Golden Rule of Testing.
1. Should you take the ACT or SAT?
Colleges accept either ACT or SAT scores and, while the two exams test similar academic concepts, they do so in different ways.
Each test appeals to different students for different reasons. Further, prep for one won't necessarily help you on the other because the timing and strategic approach is dramatically different.
Therefore, I advise students to select the test that best suits their strengths and prepare for it exclusively, do your very first consideration should be to decide whether to take the ACT or SAT.
This short video will help you do just that.
2. The Golden Rule of Testing
Once you're sure you've selected the test that's your better fit, you'll want to follow my Golden Rule of Testing....
Higher Scores' Golden Rule of Testing
Students should prepare for and take two official exams no later than June of their junior year, ideally on back-to-back test dates.
There are 3 keys to success in the Golden Rule:
ACT prep should be a high-octane, full-focus affair. You can't dawdle through it because there's too much to learn. And, once you've invested time, energy, and focus, it's imperative that you put that effort to maximum use.
Therefore, I advise my students to plan to take back-to-back test dates after they prepare so they have 2 chances to do their best work on the exam.
By registering for back-to-back ACT test dates (for example, the September and October dates or the February and April dates), students can fully prepare for their first ACT, rest for a short interval to revitalize motivation and help them see the test more clearly the second time around, and then dive in before they forget much of what they learned in prep.
Students may opt to test a 3rd or 4th time down the line. That's more than welcome; however, they'll have achieved most of their score improvement over a short 3-4 month interval rather than 6 months or a year - a much better prospect for busy high school students.
When should you take the ACT?
Most high school student are advised to take the ACT in spring of their junior year and the April ACT test dates is a big favorite of many college counselors.
The problem with this advice, when given without taking a few specifics into account, is that a lot of students are very busy in spring.
Is it wise to saddle the AP student who also plays a spring sport with yet another exam to take? Certainly not.
In addition, depending on the admissions requirements at your favorite colleges, you may need to take SAT Subject Tests in your junior year. Since the May and June test dates are ideal test dates for the SAT Subject Tests, we need to take that into account as we plan our ACT journey because too much testing in any one season is overwhelming.
While spring testing may be the right fit for you, we have to dive deeper to truly determine if that really is the case.
Now that we've got the Golden Rule of Testing defined, we're clear on how many exams students should take (2 exams after preparation) and the deadline by which they should have taken both of these exams (June of their Junior year).
But how do you decide when you should start taking the ACT?
There are 3 questions that can help you determine your perfect, low-stress testing timeline.
- What level math are you studying?
- What does your activities calendar look like?
- What grade are you in?
1. What level math are you studying?
The math section of the ACT covers concepts from arithmetic up to Algebra 2 with a few PreCalculus concepts woven in for good measure.
If possible, I prefer that students have all of Algebra 2 under their belts before they begin preparing for the ACT.
Remember the Golden Rule, though.
The most important thing is that students take 2 exams by June of their junior year. If you won't be enrolled in or completely through Algebra 2 before June of junior year, you'll still want to take the ACT before the end of the school year.
- If you've taken Algebra 2 as a freshman or sophomore, you can entertain any test dates that occur once your course is fully complete.
- If you'll take Algebra 2 in junior year or later, take your first ACT in February or April of your junior year.
2. What does your calendar look like?
- Do you play a fall sport?
- Are you involved in the spring musical?
- Do you volunteer on a seasonal basis with a favorite organization?
- Will you be taking AP or IB exams in the spring?
One of the reasons that testing and test prep have such a bad reputation is that most families don't realize how flexible it can be.
The ACT is offered seven times a year in the following months: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. You have plenty of opportunities to select a test date that is advantageous to you.
But keep in mind that the test date is a finish line. Ideally, the marathon started 2-3 months earlier when ACT prep began. Just as you can avoid testing during your busy season by carefully selecting your test dates, you should likewise plan well to avoid preparing during your busy season too.
- Your ideal testing window should be planned during a downtime in your schedule.
- Don't forget test prep! When planning which ACT test date to take your first exam on, back up 8-12 weeks from the actual test date and consider how busy that window of time will be for you because prep takes more time and is more intense than testing itself.
3. What grade are you in?
Since ACT scores are valid for 5 years, you could begin testing as early as 8th grade.
And with 7 ACT test dates per year over 5 years, that means there are 35 test dates you can choose from. However, for the sake of ease and everyone's sanity, I narrow this window a little bit.
To my mind, the ideal window for low-stress ACT testing opens in the spring of sophomore year and closes the summer after junior year.
Keeping your level of math and your calendar of activities in mind, you should plan to take the ACT as early as possible within this range after preparing to ensure that you have a little stress as possible on this journey.
You may be a great candidate for testing in spring of your junior year. Or maybe the fall of your junior year is better because of your commitments in the winter and spring. Or maybe, just maybe, you can get started the summer after your sophomore year - a great option for a lot of students.
Can you test during your senior year too? Absolutely! But ideally senior year testing is for adding a few additional points to an already solid ACT score. Having ACT scores you're proud of by the end of your junior year ensures that you can finalize your college list the summer between junior and senior year with real exam results - not wishful-thinking results - as a firm basis for clear-eyed decisions.
Ready to start your journey to higher ACT scores...for free?
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