Best Practices for Creating a Test Prep Plan
A Good Test Prep Plan is Customized for the Student
We have always counseled students and parents to maintain perspective and to craft a sensible, individualized testing plan early in the process — a plan that addresses which tests to take, when to take them, and how and when to prepare for them. There is no single best testing plan, but there is a plan that will work best for your specific needs. We encourage you to consult with your school counselor. A good plan is customized for the student. It puts the student’s well-being front and center, prioritizes school work, and doesn’t give the tests more life than they deserve. The following is our guide to test prep planning.
[STEP 1] Choose WHICH Tests You’re Going to Take
In this step, your primary goal is to answer the questions:
- Should I take the SAT or ACT?
- Do I need to take SAT Subject Tests?
SAT or ACT?
Colleges will accept either and view both equally, so which test to pursue is up to you. We recommend that you choose SAT or ACT early in the process and prepare for that test.
- Take a practice SAT and a practice ACT in the summer before junior year to determine your preference. Use only official practice tests from ACT and the College Board (SAT), and take them under timed, simulated conditions.
- Compare your scores on the practice tests using official concordance data. Only 20-30% of students will show a significant difference between their SAT and ACT scores. The majority of students will score roughly the same on both tests. For these students, the decision usually comes down to which test feels more comfortable.
- Choose either the SAT or the ACT, then commit to preparing for that test. Don’t “ping-pong” between them, and don’t prepare for both at the same time. You likely don’t have the time nor will it be productive.
No U.S. colleges require SAT Subject Tests from all applicants, but a few require them when applying to specific programs. Roughly 13 recommend SAT Subject Tests, but you should include the tests as part of your application to these schools. They can serve to highlight areas of strength. There are two decisions to make: 1) Do I need to take SAT Subject Tests at all? 2) If yes, which ones should I take?
- Colleges’ Subject Test requirements vary and are constantly shifting. Check college websites to see whether or not schools on your list require, recommend, or consider SAT Subject Tests.
- If you’re going to take Subject Tests, choose areas of strength. Subject Tests are offered in Math, History, Literature, Sciences, and Languages. If you’re taking an AP course, plan on taking the related Subject Test as well as the AP exam. Consult with your school counselor and/or subject matter teacher.
- Take full-length practice tests. They’re only 60 minutes. You’ll be able to determine on which tests you’ll score your best, and you’ll also get valuable exposure to the content and format.
[STEP 2] Decide WHEN to take the tests
Many factors might influence when you decide to take your tests: academic readiness, your school and extracurricular schedule, and your availability to prepare for the tests. Here are some things to consider:
Testing Schedule for 2019-20
CONSIDERATIONS FOR “WHEN” TO TAKE THE SAT, ACT
- Statistically, students score best late in junior year and fall of senior year. We generally dissuade students from starting testing too early. Aside from the cost and time involved, most students aren’t academically ready early in junior year and therefore risk having their confidence rattled.
- We recommend taking the test twice in the latter half of junior year, usually between December and June. The experience of the first test will build confidence for the second. Moreover, knowing you have a second chance alleviates some of the pressure from the first sitting.
- Assume a third test in the summer before senior year or fall of senior year. Ideally, you’ll be finished after junior year, but students will often test again in the summer before senior year or the fall of senior year. Remember, the further along in age and school, the better students do.
- Some students MIGHT or SHOULD consider testing earlier in junior year. High-scoring juniors (1400+, 31+) might consider testing in the fall. Recruited athletes might have to show scores to college coaches early in junior year or even late in sophomore year. Lastly, juniors doing a spring semester abroad might consider testing right before they leave and then again in summer/fall of senior year.
“WHEN” TO TAKE SAT SUBJECT TESTS
- Scheduling your Subject Tests requires advanced planning. For a small percentage of students, it might make sense to take a Subject Test at the end of sophomore year or even freshman year. Moreover, some tests are offered only once or twice during the year. Consult with your school counselor early in the process.
- Take Subject Tests when you’re finishing your class in that particular subject, usually May or June. The end of junior year is the most typical time for students to take Subject Tests. You can take up to 3 tests on a given test date.
[STEP 3] Decide HOW and WHEN to prepare for the tests
Whether you prepare with one-on-one tutoring, classroom programs, or independent study, test prep programs can be found to accommodate any need. Cost, scheduling flexibility, and level of motivation are some of the factors to consider when deciding how to prepare.
Preparing for the SAT and ACT
- Typical preparation begins 6-15 weeks before the test and leads up to the exam. Your preparation should target a particular test date, ideally your first official test. The preparation you do for that first exam will carry over to any subsequent exams.
- Don’t prepare for both the SAT and ACT simultaneously. If you do end up taking both tests, your preparation for one test will give you a good head start on the other test.
- Practice tests are a core part of preparation. Good preparation consists of shoring up knowledge, learning test-taking strategy, and taking full-length, timed practice tests. Much like a scrimmage or a dress rehearsal, taking practice tests under real conditions builds familiarity and confidence.
Preparing for SAT Subject Tests
- Subject Tests typically require less preparation than do SATs and ACTs. Preparation involves strengthening knowledge in some areas and filling gaps between what’s covered on the tests and what’s covered in class.
Feel free to reach out to with any questions you have. Standardized testing for college admissions can be confusing and overwhelming at times. We’re always happy to be a resource to families and counselors.