Build Your Optimal SAT or ACT Timeline

Now that school is back in session, it’s time to consider how testing will figure into students’ busy academic and extracurricular schedules. In this post, I will outline Compass’ most popular timelines for preparation and official test administrations.

A Note about Premature Prep and Testing

Most testing-related activities, including consultations with our directors, practice testing, and tutoring do not occur before the summer between 10th and 11th grade. This is because students do not receive the full benefit of academic and emotional maturation until later in high school, which can have a significant impact on test scores. Consequently, Compass families orient themselves toward official test dates in 11th grade or fall of senior year and avoid preparation during freshman or sophomore year.  

Regardless of where you are in your testing trajectory, this post will help you make essential decisions regarding the timing of prep and official test dates.

Step 1: Decide SAT or ACT in Spring of 10th Grade

Compass is invited to speak at nearly 200 elite high schools across the country about college admission testing. At a majority of these schools, we give presentations to audiences of 10th grade families in the late spring, April through June. This timing is poignant, because students have two data points that allow them to make the SAT or ACT decision: the results of an ACT practice test administered at school* and the results of the 10th grade PSAT. Using a concordance table of PSAT and ACT scores, students can see if their results favor one exam or the other. If their results demonstrate a strong preference toward one exam, students will focus on that exam in their forthcoming preparation. If the concordance shows that the PSAT and ACT results are equivalent, students can usually rely on their subjective appraisals of the exams (i.e. Which exam did I like better?) to pick a winner.

*Note: If you or your student does not have the opportunity to take a mock ACT at school, we offer complimentary proctored practice tests in-person in California and online proctoring to students worldwide.

Step 2: Determine Where You Stand among Test-Takers

Based on the results of the 10th grade PSAT and mock ACT, students can place themselves in one of three groupings. These groupings are represented visually below:

The red grouping represents mid-scoring students with PSAT and ACT practice test results that are attained by 1 in 2 juniors on official test dates. Most students fall into this grouping and typically take official tests in both junior and senior year before hitting their personal bests.

The blue grouping represents soft-scoring students with PSAT and ACT practice test results that are attained by 1 in 3 juniors on official test dates. These students tend to hit their testing peaks later in high school, often not until fall of senior year.

The green grouping represents high-scoring students with PSAT and ACT practice test results that are attained by 1 in 6 juniors on official test dates. As we’ll explore in a moment, this group may be able to complete the testing gamut before the conclusion of junior year, often before their peers in the aforementioned groupings.

If you or your student are unclear about which grouping you fall into or have more nuanced questions about your student’s current test results, please don’t hesitate to contact a Compass director.  

Step 3: Choose Your Optimal Testing Timeline

Click one of the three timelines below that corresponds with your grouping:

(RED) THE TRADITIONAL TESTING TIMELINE

The Traditional Testing Timeline

The most common timeline among Compass students is represented by the red grouping, also known as the traditional testing timeline. I have included a visual representation of what this pathway looks like from beginning to end, including potential preparation start dates and official SAT and ACT administrations:

Pre-Preparation Activities

Students in this grouping typically engage with a Compass director in the late spring of sophomore year after seeing one of our on-campus presentations. Although tutoring may not begin until the end of summer between 10th and 11th grade, families should build in a 1-month window for all the pre-preparation activities that lead to a successful program, including: thoroughly reviewing practice test results with a director, selecting the timing of a first and second official SAT or ACT, determining a student’s availability for tutoring in the summer and forthcoming school year, identifying the traits of an ideal tutor that match the learning profile of the student, etc.

Once pre-preparation has concluded, students should have a firm grasp of their testing schedule and a sense of the duration and frequency of tutoring. Although the window of prep can be condensed or expanded based on a student’s availability, the bulk of tutoring begins about four months prior to the first targeted exam date.

Summer Preparation

Quite frequently, students in the traditional timeline like to get a “head start” on test prep in the summer before 11th grade. Without the burden of schoolwork and afterschool activities, many of these students meet with Compass tutors to polish their testing foundations: reviewing academic concepts central to the SAT or ACT, exploring the question types unique to these exams, and practicing test-taking strategies and pacing that will be cemented during future lessons.

Late summer preparation in the traditional timeline is slow and piecemeal initially but gathers speed and regularity in the four months preceding the first targeted exam date.

First Sitting

SAT students in the traditional timeline will often take their first SAT in March of 11th grade. They will begin preparation in earnest in late October or early November, meeting with their tutors once or twice per week and taking 2-3 full-length SAT practice tests to gauge progress. If practice test results reveal a steady, significant improvement, students can confidently sit for the March SAT. If scores are not moving enough and more preparation and time are warranted, the first official sitting can be pushed to the May or June administrations.

ACT students in the traditional timeline will often take their first ACT in February of 11th grade and will begin preparation in early October, meeting with their tutors once or twice per week and taking 2-3 full-length ACT practice tests to monitor progress. If practice tests indicate a meaningful increase in scores, students can confidently sit for the February ACT. If the needle isn’t moving enough and more tutoring is desired, the first official sitting can be tabled until the April, June, or July administrations.

Second Sitting

SAT students in this timeline typically complete a second official test in August between 11th and 12th grade. If practice results are deflated relative to students’ expectations, they may delay their second attempts until October of senior year. Most students in the traditional timeline round out their SAT testing portfolios by October, but occasionally there are some students who sit for a *November or December SAT.

ACT students in this timeline typically complete a second official ACT in September of 12th grade. If practice test results are not up to snuff, students may postpone their second attempts until October of senior year. Most students in the traditional timeline finish their last ACT in October, but a minority of students may take a *December ACT.

*In order to meet Early Action or Early Decision deadlines, students cannot take an official test after November of senior year. Occasionally there are exceptions, and some colleges will consider test scores from the December administrations of the SAT and ACT.

