SAT/ACT Prep – When to Start

Congratulations to those who have completed their final exams and completed junior year, and good luck to those who have exams coming up or are taking them right now. As the 2016-2017 testing season draws to a close, most of the calls we now receive are from rising juniors. One of the most common questions, if not the most common question, is “when should my son or daughter start to prepare for the SAT/ACT?”

To make this determination, two major questions must be answered: does my son or daughter plan to take the SAT or ACT, and does s/he want a standard or intensive amount of preparation? I’ll give a few key pointers here to help evaluate these questions.

First, the question of standard versus intensive preparation. By standard preparation, I mean our baseline recommendation of 12-16 weekly, one-hour meetings covering all sections of the test. By intensive preparation, I mean year-long weekly preparation aimed at achieving the absolute maximum possible score.

Intensive preparation requires an earlier start date, usually the summer before junior year or the fall of junior year. If your intent is to make test preparation a big priority, then those are the times to start.

A standard preparation regimen of 12-16 weeks affords students more flexibility in terms of test timing. The student will want to start prepping three to four months before the test date, and ideally avoid tutoring during his or her busiest time of year. So, a student could start tutoring in October in preparation for a February ACT, for instance, or a student could start in February in preparation for a June SAT. If you’re planning a standard preparation routine, then you should not feel pressure to start early.

Regardless of when you start, be sure to take a mock test first to get a baseline score, which will allow you to set expectations.

Second, the question of which test. The ACT tests on material that is taught through the end of junior year, particularly in math and science, so most students will be best positioned to maximize their scores at or near the end of junior year, around the April or June test dates. For juniors with a standard or even honors course load, a fall or early winter ACT test date is not advisable. Tutoring is helpful, but it cannot replace the hours of content knowledge conveyed through teaching and homework in school.

The SAT, on the other hand, tests mainly on material taught through the end of sophomore year – particularly in math – and has no science. So, students may be better positioned to take the SAT earlier in the year if that is more convenient. Let’s say a student is busiest in the spring with sports… That student could start preparing in October or November for the December and March SAT dates, and then he or she could theoretically be done or almost done with testing before that busy spring season hits.

At the end of the day, be sure to do what works for your student and your family; don’t feel pressured by what you hear from other families or students. Some students choose to make test prep a big priority, and some just a moderate one, and pretty much all of them, in my experience, have turned out pretty well.

I hope you have a great summer.


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