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    When Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

    By Lisa Freedland

    Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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    Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

    Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: October 24th, 2023
    When Should You Take the SAT or ACT?

    Still unsure of when to take the SAT or ACT? No worries! We’ve laid out the most important things to consider, from how much time you need to prepare, to your schedule, to allowing time to retest if necessary. 

    Keep on reading to find out our tips and recommendations for choosing the best test date(s) for you!

    Should I test as a Junior or a Senior?

    Students planning on going to college should take their ACT or SAT in either their junior or senior year of high school (ideally, the earlier the better!). This way, if you want to improve upon the score you receive, you’ll have plenty of time to prepare and retest. An additional advantage to taking the test in your junior year is that you may be one step ahead during your busy senior year and can spend your energy on classes and applying to college instead of studying for the ACT or SAT.

    However, before you take that first test, we recommend feeling totally prepared (don’t rush into it). To do this, try to take a practice exam (or a few!). Once you receive a score that is near your ideal or “goal” score, it may be time to take your first real test and see how you do!

    All in all, just make sure you’re feeling prepared and confident before you go in to take your exam. Make sure you’re comfortable with the test content as well as the exam procedures, know how to get to your testing location, and be sure to get some rest and eat a nutritious breakfast before your exam!

    Consider Your PSAT or PreACT Experience

    On the topic of being prepared for your exam, your PSAT or PreACT scores are something to think about when choosing an exam date. These scores are great ways to measure your readiness for the full SAT or ACT. 

    If you’ve recently taken the PSAT or PreACT and received a score in your ideal range, consider signing up for the next available exam date. This way, you can make the most of test-taking skills and memory while everything’s still fresh in your mind.

    If you do well on this first (real) exam, then you’re done with your exams (yay!) and can start focusing on finishing the rest of your application components. If you don’t score within your desired range, however, you should still have plenty of time to re-test until you get the score you want. Good luck!

    What to Know About SAT Test Dates

    Before we get into choosing the best test dates for you, there are a few important things you should know about SAT test dates. Here they are:

    • The SAT is given 7 times a year in the U.S. (in March, May, June, August, October, November, and December)
    • Students typically first take the SAT in the spring of their junior year. However, you can take it whenever (really – even in middle school)

    Something else that’s very important is knowing exactly when the test dates are. Luckily, the College Board website provides students with a list of test dates each year. For 2023-2024, U.S. students can access the SAT test dates here, and international students can access their SAT test dates here.

    When you feel ready to take the exam, register for the SAT here.

    What to Know About ACT Test Dates

    As for the ACT, there are also a few important things to note:

    • There are typically 7 ACT test dates within a year (in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July)
    • In New York state, July dates are not available for the 2023-2024 test schedule
    • Many states offer an extra ACT date as part of state testing. Check whether your high school and state offers a school-day ACT
    • If offered, your school will automatically sign you up for a state ACT. Otherwise, you must register for the exam yourself
    • High schools typically recommend that students take the ACT in the spring of their junior year (as the ACT math curricula has normally been covered by this point). However, this curricula only shows up in a few questions, so many students take their first ACT in the fall or winter or their junior year as well

    Just like the SAT, the ACT site also provides a list of test dates for 2023-2024. They can be accessed here or seen down below! 

    If you’re feeling prepared for the ACT and have chosen a test date, register for the exam here.

    How to Choose the Right Test Date(s) for You

    So far, we’ve given some general information on the SAT and ACT test dates. However, choosing the best date for your specific circumstances is a little more complicated. Here are some things that you should consider when choosing a test date:

    Test Center Locations

    Luckily, thousands of high schools, colleges, and test centers across the country administer both the SAT and ACT. So, there’s surely a place near you where you can take the exams. However, not all test centers offer tests for every test date – nor do they all have the same number of spaces available for students.

    Keeping this in mind, you might want to test in a place familiar to you so you feel more comfortable taking the exam. We recommend checking which test dates your desired test centers offer. 

    To find SAT test centers near you, the College Board has created this useful tool which tells you which locations near you offer tests on your desired dates, and how many seats are available as well. The ACT website offers a similar tool, allowing students to find test centers close to them.

    Consider Your Schedule

    Beyond location, it is also very important to consider your schedule. Junior and senior year of high school tend to be particularly busy for students. Many students have to juggle school work, extracurriculars, and applying to colleges at the same time. If you sense that you will be too busy on a certain day or time of the year to be fully prepared for your exam, eliminate those test dates as possibilities.

    Also, if you plan on taking both the SAT and ACT, don’t worry that the dates will overlap – the College Board coordinates with the ACT every year to make sure the tests are never on the same day. One less thing to worry about!

    Practice Time

    To perform well on the SAT or ACT, you’ll want to be sure to allocate enough time for yourself to practice. The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll feel on your test day (and the less likely you’ll have to retest!).

    So, when thinking about what test date to choose, make sure you give yourself enough time to practice before your chosen date. Also consider your schedule when thinking about practice time; if you suspect that you’ll be busier when the school year starts in the Fall, you may want to consider studying in the summer. Typically, students spend around 2-3 months studying before taking their first exam. However, everyone is different, and you may take more or less time studying than this – just do what works best for you and makes you feel prepared!

