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How Soon Is Too Soon to Take the SAT or ACT?

A great blog from Evan Wessler at our partner Method Test Prep:

When I was in high school, it was normal to take the SAT or ACT near the end of junior year. Why? There was never really a great reason, other than that it was the thing to do. In all honesty, my classmates and I didn’t really think about it. Procrastinator that I was, I was content to let it lie until the spring.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken my first exam earlier on in my junior year––maybe in December or January. In fact, taking the SAT or ACT earlier is becoming increasingly common among today’s students. At Method Test Prep, we regularly encounter even a small number of sophomores who are starting to prepare, or will begin preparing in the summer.

Early preparation has many merits, but its increasing prevalence raises the question: how soon is too soon? After all, we wouldn’t recommend that students in 9th grade start preparing. So where’s the line? As always, there will be a different answer for every student. Here are a few things to consider to help you answer the question for your own student.

  • Your Student’s Place in the Curriculum. Within the past two years, both the SAT and ACT have begun testing more advanced content. Notice that I wrote advanced and not difficult. While it’s true that the SAT and ACT have become a bit more difficult, most of the challenges they present are simply rooted in material presented later on in a typical high school curriculum. For example, the ACT has begun testing the concepts of asymptotes and matrices on its Math section. For students who have learned these concepts in class, from an ACT or SAT course or program, or from a tutor, the questions are no big deal––they’re actually pretty easy for their topics. But the fact remains that the average student will not see these concepts until late in Algebra II or even Precalculus. Now, these topics alone should not scare students away from taking the ACT; the vast majority of ACT Math questions focus on material presented through basic Algebra II. That said, before they start preparing for the SAT or ACT, students must ask themselves whether they have learned enough in school to make preparation productive. Students on an honors/advanced track––especially in Math and English––will usually be ready to start preparing sooner than students who take standard-level classes. Based on curriculum alone, average students probably should wait until mid- to late fall of junior year to start preparing, while advanced students can benefit from prep that starts as early as the summer between sophomore and junior year.
  • Maturity. It may surprise you, but emotional and mental maturity are very important to success on the SAT and ACT. Things like attention to detail, focus, and a sense of responsibility are crucial to productive prep. Often, mental maturity (or lack thereof) isn’t obvious until students start taking practice tests. Students who aren’t “in the game” sometimes fail to learn from their mistakes because they take things too casually. This isn’t to say that students should view SAT/ACT prep as the be-all-end-all of their lives, but a certain degree of self-accountability is necessary for students to benefit from the prep process. Before they start their prep, all students should know they must be mentally committed to the process––simply showing up and doing the work isn’t enough. Because each student will develop differently, there’s no set time point for emotional/mental readiness, but key indicators include willingness to put in time on their own, enthusiasm about improvement, and positive feedback from educators or tutors about student initiative. An incredible amount of maturation occurs between the sophomore and junior years; due to differences in personality, life experience, upbringing, and good old biology, certain students will be mentally ready before others. Talk to your student about how he or she feels about the exams, and try to gauge as objectively as possible where your student’s maturity level lies. If you think you need to wait to start prep, do so!
  • Preparation Timeline. We’ve said time and again that the SAT and ACT are predictable exams; this fact is what allows students to master them. The process, however, doesn’t happen overnight or through osmosis. Just like anything else, it requires hard work over time. When students try to rush things, the whole enterprise can be counterproductive. Thus, it is important to carefully plan a timeline that will allow for diligent, concerted prep. It’s important that students include practice exams in their study plans so they can measure progress and develop the stamina to last through a four hour exam. For most students, a few hours of prep per week over about about three months will result in significant gains on a baseline score. Some students will need to revisit prep after their first exam to maintain momentum before a second. The key thing is that if a student does plan to take a second exam, he or she should not let prep fall by the wayside: a few weeks of inactivity can erase a lot of the progress that was made up to that point. Keep in mind the long-term prep ideal when planning a start time.

By considering these points, students can increase the likelihood of successful SAT or ACT prep. Still have questions about how best to prep?

Author: Yuri Punj


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