You know you’re going to have to take an SAT or ACT at some point. Even with more schools deciding on test-optional admissions, you would still want a score to see if it gave you an advantage.

Keep in mind the role of test scores for most schools. In an era of grade inflation for both high schools and colleges, test scores give a college admissions team some context to a specific student’s GPA. It allows them to compare students from different parts of the country with a single, standardized measurement.

That’s an important thing to know when you start planning your what tests you’re going to take and how you’re going to prepare. During our free consultation with students, we ask 5 key questions to come up with the test prep plan that’s right for them.

  • When do you take Algebra II?
  • Does one test offer you an advantage over the other?
  • What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
  • How many advanced classes or AP tests will you take?
  • What score do you need?

When do you take Algebra II?

This is the most important thing to consider. In fact, it’s the most important question we ask when students use our FREE test prep planning app to generate their customized test prep plan. The math sections on both the SAT and ACT require a solid foundation in Algebra. Thanks to the blueprint for the SAT, we know that every SAT will have 19 “Heart of Algebra” questions and 16 “Passport to Advanced Math” questions. The numbers aren’t as exact for the ACT, but a foundation in Algebra underpins that test as well.

You can invest dozens of hours of time–and probably hundreds or thousands of dollars–into prep ahead of when you take Algebra II, but there really isn’t a need to do that. You don’t need better test scores until your Junior year, so focus on the tests once you’ve gotten all or most of Algebra II completed. If you’re taking Algebra II in your sophomore year, plan on taking your first SAT or ACT in the Fall of your Junior year. If you won’t take Algebra II until your Junior year, plan on taking your first SAT or ACT in the Spring of your Junior year.

Does one test (SAT or ACT) offer you an advantage over the other?

Before College Board revised the SAT, students often saw a significant difference in the scores they would get on each test. Back then, the advice was to take each test once, compare the scores, then focus on the test for which the score was higher.

Since the revision, we’ve seen that most students have extremely comparable scores. Unfortunately, the old advice has persisted, which is causing students to waste a great deal of time. They sign up for their first official SAT or ACT without doing any prep for either, then they have to wait for the scores to come back, then they take a second test after preparing for it, and usually a third test down the road.

You don’t have to do all of that. You have so many free resources online you can use to get a score. They have the advantage that you don’t have to register for a test, wait for the test dates, then wait for the score reports to come back as well. You can download a practice SAT (we recommend Practice Test 7 for the most dependable results) and download the official practice material from the ACT. Take each using the prescribed times for each section. Each test will take you about 3 1/2 hours, but you won’t have to drive to a testing center. You can do it in the quiet of your dining room as long as it’s a space free of distractions.

Score each test and use the official concordance to determine if one test was substantially higher than the other. If you’re like most students we talk to, you’re going to find out that the scores are relatively similar. If one is particularly higher, focus on that one. If they are even, we recommend focusing on the SAT. The SAT has fewer sections to prepare for, a tighter scope of material that will be tested, and more time per question. The last factor is probably the biggest. We know a lot of strategies for helping you answer questions more correctly, but it is incredibly difficult to help students get faster.

Once you’ve decided on a test, take a look at the test dates and decide which ones work best for you.

What extracurricular activities are you involved in?

Extracurricular activities can impact the amount of time you’re going to be able to dedicate to preparation. One year we were working with several football players and members of the marching band. They had all planned on taking the December SAT as their first test. It seemed like a safe schedule. The team would probably make the playoffs, but it wasn’t clear that they’d go very deep. It seemed like a good plan when they found out they’d be playing the number one team in the state the weekend before the test. The football team was good and dedicated, but their opponent was nationally ranked.

Then a funny thing happened. They won, and the weekend of the SAT was now going to revolve around a State semifinal game at AT&T Stadium. It was a less-than-optimal time for an SAT, so they rescheduled for the March test.

In that situation, everyone was happy to make the change, but if you’re taking a course that is intentionally scheduled to coincide with a specific test date, it’s something to consider in advance.

How many advanced classes or AP tests will you take?

A funny thing happens to test prep plans when they come into contact with homework and tests from school. They usually drop to the bottom of the list of priorities. It makes sense. That project for AP U.S. History is due Friday and the ACT is still 4 weeks away. Midterm exams are next week, so you’ve got to study for those. Besides, GPA is still the most important factor schools use in determining whether or not you’ll be accepted. You have to keep the grades up above everything else.

If you’re going to take a lot of advanced classes, you’ll probably want to schedule test dates that happen mid-semester. The test dates typically happen around the same weekend every year, so you can get an idea of which particular test dates will be better for you.

One thing we always watch for is the number of AP tests a student will be taking in May of each year. The same is true for IB students who will have several of their diploma assignments due toward the end of the Spring. If you’re taking AP tests or in an IB program, stay away from the May SAT. It’s typically the first weekend of May, which is also the weekend before AP tests begin. In fact, it’s usually the Saturday before the AP U.S. History test, which is the 2nd most taken AP exam College Board offers.

What score do you need?

Remember, the score you need is relative to the schools you’ll be applying to. You need to have a list of 7-10 schools you’re considering. If you haven’t done that, use a program like BigFuture from College Board. (If you have access to Naviance, it’s another great resource.)

Once you have a list of 7-10 schools, use a site like College Navigator to see what the 50th percentile SAT or ACT scores were from the most recent year provided. You want your score to be above the 50th percentile. After you take your first test, see how your score compares. If it’s above the 50th percentile, you can most likely be done. The only factor that would motivate you to take the test again is if you could qualify for additional scholarship money. Test prep is the only thing in the college application process that has a quantifiable ROI. If investing another few hundred dollars in prep for the SAT or ACT could result in several thousands of dollars off of your tuition, it’s probably worth taking the test again.

Creating a test prep plan can seem daunting. When you know the questions to ask, you can come up with a reliable plan to be prepared. Contact us if you’d like to schedule a FREE consultation. We can help you come up with a test prep plan that’s right for you. If you already know when you’ll take the SAT or ACT, sign up for our Test Prep Boot Camp class ahead of that test. Students who complete our Test Prep Boot Camps typically improve their composite scores 180-200 points on the SAT and 4-5 points on the ACT.