High school is a busy time of life. You have a lot to think about—classes to study for, jobs, extracurriculars, friends… It’s hard to think about adding the stress of college prep, especially when it seems so far away.
But, like it or not, high school is college prep. The decisions and choices you make right now are preparing you for your future. Everything you study is designed to prepare you for your next step. It doesn’t take much to begin college planning right now—even if you are still early in your high school career. An important “next step” is to plan for the SAT. You need to decide what grade you will take the SAT.
What Grade Should You Take the SAT?
You have several opportunities each year to take the SAT. It is offered seven times a year—August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. There are also school day administrations across the nation. If your district participates in the College Board SAT School Day it is usually offered during the spring of your junior year. Some will also offer it in the fall.
The general recommendation for the grade to take the SAT is the spring of your junior year, then a second time in the fall of your senior year. This timing works for some students. But before you run out and register because everybody else is doing it, take time to consider your personal situation.
How To Decide When To Take the SAT
You want your best chance to succeed. Taking the test early in your academic career does have its advantages—some take it as early as the spring of their sophomore year. The earlier you take the SAT, the more time you have to retake it if you aren’t happy with your score. But take the test too early—before you are academically prepared—and you are almost guaranteed to be disappointed.
So as you decide what grade you should take the SAT, ask yourself the following questions:
1 – When are college application deadlines?
The most important thing to think about is when college applications are due. Early decision application deadlines for most schools will be November. Regular decision application deadlines fall between December 1st and February 1st, depending on the school. It is important to find out when you need to have your application complete.
It takes between two and six weeks to receive your test score. And colleges will receive your scores 10 days after this. For a fee, you can request an SAT rush order, but you cannot rush the scoring process. So keeping your school application deadlines in mind, you should plan the SAT at least two months before college applications are due.
2 – How many times do you plan to take the SAT?
Do you have a goal in mind for your score? Most students don’t hit their ideal score the first time around. It’s nothing to stress about—you’re totally normal. In fact, it’s actually recommended that you take the SAT at least two times. According to College Board, 67% of students improve their SAT scores the second time around. And those that improve are students who use their first set of scores to focus their study on weak points.
So if you are serious about improvement, use that college deadline, use the number of times you think you may need to take the test, and work backward to plan your test dates.
3 – What high school classes have you taken?
The level of math you are taking is particularly important. Many experts will say that you should be at least half-way through Algebra II before you take the SAT. If not, you may encounter too many unfamiliar math concepts. There are also some trigonometry questions on the test, so some experience with it is helpful. If you haven’t taken trig, be sure and spend focused practice on this area and you may want help from a teacher or tutor.
4 – Are you giving yourself enough time to practice?
It’s not a good idea to sign up for the test next Saturday and show up without studying. Yes, your entire education has been leading you to this point. The SAT is designed to pull from your current education and show how well prepared you are for college. But it’s always worth the effort to make sure you get your best possible scores. You have college admissions and possibly even scholarships at stake.
You should think of studying like training for a marathon. Just like a marathon is an intense test of physical strength and endurance, the SAT is a test of mental strength —what you know—and endurance —how well you can recall it under pressure. You don’t decide you are going to run a marathon next Saturday without training. It takes training on a regular schedule, slowly increasing to build your endurance.
This is the way you should study for the SAT. Begin small and slow. Make a plan. Build a schedule. It doesn’t have to be painful. You have the advantage of living in a digital world. In my day—way back in the 1990s—studying for the SAT consisted of ordering a gigantic test prep manual to lug around, taking courses, hiring tutors…
Now you can have it all at your fingertips. There are so many free resources online. Start with the College Board practice questions and the Official SAT practice through Khan academy. There is even an app you can download. Stuck waiting for your ride? Got a half-hour bus ride? Waiting for your turn to play Fortnite? Take out your smartphone and do a little test prep. If you find you need more help than the free sites provide, explore the many online services and books available that can help guide you to your best score.
The important takeaway is that you give yourself enough time to prepare. Most test prep experts recommend you plan for at least 40 hours of test prep before you take the SAT. Others suggest giving yourself 3 to 6 months to study—not intensely, but in small, regular increments to grow your knowledge and test endurance.
5 – What school and personal commitments do you need to consider?
Stress is the enemy of your best test score. So it’s important to think about what is going on in your personal life around the available test dates. Are you scheduled to take AP tests in the spring? It may not be a good idea to add the SAT into the mix. Do you have a big family reunion the same weekend as the SAT? You don’t want your attention divided between Grandma Betty and the SAT. Are you an athlete? Try not to plan your SATs during the peak of your season.
Of course, we know that there are always things that happen in your personal life that are beyond your control. But do your best to keep your test day as clear as possible. It will keep you relaxed and focused.
The suggested grade you take the SAT, at the end of your junior year, is just that—a suggestion. It’s a good guideline to begin your college planning. But, remember, there are many other factors you must keep in mind. Every student is different. Everyone’s journey is going to be different. Make the plan that is right for your success.