Creating Your Student’s Best College Admissions Testing Timeline: How to Get Started
Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. Springtime is when we really feel the need to plan out the future. It’s a great time to start making academic and test prep plans as well: you’re almost done with one academic year, but not yet bogged down in summer vacations and internships and part-time jobs. Many parents aren’t sure exactly where to start when it comes to planning out their student’s testing timeline – so we’re going to walk you through the process, starting at the end and working backwards!
If you don’t yet have a college testing timeline worked out for your student, this is the time to do it. If your student is a freshman or younger, it’s too early to begin any kind of test prep, but it’s never too early to work out a timeline. Planning ahead will make sure you don’t miss out on any deadlines, but it will also take a load off your mind and allow you and your student to focus on what’s most important, no matter where they are in their school career.
There is no one-size-fits-all plan to prep, but there are some guidelines to follow that will make planning easier.
Decide on a Test and Have Goals in Mind
Take a practice SAT and ACT test and decide which is best for you. Then, try to determine your goal score based on the colleges to which you may be applying.
Last month, I wrote an article about the importance of baseline testing. Because colleges will accept either the SAT or the ACT, students can choose the test that is best for them. The SAT and ACT are different enough that some students see a significant difference in their scores when they take initial practice tests. Selecting a test is going to be the first step to making a concrete plan for prep.
You should also take a look at score ranges for the kinds of schools your student is interested in. Big state schools, little liberal arts colleges, the Ivies – they all have different score requirements. If your student has a big gap between their baseline score and their dream school’s middle 50% of accepted students, then you’ll know that you need to plan for more in-depth prep. If it’s a small gap, then you’ll know to plan for less.
The CollegeBoard’s Big Future tool is a great way to see what scores your student needs to aim for.
Look at the Big Picture
Review your activities and obligations for the next year to help you make your test prep plan..
The only way to balance academics, extracurriculars, testing, and family responsibilities is to look at the year as a whole. It’s a good idea to print out some month-by-month calendars, starting with your student’s application deadlines and working backwards. That’s what a good prep plan does: it looks at where your student is starting, where they want to be, and fills in the steps in-between.
The first thing to figure out is whether your student will be applying early to any college. There can be real benefits to applying either early action or early decision – as we note in this article – but applying early does shift your entire testing timeline forward by several months. Early application deadlines can be as early as October of your student’s senior year, so to be on the safe side, you should plan for your student to be done with all of their testing in the fall of their senior year. Regular application deadlines are in December or January, so you have a bit more time there.
If you’re the parent of a current junior and you feel a little behind on your college testing journey, don’t worry! Your student can still take an ACT in April, June, July, or September and an SAT in May, June, and August. If your student isn’t applying to any schools during early action or early decision, they can also test in October or November.
Plan for Multiple Test Dates
Plan for multiple test dates at the beginning – you may or may not need them, but this way, you know may need to take the test more than once.
Often, students hang all of their hopes on one test administration: they think that their entire future hinges on the April ACT. If they don’t do as well as they hoped, it can be demoralizing to jump back on the prep wagon for another go-around. You can avoid that added stress by simply planning to take the test multiple times from the very beginning. That way, your student can walk into their first SAT or ACT knowing that it’s not the end of the world if they freeze up, forget their geometry, or sit in front of the student with the sniffles (there’s always one). The lower stakes might even help their score by zapping some of that testing anxiety away.
There’s another benefit to multiple test administrations: superscoring. Colleges that superscore accept the best sections scores from different test administrations, combining the highest in each section to make a new, higher score. Taking the test a few times can pay off big!
Find Your Season
It’s important to consider activities and family obligations when planning for prep. By doing so, you can avoid very busy times of the year when it comes to prepping and taking the SAT or ACT.
As you work backwards from your student’s application deadlines, you’ll see a few opportunities to group two or three test administrations together. They could take the ACT the April and June of their Junior year, with September as a last test (if necessary). They could take their tests June, July, and September, or July, September, and October. You’ve got some choices.
It’s best to choose test dates that allow your student to focus heavily on prep beforehand. If your student is in a spring musical, an April ACT is probably not a good idea. If your student is a star football player, the August SAT might be pushing it a bit. Some students do really well in the summer tests, while others have family or work commitments. It’s a good idea to put your student’s other commitments on your big calendar, including summer camps, weddings, and anything else that might prevent them from being available on a specific Saturday morning.
Another piece of this puzzle involves your student’s academic history. Both the SAT and ACT require knowledge that students gain in the core classes they take during sophomore or junior year. When your student completes Geometry and Biology can really affect their ideal testing season. Students on a more advanced trajectory might want to test earlier, while other students may benefit from a later set of test dates. Jed wrote an in-depth analysis of what classes your student needs for the SAT and ACT here.
Ultimately, the most important part of your student’s application is their academic performance. It’s important to make sure that your student has time to focus on their classes and to plan prep around them.
Plan Your Prep to Fit Your Student
Prep is not one size fits all. When determining how to prepare for the SAT or ACT you’ll want to consider score gain goals, time, and learning style.
Once you’ve decided on a few test dates to focus on, then you can think about prep options. Classes are often aimed at preparing students for a specific test date, while individual prep can be more flexible, allowing for multiple test sittings. If you are the parent of a junior, now is the time to commit to a test prep schedule. If your student is a sophomore or a freshman, then you can set yourself a reminder to revisit your prep plans when the time is right.
If you have questions about what specific prep might be best for your student, feel free to reach out to us! We’d love to help you navigate this journey.