When You Should Take the SAT & ACT

Marie-Antonette Bone

Making your way through high school can be both exciting and completely nerve wracking. Every day, you get closer and closer to a huge life transition toward adulthood, but if you’re planning on going to college, you have a big challenge to take on to help you get accepted. During the application process, you’ll want to make sure that  all of your documents scream potential for success. You have your GPA in a good place, your recommendation letters are all written and sealed, and your personal essay is filled with passion. But how do you optimize your SAT/ACT test scores? Is there any extra way to nail the exam beyond a bit of studying?

One of the most impactful ways you can affect your scores is by carefully choosing when you should take the SAT & ACT. First, let’s start off with understanding what these exams are.

What Is the SAT & ACT?

The SAT and ACT are entrance exams that help colleges with their admission decisions; because they are standardized across the country, it can help them see how all of their applicants compare to one another. These scores prove to be extremely important on your application alongside your GPA, résumé, letters of recommendation, and personal essays. But what exactly is the difference between the two, and which one should you choose? Here’s a quick breakdown.

The SAT is a three-hour exam with math and evidence-based reading & writing sections as well as an optional essay component that adds 50 minutes to your time limit. The math section, which provides more time per question as well as a formula sheet for reference, is twice as important on the SAT than it is on the ACT. If math is your strong suit, that definitely might be something you’ll want to keep in mind.

The ACT is 2 hours and 55 minutes long, comprising of four sections and an optional writing segment that adds 40 minutes to your exam time. The four main sections of the test include english, reading, math, and science. If you are strong in science or not as confident in math, you should highly consider the ACT. The math section is less impactful on your overall score and only asks multiple choice questions, while the SAT has a handful of free responses.

If possible, you should consider choosing between the SAT or the ACT instead of trying to juggle both. Both exams are accepted by colleges in the U.S., and admissions offices typically do not prefer one over the other. Consider the differences between the two and decide to focus your preparation on whichever one you’re a better fit for.

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For more information on deciding which test to take, read: Which is Right for You: SAT or ACT?

When to Take the SAT or ACT

Once you have decided which exam to take, you’ll want to figure out when would be best for you to take it. If you are currently a freshman and not yet ready to take the SAT or ACT, you can never be too early to prepare. Consider taking the PSAT 10 or PSAT/NMSQT to get ready for the real thing.

For more information, read our College Readiness Tests: PSAT/NMSQT® and PSAT™ 10 Guide.

Be mindful of the year you choose for your exams. Some of the tested material is not usually taught until the sophomore year of high school, so you might not be ready to take either exam as a freshman. That said, you should also avoid taking your first SAT or ACT exam as a senior; if you take your first test too late, you won’t have time to retake it if necessary.

Junior year is a safe time for you to take the exams. You’ll have enough time to study beforehand as well as enough time to retake them.

Getting Specific (to Get Successful!)

So, you may have a clear idea of the best year to take the SAT/ACT, but you can get even more specific of your time frame to increase your chances of success. It’s generally agreed upon that March, May, and June are the optimal months for the SAT, while April and June are best for the ACT. But there are many factors that can affect your individual test-taking timeline. Here are a few things to consider while planning your exam:

  • College Deadlines

Colleges accept standardized test scores from any point in time during high school, so you don’t need to worry too much about deadlines here. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to have something your show on your college application!

  • Time Needed to Study

Many students utilize the summer before their junior year to study for the SAT/ACT. If this is enough study time for you, you can consider taking your exam during the beginning or middle of your first semester. It’s completely understandable, however, if you feel like you want or need more time. Consider taking your exam during your second semester to maximize the amount of time you have to prepare.

  • Other Priorities

Although the SAT and ACT are important, you still have other priorities in your life! Think of how you schedule your exams in the context of your busy life. You’ll want to schedule your exam when you know you’ll be able to prioritize studying and take the test while the material is fresh in your mind.

Make sure to plan your first exam with enough time to retest. This will give you another chance to improve your score if need be. Schedule the test dates within three to four months of one another so that you can study and work on the areas that need improvement. But make sure to study hard from the start! Colleges do not prefer that students take the SAT/ACT more than three times. Besides, it is less likely to show too much improvement after the third try anyway. If you feel like you need a lot of time to study before the retake, consider retaking your exam at the beginning of senior year; it gives you another full summer to study.

  • Side note: if you’re worried about the cost that comes with taking these tests multiple times, reach out to your guidance counselor! They usually have fee waivers to help their students cover the cost of these exams.

Keep these factors in mind when deciding your test dates, and plan a solid study schedule that you can follow!

SAT 2020-2021 Dates: 

  • August 29, 2020
  • October 3, 2020
  • November 7, 2020
  • December 5, 2020
  • March 13, 2021
  • May 8, 2021
  • June 5, 2021

ACT 2020-2021 Dates: 

  • September 12, 2020
  • October 24, 2020
  • December 12, 2020
  • February 6, 2021
  • April 17, 2021
  • June 12, 2021
  • July 17, 2021

Now that you know the best time for you to take the SAT or ACT, it’s time to put your plan into action! Break out those test-prep books and start preparing for success today!

Want more advice to help you conquer the SAT/ACT? Check out our Test Prep Page for more tips!

More Helpful Resources:

High School Checklist: Freshmen through Senior Year

College Prep Guide: How to Create a Four-Year Plan for High School Freshmen

Top 50 Questions to Ask Your Guidance Counselor

Who, When, and How to Ask for the Best Letter of Recommendation for College Admissions