Meghan Daniels is the Associate Editor at Knewton, where she helps students with their SAT preparation.
There are many mountains to climb on the road to collegiate freedom and bliss. The SAT is one of the most dreaded.
The first step on your SAT journey? Coming to terms with the fact that you’re actually going to have to take the test. Fair warning: Your proctor will speak in a monotone; the girl next to you will blow her nose every three minutes; your desk will be grimy; the high school auditorium will be too hot or too cold (never in-between).
Resigned yet? Good. In that case, we can move on to step two: Figuring out when to take the test. (The third step is studying for the dang thing, and the fourth is taking it–but let’s not worry too much about either of those right now). There are certain helpful guidelines to keep in mind to make your SAT test-taking experience as productive, cost-effective, and fun (well, maybe just the first two) as possible.
1. There is no perfect time to take the SAT. The test is offered at various times in the year for a reason (click here to see upcoming test dates); everyone has their own commitments and scheduling conflicts that might make testing the test on a certain day or at a certain time of year impossible. Colleges won’t look down on you for taking the SAT in March instead of May or October rather than December. That said, of course, there are some important factors to consider as you make your decision.
2. Don’t take the SAT before you take the PSAT. It’s called the Preliminary SAT for a reason (and if you don’t know what preliminary means, SAT vocab word alert! Look it up!). Sure, there might be some overachieving 8th graders out there who have already taken the SAT fourteen times (and counting), but unless you have a really, really good reason, there’s no point. Save yourself the $45 in registration fees and take the test when it actually means something. The PSAT is offered once per year, in October. Juniors take it both to practice for the actual SAT, and to qualify for National Merit Corporation Scholarships. (Some students will also take the PSAT in their sophomore year for extra practice, but these scores don’t count towards National Merit scholarships.) So, the actual SAT should be taken at some point after October of your 11th grade year.
3. Don’t take the SAT cold-turkey. Especially with the College Board’s Score Choice program (which allows you to select which scores do and don’t get sent to colleges), it can be tempting to sit for the SAT during junior year without studying, just for kicks. What’s the harm, right? Well, sure, technically there is none. But if you’re going to spend $45 dollars for a test, shouldn’t you give it your best shot? The SAT is not an intelligence test: It can (and should) be studied for. The more familiar you become with the test’s structure, questions, and content, the better you’ll do. It’s very likely that you won’t reach your full score potential on a blind test-run–and then you’ll just have to pay for, and sit through, the test again. I don’t know about you, but I could do without listening to those tedious instructions read out loud yet another time. Instead of sitting for a real test “for practice,” take some practice tests! Replicate test-like conditions by setting a timer and forcing any annoying siblings, pets, and/or parents to leave you alone. This way, you can get a sense of what sections you need to work on, and address them in advance of test-day.
4. Take the SAT your junior year. The fall of your senior fall is going to be chock-full of tests, schoolwork, college applications, AP courses, activities, desperately trying to enjoy your last year of high school… You get the picture. If at all possible, relieve yourself of yet another stress by studying for, and then taking, the SAT during your junior year. Make a study plan after you take the PSAT, and stick to it. If you manage your time wisely, SAT studying doesn’t have to consume your life. Devote a certain number of hours to it each week throughout the year, and then take the SAT in the spring or early summer before your senior year. If you’re diligent, chances are you’ll achieve your target score–and be the envy of all your friends come December when they’re cramming for the test. And even if you don’t achieve your desired score, you’ll have test experience under your belt and another chance to improve your score–which won’t be the case if you wait until the last-possible date to tackle the exam.
5. Adapt your test schedule to your own needs. Sure, I just told you that you should take the test your junior year, because your senior year is going to be full of scheduling conflicts and commitments, and you want to give yourself a cushion in case you don’t do as well as anticipated. However, if your family is moving to Timbuktu during your junior year, and you break your leg, and you have to have multiple root canals, and you’re swamped with 5 AP classes and a world-class horse-jumping competition–well, in that case, don’t take the SAT during your junior year. Wait until your senior year when you’re settled in Timbuktu and can walk into the test with confidence, and more than 3 hours of sleep, under your belt.
6. Take the test in advance of application deadlines. This should be a no-brainer. Check to see when scores will be released to schools; not only must you take the test before the application deadline, but your potential school must receive those scores before the deadline. According to the College Board, scores are generally sent to colleges about five weeks after the test.
Ultimately, how well you prepare for the test is more important than when you take the test. Study, study, study! It’ll prevent you from having to take and retake (and retake) the SAT.