In my opinion, cookie cutter answers to the question “When should you take the ACT?” should be banished. Preset timelines that don’t take the individual student’s academics 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 your family.
It takes a little time to do this properly, but a small investment of time in planning goes a long way towards reducing stress and panic during testing.
Stress is the enemy of higher scores. Today I’ll share 3 big questions that, when answered, will show you the best low-stress testing season that will be the perfect fit for your child.
By the end of this article, you will know exactly when your student should first take his or her first ACT that is strategically chosen for massive success. And you’ll be able to schedule a reminder email for your child’s testing season so you won’t forget – even if it’s 2 years in the future!
Let’s get started!
When should you take the ACT?
Most high school student are advised to test in spring of their junior year.
The problem with this advice is that a lot of students are 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.
That testing season may be the right fit for your child, but we have to dive deeper to truly determine if that really is the case. So let’s begin with the end in mind…
What’s the ultimate goal?
The goal for most families that I work with is to have scores that will help their children get into college and earn cash for college too. (That’s why I include my Cash for College workshop as a bonus in each of my online ACT prep courses. We’re about Whole Student, Whole Family support here at Higher Scores Test Prep!)
To ensure students finalize their college list based on official ACT results, I advise students to plan to have prepared for and taken 2 back-to-back ACTs so they’ll have scores they’re proud of in hand before they have to fill out applications.
This also reduces stress because it frees up time the summer before senior year so they can get a jump on their applications for colleges and scholarships
Higher Scores’ Golden Rule of Testing
Students should prepare for and take 2 official ACT exams no later than June of their junior year.
I also advise my students to plan to take back-to-back test dates after they prepare for the ACT so they have 2 chances to do their best work on the exam and to do it before they forget what they learned in prep.
ACT prep has to be a high-octane, full focus affair. Students can’t dawdle through it. There’s too much to learn. And, once they’ve invested that time, energy, and focus, it’s imperative that they put it to maximum use.
The first official ACT experience should come right on the heels of a prep course wrapping up.
Breaks between prep and test day diminish students’ results. Your family shouldn’t invest in test prep and only give your student 1 chance to put it to good use. That puts too much pressure on the student when he or she only has 1 make-or-break chance to do well.
By registering for back-to-back test dates (for instance, the September and October ACT test dates or the February and April ACT test dates), students can fully prepare for the first ACT. Once they’re done, they can take a short break while they wait for their scores to roll in. After assessing their first test day performance, they can dive in for another week or two of brush-up prep before they take their next ACT.
By testing back-to-back, students won’t have waited so long that they’ve forgotten everything they learned. That said, they’ll also have a little distance from intense prep which can revitalize motivation and help students see the test more clearly the second time around.
You may opt to test a 3rd or 4th time later on. That’s more than welcome; however, you’ll have achieved most of your score improvement over a 3 or 4 months interval rather than over 6 months or a year.
Anything above the initial push is refinement and nuanced work, rather than the initial heavy lifting.
This is why I give my ACT Complete Package students full access to the course for 18-months. They can come back to brush up any time they need to at no extra charge.
3 Guiding Questions
So, now that we’re clear on how many exams students should take and the deadline by which they should take them in order to reduce stress, how do you decide when to test?
There are 3 questions that I ask all of my prospective families as I help them determine the perfect, low-stress testing timeline for their student.
- What level math is your student studying?
- What does your family’s calendar look like?
- What grade is your student in?
Here we go!
1. What level math is your student studying?
The ACT covers up everything from arithmetic to precalculus in the math portion of the exam. Knowing what level math your student is currently studying can help me quickly determine whether or not you should wait to complete more coursework or begin prepping right away.
Ideally, I like students to be at least halfway through Algebra 2 before they take the ACT.
Remember the Golden Rule, though. The most important thing is that students take 2 exams by June of their junior year.
If your student won’t be in or completely through Algebra 2 by then, he or she will need to take the ACT before the end of the school year.
For the student taking Algebra 2 in junior year, testing in spring of junior year is actually good advice. For students who tackle it earlier in high school, there is latitude to slide the test dates earlier if they so desire.
2. What does your family’s calendar look like?
Does your child play a fall sport? Is he or she involved in the spring musical? Do they volunteer on a seasonal basis with a favorite organization? Will they be taking AP or IB exams in the spring?
The reason testing and test prep has such a bad reputation is that families don’t realize how flexible it can be. Test prep doesn’t have to overlap with your student’s busy season if you plan well.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider your schedule…
Test prep takes more time than testing itself.
When planning which ACT test date to take, back up 8-12 weeks from the actual date.
What does your student’s schedule look like before the test date?
So often, we focus on the test date itself, but – ideally – that’s the finish line. The marathon started 2-3 months earlier when your family came together to choose a test prep strategy.
Keep this in mind as you plan your way forward.
Siblings’ activities and family events may impact your student’s prep and testing schedule.
Once I worked with a tutoring student who wasn’t involved in a spring activity, but his sister was travelling for national competitions and he went along. The problem was that the family forgot to consider the sister’s schedule when planning his test prep.
Working around her competition calendar made his prep schedule very hectic.
That was one of the experiences that convinced me it was time to create an online ACT prep program that was flexible and mobile – which is why I founded Higher Scores Test Prep.
That said, if students are going to be travelling for a sibling’s or family events, you should consider that before committing to a test date.
Spring test dates are terribly stressful for AP and IB students.
Is your student taking 2 or 3 AP or IB exams in the spring? If so, he or she should avoid taking the ACT in April and June at all costs.
I love testing (yes, really – #dontjudge) and the idea of AP, IB, and ACT exams all in the same 2 month window makes me panicky.
If your child in accelerated classes, chances are he or she can get started with testing a lot earlier than spring of his or her junior year.
If your child’s level of math allows, take advantage of an earlier testing season. Your family’s stress level will be so much lower in the spring if you do.
3. What grade is your student in?
Since ACT scores are valid for 5 years, students can begin testing as early as 8th grade. (I definitely don’t recommend getting started that early, but you could if you wanted to. )
The ACT is offered seven times a year in the following months: September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. (Click here to download a printable PDF of this year’s test dates.)
7 test dates over 5 years means there are 35 test dates your family can choose from!
However, I narrow that window a little bit.
The ideal window for low-stress ACT testing opens in the spring of sophomore year and closes in summer after junior year.
Keeping the first 2 questions in mind, your student should plan to take the ACT as early as possible within this range.
Your student may be a great candidate for spring of junior year. Maybe fall of junior year is better because of his or her commitments in the spring. Or maybe, just maybe, he or she can get started as early as second semester sophomore year.
What about testing in senior year?
Your family may choose to add in an extra ACT test date in fall of senior year to try to win over an extra point or two; however, testing in senior year should ideally be optional.
Students feel a lot more pressure if they’re applying to college and testing at the same time. However, if you’ve realized 1 more ACT point means thousands of dollars more in merit aid, your student should absolutely test again.
That’s the reason my ACT Complete Package program includes 18 months of access. I want students to be able to dive back in to brush up for an additional test day at no extra cost.
Keep in mind that there is no “right” answer to the question “When should you take the ACT?”, but there is an answer that best fits your child’s schedule. It will vary from student to student.
By answering the 3 questions above, you’ve taken all of the considerations into account and you can move forward with lots of confidence and a lot less stress!