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.Determining the proper timeline takes a little time, effort, and consideration for the constraints that are unique to you. But a bit of smart timeline planning can help significantly reduce your testing stress and shorten your testing journey.
This short video will unpack the advice I offer all my students and the hard-won “when do you take the ACT” principles I’ve discovered over my 10+ years as a test prep tutor.
Keep reading to uncover other considerations and exactly when you should take your ACT, confident that it is a date strategically chosen for massive success.
What's the ultimate goal of ACT 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.
Let’s get started!
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.
Also, prep for one won't necessarily help you on the other because the timing and strategic approach is dramatically dissimilar.
Therefore, I advise students to select the test that best suits their strengths and prepare for it exclusively.
If you need help deciding, this article explores the differences between the ACT vs SAT so you can have a leg-up on choosing which to take and then get started using your time to your best advantage.
2. The Golden Rule of Testing
Once 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:
- A reasonable number of testing opportunities, and
- A streamlined timeline.
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. Plan to take back-to-back test dates so you have 2 chances to do your 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.
You may opt to test a 3rd or 4th time down the line.
That's more than welcome.
However, keep in mind that you’ll likely have achieved most of your score improvement over a short 3-4 month interval when you first test, rather than 6 months or a year.
Leaning into that and keeping your schedule tight is often a much better prospect for busy high school students.
When Do You Take The ACT?
The ACT can be taken as early as junior high and as late as 2 months before your college application deadlines (it can sometimes take that long to get your ACT scores back).
Most high school student are advised to take the ACT in spring of their junior year when you have the most academic experience 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?
While spring testing may be the right fit for you, we have to dive deeper to determine if that really is the case.
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?
What Level Math Are You Studying?
The math section of the ACT covers concepts from arithmetic up to Algebra 2 with a few Pre-Calculus 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 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?
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.
That gives you plenty of opportunities to select a test date that is advantageous to you.
- 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?
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 take place during a downtime in your schedule, but… 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 sanity, let’s narrow this range a 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 but only 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.
This leads to a big question that some families have: can you still test during your senior year too?
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.
Let’s be honest, the money part of college is often viewed as the last step. But in reality, it ought to be the very first step.
When building your college list, you should have many perfect-fit options that you can both get into and pay for once you get there.
(If you have more questions about that part of the process, the After-The-ACT part, reach out to our sister company March Consulting, to have any and all of your college admissions questions answered.)
Ready to start your journey to higher ACT scores...for free?
Once you’ve decided when you're going to test, it’s time to come up with a game plan for preparing for ACT success.
You can get started right now…
Download my free eBook, The Insider's Guide to the ACT & SAT, in which I share 35 of my top strategies for success on both college admissions exams.
Sign up for an online ACT prep course that allows you to personalize and focus your efforts, plus go at your own pace. (Pressed for time? One of the Higher Scores offerings can help you discover strategies to improve your score in as little as 4 hours!)
I can’t wait to help you get on the path to higher ACT scores!
Virginia Cunningham says