Test Prep: How Soon is Too Soon?

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We’ve gotten lots of questions from sophomores about when to start preparing for the SAT or ACT. In most years, we advise students to hold off on any test prep until sophomore year is in the books. Why? Well, the number one indicator of where you get to go to college is your grades, so taking care of them is job one. This year, however, many of you might already have your grades pretty much on lock, depending on your school’s approach to rigor, balance, distance learning, and grading systems. So, is now the right time to get started?

It very well could be this year, but that remains an individual decision. You won’t find any easy answers here, but you will find the questions and competing factors you should be considering as you navigate the best times for you to prepare and test.

When is your brain ready for the SAT or ACT?

Succeeding on these standardized tests depends not only on knowing your 30-60-90 triangles and your semi-colons from your colons, but also upon staying focused, keeping your cool, and making good decisions over the course of a three-hour-plus exam. One view of when to take the test is when you’ve acquired both the academic skills and the maturity to make the test easier and less stressful.

At this point, you’re not likely to be learning much new grammar, but you are learning new math almost every day. You might recall taking the PSAT in the fall and seeing some questions about exponential functions or quadratics that you really couldn’t answer at the time. But you could totally answer them now, since you’re likely finishing up your Algebra 2 class. Or maybe you’re taking precalculus as a sophomore and were familiar with most of the material on the test. That’s an important difference, since the SAT and ACT both include almost everything you learned in Algebra 2 and even incorporate some precalculus concepts. In fact, the ACT includes more precalculus than does the SAT, so if you’re in Algebra 2 now and you’re looking to test earlier in your junior year, you’ll want to be sure to learn what advanced material is on each test so you can be prepared and less stressed when you do eventually take the test.

This coming summer, you might be planning taking Driver’s Ed. Exciting! Learning to drive is a major milestone you’re likely looking forward to. So why is it that 16-year-olds are allowed to drive but 15-year-olds are not? Well, 16-year-olds simply make better decisions. That’s relevant for the SAT and ACT as well. These tests can be really stressful for many students, who feel that the whole rest of their lives are riding on the results. (Spoiler alert: They really aren’t.) 

In my experience, how happy students are with their test scores usually has less to do with whether they knew the material they needed to know and more to do with whether they handled that stress well, made good decisions using all the information they did know, and didn’t worry about what they didn’t know. Most students who get right everything they know how to do without making any “unforced errors” will be happy with their scores. You should honestly ask yourself: how do you perform under stress? Do you have any relevant experience that could translate to test-taking? Are you a good pressure player on the tennis court? Nerves of steel when you perform in public? Or do you think another few months might help you handle the test better? A few months may not seem like a long time to you, but your prefrontal cortex is rapidly developing at this point in your life, and all those executive functioning skills like staying focused, regulating your emotions, and self-monitoring are improving every day.

When is your schedule ready for the SAT or ACT?

If you’re reading this, that means you’re already planning on doing some preparation for the test. That’s great. So you should ask yourself when do you have the time to both prepare for the test and prepare yourself to be your best self when you take the test.

Most students we work with tend to spend somewhere around three months preparing for the test. Often, that entails weekly meetings, homework, and semi-regular practice tests. That all adds up to a couple of extra hours in your week. So when do you have the time to spare? If you’re a three-sport athlete and your time is all spoken for during the school year, taking advantage of the summer months might be your best bet, even if you do need to learn some new math. Having the first test under your belt in the early fall and retesting and (hopefully!) being finished up before winter break sounds pretty good to most students!

In fact, many students choose to try to take advantage of the summer months for test prep, if they can, so that their focus during the school year can be their grades. After all, your transcript is the single most important indicator of where you’ll get to go to college. Since many camps, internships and vacations are currently on hold, this summer could be the perfect time for many students to get ahead on their test prep, looking ahead to a test in the fall.

On the other hand, your fall might be taken up with a busy debate schedule or regattas every weekend (which will hopefully still happen!!), but you’re pretty free in the winter. That might suggest putting off your preparation until the new year, when you have time to prepare well and can benefit from another semester of schoolwork. In any case, you’ll likely want to get started before the spring of junior year. That’s going to be busy with APs, subject tests, term papers, and all sorts of other demands on your time. Additionally, starting a bit early tends to take the pressure off a bit, since there are many test dates ahead of you. You might not relish the idea of taking the SAT or ACT three times, but knowing you’ve got a lot of opportunities to do well can help you relax and do your best.

In addition to finding time to do all the test prep, you should also think about when you’ll be able to prepare yourself for test day. What’s the difference? Test prep is about acquiring skills and strategies that’ll help you on test day. Preparing yourself is all about putting yourself in the position to best use those skills and strategies. Doing your best on the SAT or ACT requires you to be incredibly well rested and as relaxed as possible. Sure, you want to be able to budget time to take practice tests and do your homework, but you’ll also want to be getting lots of sleep. And, in a perfect world, you won’t be stressed about other things going on. If you know you’re going to be running up to opening night in the spring musical, don’t plan to take the SAT the week beforehand. You’ll be at practice late every night, hustling to keep up with your homework, and rightly focused on other things. Are you a wrestler who cuts weight over the winter? If you’ve done that before, you know how fuzzy your thinking can be and shouldn’t even think about testing in December or February. Good test prep is essential to feeling confident heading into the test, but also preparing yourself can make all the difference.

Aaron Golumbfskie

Senior Tutor & Education Director

Aaron is the Education Director at PrepMatters and has logged more than 10,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring, helping teens change their self-images and achieve success, whether on standardized tests or in academic classes. He continues to tutor every day, but, realizing that individual efforts don’t scale very well, he hopes to serve even more students by spending much of his time creating pe...

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