In the vast majority of intake calls I have, the parent proposes the goal of “getting the SAT/ACT out of the way early.” This would usually mean completing SAT/ACT testing by the fall of junior year, or December at the latest.
The goal is appealing: the modern college application contains many elements, and the completion of each one represents a distinct accomplishment. And in some cases, the goal is also reasonable or necessary. Other students, though, are putting themselves at an artificial disadvantage by testing too early. Here is some advice about when testing early makes sense, and when it doesn’t.
In my opinion, the general student should begin their test preparation by taking mock exams during the summer before junior year to determine baseline scores. A baseline score of 1300+ on the SAT or 28+ on the ACT indicates that students could reach their score goals earlier in junior year. Scores of 1400+ or 32+ make early testing a preferred option, as scores of 1500+ or 34+ are closely within reach. For students who start at these baselines, their likely target scores are attainable on the shorter timeline.
These are high scores though. Most students come in with lower starting scores. In these cases, consider the following fact I learned at a conference this year: over a 9-month school year, a student’s ACT scores would be expected to increase 2.7 points in English, and about 1.8 points each in Math, Reading, and Science, an overall improvement of about 2 points (or 60 SAT points). Unsurprisingly, knowledge obtained in school does improve one’s SAT and ACT score.
Students whose scores have more room to grow – which again is most students – will benefit from this tailwind of their academics. Thus, later test dates like March, May, and even August and October of senior fall for SAT (or April, June, July, and September for ACT) probably will produce best results. Testing early creates an unnecessary disadvantage. It’s like trying to make varsity as a freshman. Most people, even many of the best eventual players, need more time to grow (not just physically).
For literal athletes, of course, early testing is an entirely different story. Some students may plan to commit in the fall, and in these cases, scores must be obtained before that commitment date. More often, athletes commit later, but schools still want to see official scores earlier to gauge whether the desired score is even realistic. Target scores vary, but I hear the numbers 1300+ and 28+ a lot. If these are your targets, then testing early with lower baseline scores than I mentioned above can still work out. Getting from a 1200 to a 1300, for example, or a 25 to a 28, should not be that difficult.
What do I say to those parents who express the desire to complete the testing process early? That nearly every parent wants that to happen, and that it only comes true in about 5% of cases. Because really, no matter how well a student does on an early test, they’ll (correctly) decide they can probably do better on the next test, and almost all of them will.
Higher average scores are the reality at all colleges these days, so give yourself every advantage you can. Testing early makes sense in some cases, but the longer timeline will benefit the majority of students.