    If you’re not sure where to take a practice exam, Khan Academy provides students with free SAT practice exams and even creates a practice plan made just for you. Test-taking tips and strategies are also provided which can be just as important as knowing the content areas of the tests. Alternatively, if you want ACT practice, the ACT website itself offers students free practice, study guides, and practice ACT exams.

    Allow Time to Retest

    If you, like many other students, choose to take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of your junior year, you will have plenty of time to retest if you want to improve your score.

    Once you receive your scores for either the SAT or ACT, the report will tell you how well you scored on each section (and subsection) of the test. This is good – as it lets you know what areas you should prepare for before your next exam.

    Typically, it takes 1-3 weeks to receive either your ACT or SAT score after your exam date. If you took either exam with the essay section, you will get your main score within this time frame, and your essay score should be released a few days after.

    The August, October, and November test dates are particularly popular for those students wanting to retest before their college application deadlines.

    College Deadlines

    On that note, it is important to keep track of your college deadlines as you’ll have to send in your exam scores to the colleges you’re applying to. Try to avoid delaying your exam date, so you can make sure your score will arrive at your colleges on time.

    Common admission deadlines are normally in November for Early Decision and Early Action, while December or January are typical for regular decision deadlines. Try to send your exam scores to colleges a few weeks before their deadlines to make sure they arrive on time.

    If you end up not being admitted to a college or have been added to the waitlist, you might consider re-taking the test again later in your senior year. While it’s not a guarantee, a higher SAT or ACT score could tip the admissions scales in your favor. 

    If you’re unfamiliar with how to send your exam scores to colleges, the ACT offers directions for how to send your scores to universities. Similarly, the College Board has provided directions on sending SAT scores to colleges.

    When should you register for the SAT and ACT?

    If you already have a test date in mind and are looking to register for the exams, great! For the SAT, test registration starts in April and is available until the deadline for your chosen test date. On the other hand, you can sign up for a specific ACT test date up until around a month before the test date.

    If there is a specific date and test center you really want, we recommend registering early to secure your spot. Test centers can fill up, and you don’t want to have to take the exam somewhere you’re less comfortable or on a later date.

    If you happen to miss the registration deadline, but there are still spots available at your chosen site, both the SAT and ACT offer late registration (but you will have to pay a late fee!). For both the SAT and ACT, the late registration deadline is typically 3 weeks before the test date.

    If you even miss the late registration deadline, but are determined to test on a certain day, both exams offer “Waitlist” (SAT) or “Stand By” (ACT) testing. These will require you to sign up online and choose a specific test center, then bring your “Waitlist” or “Stand By” ticket on the day of the exam. However, neither of these guarantee that you’ll get a chance to take the exam, as they are both first come, first served.

    To avoid missing your chance to test on your chosen day, we highly recommend signing up early to guarantee your spot (and to eliminate the stress of not knowing whether you’ll be able to test!).

    Lastly, both the SAT and ACT have fee waivers available to eligible students. You can find the SAT eligibility here and the ACT availability here. If you think you qualify for a fee waiver or are unsure, you can connect with your school counselor to get help. Students who do qualify can get up to two fee waivers for the SAT and up to four fee waivers for the ACT.

    Changing Your Test Date

    If you no longer want to test on a certain date, you can always change your test date. However, just like late registration, this will also charge you an additional fee.

    Access the SAT registration page for more information on changing your SAT test date. The ACT test date can be changed under “Registration Changes”).

    SAT/ACT School Day

    Many states and schools across the country participate in SAT and ACT “school days,” in which students can take the test during school hours. 

    Since these are not offered by all schools, we recommend asking your school counselors whether your school offers SAT or ACT school days (some also offer one, but not the other). If you take one of the exams at school and are unsatisfied with your score, do not worry! You can still register for the exams as normal and take them again.

    With that, we’re done! We hope you’ve learned all you need to know about taking the SAT and ACT (and choosing when to take them), and that you’ll be prepared for your tests!  Good luck!

    Frequently Asked Questions about when to take the SAT or ACT

    Can 10th graders take the SAT/ACT?

    Yes! Anyone can take the SAT or ACT. However, since the test plays an important role in college admissions and placement, we recommend waiting until you have sufficient practice before taking them. Keep in mind, though, that if you are 12 years old or younger, the test registration processes are a little different. More specific information about the SAT for younger students is also available.

    Is the ACT or SAT harder?

    Neither the ACT or the SAT is necessarily “harder” than the other, but certain students may perform better on one than the other, as the exams are unique and test slightly different subjects. While the SAT has Reading, Writing, and Math sections, the ACT includes English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning sections. Before choosing which exam to take, we highly recommend further researching each test (and even maybe taking some practice exams!) to see which you prefer. For more information, read ACT vs. SAT: How to decide which test to take.

    Can I take the SAT or ACT after high school?

    Yes, you can still take these tests after high school if needed for college admissions or scholarship applications, but it’s less common.

    Can I cancel or change my test date after registration?

    You can change your test date or test center for a fee. Cancellation policies and fees vary, so check with the testing agency for specific details.

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