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Test Prep: How Soon is Too Soon?

We get tons 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, brings a slight bit of additional confusion in the form of the digital SAT debuting in 2024. Does that mean you need to drop everything to get ready for it? Absolutely not. It’s one factor that you should consider, but not even one of the more important ones.

Probably the two most important questions you can ask yourself are: When is your brain ready for the test? And when is your schedule ready for the 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.

In terms of your academic skills, your reading level is what it is and you’re not likely to be learning much new grammar in school, but you are learning new math almost every day. You might recall taking the PSAT 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  learned in Algebra 2 and even incorporate some precalculus concepts. In fact, the ACT includes more precalculus than does the SAT. If you’re on an advanced math track, you’re all set, but if you’re taking Algebra 2 as a sophomore – like most students – be prepared to learn some precalculus topics on your own if you wish to test early in junior year and especially if you plan to take the ACT.

This coming summer, you might be planning to take 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, especially when it comes to not being unduly influenced by peers. 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.)  and students get lots of social queuing from peers. “You do you,” “run your own race,” and emotional flexibility all improve with age, for everything is easier with a more mature brain. 

In my experience, how happy students are with their test scores usually has less to do with whether they knew the material  and more to do with whether they handled  stress well, made good decisions using  information they did know, and didn’t worry about what they didn’t know. Most students who correctly answer the questions they know without making any “unforced errors” will be happy with their scores. So, 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, cognitive flexibility and self-monitoring are improving every day.

Ideally, you’ll be able to start test prep after you’ve learned the math you need to know and have the maturity level required to navigate test 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. 

On the other hand, your fall might be taken up with a busy debate schedule or regattas every weekend, 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, 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 rehearsal 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 it’s not going to get you the results you want unless you also prepare yourself.

So what can you do now?

While I don’t often recommend sophomores start test prep in earnest, I do recommend that they make a plan. The first decision is, of course, the SAT vs. ACT. If you’ve taken the PSAT and did your best, those scores can be thought of as SAT scores, so you already have a baseline. Next, take a practice ACT and compare not only the scores using the published concordance but also the experiences: Which did you like better?  How was time? Did one just feel easier to you? You might be like most students and do approximately equally well on both tests. If that’s the case, you should likely plan to take the ACT – it won’t change all year and you’ll have a huge amount of prep materials and practice tests to draw upon. If, however, you find that the SAT is a better fit for your skills, you’ll want to decide to either start in the summer and prepare for the paper SAT given in August, October, November and December; or wait until the fall to start prepping for the digital SAT to be given starting in March. I’d advise you to try to take the current SAT if you can, but that’s only if both your brain and your schedule are ready, of course! By the way – your PSAT in October will be digital, so it’ll be great “diagnostic” to kick off your digital SAT prep to begin during the school year.

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