With sophomore year headed towards summer and junior year looming, you may be worrying about what the next year has in store for your student. Junior year is famously tough, with college applications becoming a more concrete focus, but having a plan in place going into the year helps alleviate some of the stress.
Nowhere is this truer than for the major standardized tests—the SAT and/or the ACT—that your student will take. The better you both understand the process, the better you will be able to set realistic goals for the year and defuse some of the inevitable stress that comes with these tests. Knowledge is your best friend, but remember, every student’s optimal plan will be a little different!
First question: What score does your student need to get?
The answer depends a lot on their target schools. As much as possible, try to keep an open mind as you and your student approach the process of figuring out realistic target schools (“dream schools” shouldn’t just be the biggest reach schools on the list!). You and your student may have a sense of reach and safety schools already: have them look up score ranges for a few of these schools, across the spectrum from reach to safety, to see what scores are competitive for each one (most schools report their middle 50% range for the SAT and ACT). Once your student has begun preparing and starts seeing their practice scores, you can use that data to tweak the list.
Next question: When to begin preparing?
It’s helpful to work backwards, taking your student’s schedule and work habits into account as much as possible. We generally advise targeting the end of junior year for SAT/ACT testing, leaving the option of retesting at the start of senior year if your student isn’t satisfied with their scores. You should plan for your student to start studying at least three months in advance, though six or more is ideal. Consider vacations (are these generally productive times for your student, or unproductive times?), extracurricular commitments, and coursework, and work with your student to adjust the plan as needed. For many students, preparation will begin in the fall of junior year. Whatever you and your student decide, don’t let the tests sneak up on you!
Final question: Which test?
Choosing between the SAT and ACT is an important component in your study plan. Though the two tests are now more similar than they’ve been in the past and they are considered equally by colleges, the differences can still be significant for many students. Generally, the SAT emphasizes higher-level reading throughout the test and includes trickier problems; the ACT has a lower reading level and more straightforward problems, but gives students much less time per question. We recommend reading a bit about the tests to get a sense of which sounds better for your student; then have them take diagnostics of both to compare for themselves. Most students will already have taken the PSAT, which works well as a diagnostic for the SAT (just keep in mind the essay!), so they may only need to take a diagnostic ACT in order to compare.
With the right plan, you and your student will feel fully prepared to tackle the challenges of junior-year testing.