A big part of test prep comes down to timing. Test dates for college admissions exams are set well in advance and should be the goal posts for planning an effective preparation strategy. That said, when should students officially start their test prep?
The truth is that there is that this multi-layered question has both a short answer and a long answer.
First, the long answer: it depends on the student, their needs, and their goals. Here are some common scenarios and some suggested plans for how and when to approach test prep efforts.
The college-bound high school freshman or sophomore
For students that enter high school looking to establish their college-bound track, test prep can (and should) start early.
- Start with the PSAT prep. Many schools allow freshmen and sophomores to take the PSAT either upon request or teacher recommendation. While the PSAT isn’t technically an entrance exam, high school juniors have the opportunity to take the tests as a way to earn National Merit Scholarships. Taking this test early is a great way for students to familiarize themselves with the test taking experience and steer future test prep efforts.
- Prepare for and take SAT subject matter tests. If there is a chance that a student could apply to a college or university that requires these content-specific exams, they should be taken as soon as the relevant coursework is completed.
- Decide between the ACT and SAT and start prepping! While the ACT and SAT are accepted interchangeably by most schools, they are different tests in several key ways. Preparing this early means students have more time to select the test that is the best fit.
- Start the final push in junior year. Starting in the summer, students should be visiting prospective schools, signing up for test dates, and kicking test prep into high gear. Score growth targets should be set and decisions should be made about things like registering for optional essay test sections, taking additional subject matter tests, and/or taking advantage of opportunities like score choice.
The high school junior just starting to think about college
Starting test prep this late in the game makes things challenging. While it may not be a fool’s errand, the longer students wait to start their test prep, the more triage-focused it becomes. Instead of maximizing growth across all content areas and test sections, tutors are forced to target low-hanging fruit that is ripe for a quick-fix.
- Get help! Going it alone when there may only be a handful of test dates available between now and college application deadlines is certainly a gamble. Find a tutor with test prep experience to help make the most of the time that is left.
- Take a practice test ASAP! Whether a student decides to take a cold swing at the actual SAT or ACT or works with a tutor and practice materials, there needs to be some data available to help optimize the limited test prep time available with realistic and attainable goals.
- Find the next available test date(s) and register. While many colleges allow students to submit their best test day performances (or even “superscore” them), there may not enough test dates left to take a test more than once or twice. Missing out on an opportunity for a second (or third) chance can be detrimental to a student’s larger college aspirations!
All that said, the short answer to the question of when students should start test prep is simple: now! The sooner students begin familiarizing themselves with the tests, making test registration decisions, and working towards improvement goals, the better!