Crafting a Smart Testing Schedule
Having a smart testing plan will decrease the stress of the testing process and ultimately lead to a better outcome. It’s important to consider several factors when crafting a testing schedule:
- What tests will I need to submit for my college applications?
- When are the submission deadlines, early and regular, for my college applications?
- When will I complete the necessary coursework to be prepared for the tests I’m planning on taking?
- When will I have the most time to prepare for the tests during the calendar year?
The answers to these questions will inform the right schedule for you.
What tests will I need to submit?
Students must investigate the tests that their prospective colleges or universities will require, recommend, or consider. The College Board aggregates that data on its BigFuture site under the tab labeled “applying”. Simply type in a college, hit the tab for applying, and you’ll learn about the testing policies for any college or university. Some schools will require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, while others will not even consider them for admissions purposes. Students who need to integrate SAT Subject Tests into their testing plan will likely use the May or June SAT test dates to meet those obligations. Most students, however, will only need to find room on their testing schedule for the SAT or the ACT. The BigFuture site also includes information about each school’s approach to AP courses and exams. Students who plan to take AP exams, which take place in May, will have to contemplate how that exam schedule impacts their SAT/ACT and SAT Subject Test plans. The late spring can be quite busy for students who are taking both AP exams and SAT Subject Tests.
When are the submission deadlines for my college applications?
Application deadlines will influence the testing schedule. The rare student who will not be submitting any early applications will have a more spacious testing schedule, integrating test dates all the way up to the December SAT and ACT offered in their senior year. The vast majority of our students will be applying early to at least one college or university; therefore, they should consider the October SAT and ACT to be their last available test date in order to meet those early application deadlines. Typically, students achieve their highest SAT or ACT score on their second or third official test sitting. It is often helpful to build multiple official test dates into the plan, keeping in mind that the last possible date for early decision applicants will be in October of senior year.
When will I complete the academic coursework necessary for testing?
The SAT and ACT are more aligned than ever with the high school curriculum. Students should consider the trajectory of their academic coursework to determine the best time to sit for their standardized tests. The content on the SAT and ACT consists of English/Writing, Reading, Math and Science. What are the optimal times to take each section? For most students, optimal testing dates will take place at some point between the summer before junior year and the early fall of senior year. The key decision is whether to start earlier in that time frame (e.g., the beginning of junior year) or to start later down the road (e.g., spring of junior year).
- English: In our experience, most of the heavy lifting for foundational English skills — mechanics, usage, rhetorical skills — takes place in middle school. High school students will be reading and writing about higher level texts, but few of their teachers will carve out time to explicitly teach lessons on commas, tenses, misplaced modifiers, dangling participles and the like. Thus, there is no advantage, with regard to this section, to waiting until later in the junior year.. The majority of students have already received in-school instruction on the content tested on the SAT Writing and ACT English well before the onset of junior year. However, given the time lapse from middle school instruction, most students will benefit from reviewing the grammar and writing skills that most frequently appear on these tests.
- Reading: Exposure to higher level reading will benefit students on both the SAT and ACT. Students who are highly fluent readers tend to have an edge on the Reading sections of both tests. Many of our students begin junior year with the skill set necessary to thrive on the Reading sections of the SAT and ACT. For other students, some additional reading exposure in high school can help increase their SAT and ACT reading scores. Additional exposure can be particularly helpful on the SAT, which uses more advanced texts than the ACT. Thus, while many of our strong readers are ready to knock out the Reading section at the onset of junior year, other students will see some score gains through an additional year of grade-level instruction.
- Math: A student’s high school math trajectory will affect the testing plan. Students who are enrolled in Algebra 2 as juniors would be wise to wait until the January SAT or February ACT for their first official test. Students who completed Algebra 2 as sophomores and are enrolled in pre-calculus are typically ready for SAT and ACT math at the beginning of junior year.
- Science: The SAT requires very minimal scientific knowledge, thus students need not worry too much about their current progress in this subject area when deciding when to take the SAT. The ACT has a dedicated science section and asks multiple outside knowledge questions pulling from a variety of topics from Biology, Physics and Chemistry. Understanding of the scientific method, hypothesis testing, and dependent and independent variables is particularly important. We find that students with a solid science foundation are ready to score very well on the science section of the ACT at the beginning of their junior year. For students looking to optimize their score, explicit instruction, a focus on process, and timed practice typically lead to significant gains on this section.
- Essay: The SAT essay is derived from an AP Language essay; thus students enrolled in AP Language will get valuable exposure that will help them write their SAT essays. A few months of AP Language instruction should provide the necessary practice. Students can learn to master the SAT and ACT essays through practice and study, but any written exercises they undertake in high school involving critical evaluation and analysis can help prepare a student for the essay task.
When will I have the most time to prepare for the tests during the calendar year?
