By PATRICK MCNAMARA
Junior year of high school can be very busy: Academics ramp up, students may take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities, and then there’s the college admissions process. It may be tempting to push off college admissions tests — the SAT or ACT — but there are several reasons why it makes sense for your teen to complete the test in his or her junior year of high school.
- Academic readiness. “Spring of your junior year is the optimal time to take the SAT or ACT. By then, most everyone will have a firm foundation in the math subjects covered by the SAT and ACT. Also, by junior year, your student will have encountered some of the rigorous reading passages to develop higher level critical thinking skills,” says Anathea Simpkins, director of product management at Sylvan Learning, a tutoring and test prep company.
- Preparation time. How much prep you do for the SAT or ACT depends on many factors – your goal score, your score without prep, how many hours you are willing to devote to prep per week, what your sport/club/activity schedule is at different times of the year, how many times you intend to take the SAT/ACT, and the list goes on. Some students use the summer before their junior year to gear up for the exams, but most start prep in the winter for a spring exam. Gearing up for the exam can take many forms, but many take some kind of test preparation course. These classes provide practice tests, study tips and individualized assessments. Once the student knows their strengths and weaknesses, they know where to focus their time, so that they can maximize their scores.
- How to Prep. Whether or not a student prepares for the SAT or ACT is a personal decision. The SAT and ACT tests are very different than typical high school tests, and like any other test, if you prepare, the odds of achieving a higher score are improved. There are many prep options available. Khan Academy is a free online option with SAT prep materials. There are also many SAT/ACT prep books for sale. These two options work for students who are good self-learners and can stay on an independent study schedule. For many high school students with demanding schedules, independent study will very often result in a failure to prepare sufficiently, so there are many companies that provide online or in-person tutoring classes. These programs provide the structure that ensures that students have prepared thoroughly and in a timely manner. The goal of any good prep program is to help the student improve their performance through diagnosis, on-going assessment and extensive practice with the kinds of questions they will see on test day.
- Time for improvement. By taking the exam in junior year, your student can acquire their scores, compare them to the averages at their top choice schools, and then determine if they need to retake the test. It also gives students ample time — including another summer break if needed — for additional test preparation. (Many students take a college admissions exam twice, once in their second semester of junior year, and if needed, again during the summer after junior year or very early in their senior year.)
- Early decisions. Many colleges and universities have significantly accelerated their decision timelines, pushing many students to submit applications earlier than ever before. In fact, some hopefuls are rushing to complete their applications as early as October to meet the November 1 deadlines instituted by some state universities. Don’t forget that you need to leave approximately three weeks for scores to be tabulated and sent to the colleges.
- External factors. For athletes looking for scholarships, many institutions would like to see an SAT or ACT score by the middle of junior year to ensure the prospect can meet minimum entrance criteria. The same holds true for certain academic or merit scholarships.
- AP schedule. Since most advanced placement testing is in May, completing the admissions in advance of these exams can help alleviate some of the pressure on your student.
- What ifs. Waiting until fall of senior year may sound attractive to some teens, but it does not provide any flexibility in the instance your student gets ill the day of the test or another event prevents him from taking the exam. By completing the test at least once by the end of junior year, your teen has something to work with for the admissions process regardless of any unforeseen circumstances.
The college admissions process is a long road, and when your child should take the test will depend on their unique circumstances, such as academic schedule, extracurricular activities, and any other personal responsibilities. For example, if your student participates in a competitive sport or activity, scheduling the test during the time probably does not make sense. Fortunately, the SAT and ACT are each offered seven times per year, offering some flexibility for each student’s needs.