Though the majority of college applicants study for the ACT or SAT during the spring of their junior year, in our experience, most of them regret waiting so long to study and take their first test. 

Though it may seem like a simple proposition, preparing for the ACT or SAT involves a lot of variables, complex timetables, and a huge amount of self-discipline and motivation. Figuring out whether you should take the ACT or SAT, studying for and taking the test, planning for and taking important SAT II subject tests, and leaving enough time before college application deadlines to retake tests if necessary can take over a year to do well. Thus, we recommend beginning your test prep journey during the summer after your sophomore year of high school. 

Here’s a basic timeline:

1. A week or two into the summer after your sophomore year (possibly with the help of test prep experts) decide whether to focus on the ACT or SAT (see here for guidance on how to do so). Then, take a full-length, official practice test, preferably on a Saturday morning. 

2. Use your practice test results to set a target score and devise a study plan. See our post on how to self-study or talk to one of our test experts for help in designing a curriculum that will get you to your target score. 

3. Study and practice in preparation for a test in the winter of your junior year. Six months should be enough time for most students to review content, master strategies, and take multiple practice tests, especially if you are working with a tutor. 

4. Take the ACT in December or February, or the SAT in January. 

5. Depending on how you do, you may want to retake your chosen test. Most students take the ACT or SAT two times, so don’t worry about it “looking bad.” We do recommend, however, that students don’t take either test more than three times. You can retest in April or June for the ACT, and you can re-test in March or May for the SAT. However, save the June SAT date for any SAT II subject tests you may need to take, as it’s best to do these right after your classes in the subject have ended. 

We don’t recommend waiting until the fall to retake the ACT or SAT for a few reasons: 

1. You want to capitalize on all the studying you’ve been doing and keep up your momentum. 

2. You should be spending the summer after your junior year working on college applications and doing something engaging (like travel, research, work in a field of interest, or an academic program), not studying for a standardized test.

3. You may want to take or retake an SAT II subject test in the fall.

4. You should dedicate the fall of your senior year to finishing college applications and keeping your grades up.

The benefits of starting early are clear: 

  • less stress during junior year
  • more potential test dates
  • more time to prepare rather than cramming
  • most importantly, getting the SAT out of the way by the end of junior year to make time and mental space for college applications

However, there is a limit to how early you should start. We advise against starting too early, as working on college entrance exams before the summer of your sophomore year can cause burnout and take valuable time away from other important activities. Remember, the SAT and ACT are only one part of your college application. Your preparation should be as short and effective as possible so that you can take advantage of all the other great opportunities and experiences available to you. 

Of course, every student learns differently, so preparation times may vary. Create a schedule that works for you—one that suits your own strengths and studying tendencies.

Looking to boost your ACT or SAT score? Try a Signet Education test prep consultant.