Having adequate time to prepare for the SAT and ACT is a key component of a successful testing outcome. Finding this time in the calendar is essential. Preparing for a first SAT or ACT will typically take 50-70 hours. A student enrolled in an 18-20 hour prep class can expect an hour or two of homework outside of class for every hour of class time. A student must also make time for a practice test after every 6 or so hours of instruction. We advise parents that a 8-10 week block is ideal to do the preparation and spread the learning over time to optimize retention and performance.
Where can we find those 50-70 hours, those 8-10 weeks, in the busy schedule of a high school student? If a student tries to prep at a time that is already overscheduled and stressful, the student may not complete the necessary test prep homework, or may be more likely to skip the practice tests, leading to sub-optimal score results. Thus, the best time to prepare for the SAT or ACT is when the student has the most available space in their schedule, in regards to academics and extracurricular activities. Many of our highly-scheduled students are conducting a portion of their test preparation over the summer months when there are fewer competing academic demands. Even if students plan to take their official tests later in the junior year, building the foundation over the summer can be advantageous.
Students would be wise to lay out their schedule for the year, factoring in all the demands made on their time, and determine the best time to conduct the preparation. Whatever schedule a student chooses, it is important to ensure that the student will have the time required to do the classes, the homework, and the practice tests in earnest, in order to optimize the outcome.
First steps: Conducting the baseline tests
The initial step to determine the testing plan is to determine whether a student is better suited for the SAT or for the ACT. Most of our students will focus all of their energies on either the SAT or ACT. This helps optimize their use of time and their score gains. Baseline SAT and ACT testing will help inform this decision. PreACT and PSAT test scores can also be used to help establish workable baseline scores, although full scale SATs and ACTs provide the most accurate and reliable baselines. These full scale baseline dates can be completed as early as the summer right after sophomore year.
Planning out the year in advance of any preparation
Once baseline testing has revealed whether a student will be on an SAT or ACT track, more detailed planning for the year ahead can begin. If a student tests higher on the SAT (or tests evenly on both tests but prefers the SAT) we can look to the calendar to choose three official SAT test dates. A student may not need three official test dates, and may arrive at the desired score after a single testing administration, but it’s important to have all three dates in reserve. Many students will apply to colleges that superscore the SAT, taking the highest section scores from different tests, thus there is an even greater incentive to plan on multiple testing administrations. The College Board has a helpful document that outlines score-use policy by college. Students should look at their application deadlines, start with the final possible test date, and build the schedule from there.
Perhaps a current junior is applying early decision to a college with an October 15th deadline. In this case, the October 6, 2018 test is the final available test date. The student should review all the SAT testing options between now and the final test date: March 10, May 5, June 2, August 25, October 6. Are there conflicts? Sporting events? Exams? Extracurricular activities or travels? Is the student taking AP exams? Subject Tests? If so, eliminate any conflicting dates from consideration. Then determine if a date is needed for SAT Subject Tests, typically in May or June to correspond with AP exams. Here are a few potential testing plans for this student (assuming no SAT Subject Tests):
- March, May, June SATs with prep commencing in January.
- March, June, August SATs, with prep commencing in January and some review in May.
- June, August, October SATs, with prep commencing in March or April.
A different student may pursue the ACT path and build in a test date for the SAT Subject Tests. This student can pick from the April, June, July, September, October ACTs with a Subject Test date in either May or June. Here are a few potential testing plans:
- April, June, July ACTs with prep commencing in February and a May SAT Subject Test.
- June, July, September ACTs, with prep commencing in March or April and a June SAT Subject Test.
- April, July, September ACTs, with prep commencing in February and some ACT review in June with a May SAT Subject Test.
Students starting the process earlier will have even more options. Students commencing SAT prep the summer before their junior year can choose from any of the seven test dates: November, December, March, May, June, August, and October. Many students will want to complete their testing before the October test dates to allow them to focus more fully on college applications the fall of their senior year.
Different testing plans for different students
There is no single testing plan that will work for all students, given their schedules, courses, and application deadlines. Many students will benefit from starting this process early/middle of junior year, to keep the stress level down and allow plenty of time for college applications in the fall of senior year. But some students will be better served by delaying all their testing until the summer before senior year and completing their testing in December of their senior year. On the other end of the spectrum, some recruited athletes will take an official test at the end of sophomore year to signal likely score ranges to interested coaches. Whatever the individual plan, we typically advise that all students allow some slack in the testing schedule. Life happens: an unexpected illness, inclement weather, a misplaced student ID. And having some slack in the schedule prevents any one test from becoming a “make-or-break” testing administration. Anxiety drops when there are other potential tests that a student could take.
If you have a junior, now is the time to craft a smart testing plan to minimize stress and ensure your student has ample time for the official tests and applications. If you have a sophomore, you are way ahead of the curve, and can begin looking to next year to craft the right schedule. We’re here to help if you need some support selecting the optimal testing schedule or would like to establish an SAT or ACT baseline score.