(BLUE) THE DEFERRED TESTING TIMELINE

The Deferred Testing Timeline

The deferred testing timeline is represented by the blue grouping. Because 10th grade PSAT results and mock ACT scores are weaker among this group of students, most formal preparation and official test dates are postponed until a student has matured academically. I have included a visual representation of what this pathway looks like from beginning to end, including potential preparation start dates and official SAT and ACT administrations:

Pre-Preparation Activities

Students in this timeline typically engage with a Compass director in the late spring of sophomore year after seeing one of our on-campus presentations. Although prep for most students won’t start until the fall of 11th grade, families should set aside a 1-month window for all pre-preparation activities that lead to a successful program. These activities include a thorough review of practice test results with a director, selection of dates for a first and second official SAT or ACT, determination of students’ availability for tutoring in the forthcoming school year, and the identification of ideal tutors that match students’ learning profiles.

Once pre-preparation has concluded, students should have a firm grasp of their testing schedule and a sense of the duration and frequency of eventual tutoring. Although the window of prep can be condensed or expanded to fit a student’s needs, most tutoring begins four months prior to the first targeted exam date in spring of 11th grade.

Summer Preparation

Quite frequently, students in the deferred timeline like to get a “head start” on test prep in the summer before 11th grade. Without the burden of schoolwork and afterschool activities, many of these students meet with Compass tutors to polish their testing foundations: reviewing academic concepts central to the SAT or ACT, exploring the question types unique to these exams, and practicing test-taking strategies and pacing that will be cemented during future lessons. This is especially useful for students who have gaps in math knowledge or weak reading comprehension skills.  

Late summer preparation in the deferred timeline is slow and piecemeal initially but gathers speed and regularity in the four months preceding the first targeted exam date.

First Sitting

SAT students in the deferred timeline will often take their first SAT in May of 11th grade. They will begin preparation in earnest during Winter Break (December or January), meeting with their tutors once or twice per week and taking 2-3 full-length SAT practice tests to gauge progress. If practice test results reveal a steady, significant improvement, students can confidently sit for the May SAT. If scores are not moving enough and more preparation and time are warranted, the first official sitting can be pushed to the June SAT.

ACT students in the deferred timeline will often take their first ACT in June of 11th grade and will begin preparation in January, meeting with their tutors once or twice per week and taking 2-3 full-length ACT practice tests to monitor progress. If practice tests indicate a meaningful increase in scores, students can confidently sit for the June ACT. If the needle isn’t moving enough and more tutoring is desired, the first official sitting can be tabled until July.

Second Sitting

SAT students in this timeline typically complete a second official test in August between 11th and 12th grade. If practice tests are deflated relative to students’ expectations, they may delay their second attempts until October or November of senior year. Most students in the deferred timeline round out their SAT testing portfolios by November, but occasionally there are some who sit for a *December SAT.

ACT students in this timeline typically complete a second official ACT in September of 12th grade. If practice test results are not up to snuff, students may postpone their second attempts until October of senior year. Most students in the deferred testing timeline finish their last ACT in October, but a minority of students may take a *December ACT.

*In order to meet Early Action or Early Decision deadlines, students cannot take an official test after November of senior year. Occasionally there are exceptions, and some colleges will consider test scores from the December administrations of the SAT and ACT.  

(GREEN) THE ACCELERATED TESTING TIMELINE

The Accelerated Testing Timeline

The most common timeline among Compass’ highest scoring students – especially National Merit Semifinalists – is known as the accelerated testing timeline. Because 10th grade PSAT results and mock ACT scores are exceptionally high, preparation begins long before 11th grade and may involve preparation for the PSAT in hopes of achieving National Merit. Students in this timeline aim to be done with all formal testing by spring of junior year. I have included a visual representation of what this timeline looks like from beginning to end, including potential preparation start dates and official SAT and ACT administrations:

Pre-Preparation Activities

Students in this group typically engage with a Compass director in the late spring of sophomore year after seeing one of our on-campus presentations. Their high test scores reveal a penchant for standardized testing and the opportunity to “run the testing gauntlet” before their peers in the traditional and deferred timelines. Consequently, serious preparation may begin as early as June between 10th and 11th grade. With the prospect of tutoring in the immediate future, families should contact a Compass director to accomplish all necessary pre-preparation, including: thoroughly reviewing practice test results with a director, selecting the timing of a first and second official SAT or ACT, determining a student’s availability for tutoring in the summer and forthcoming school year, and identifying the traits of an ideal tutor that match the learning profile of the student. Pre-preparation usually takes a month to complete.

Once pre-preparation has concluded, students should have a firm grasp of their testing schedule and a sense of the duration and frequency of tutoring. Although the window of prep can be condensed or expanded to fit a student’s needs, the bulk of tutoring begins four months prior to the first targeted exam date.

Summer Preparation

Students in the accelerated timeline are unique in comparison to typical and deferred students, because summer preparation is essential rather than optional. For one, many students in this group are hoping to become National Merit Semifinalists, achieving near-perfect scores on the 11th grade PSAT. This is no easy task, and often requires concentrated work with a tutor who can fine-tune the habits of high-scoring students. Simultaneously, the majority of accelerated students would like to post a competitive score on a full-length SAT or ACT in the fall, which will involve a healthy round of tutoring and multiple practice tests.

First Sitting

SAT students in the accelerated timeline will often take their first SAT in November of 11th grade. They will begin preparation in earnest the summer months, meeting with their tutors once or twice per week and taking 2-3 full-length SAT practice tests to gauge progress. If practice test results reveal a steady, significant improvement, the student can confidently sit for the November SAT. If scores are not moving enough and more preparation and time are warranted, the first official sitting can be pushed to December.

ACT students in the accelerated timeline will often take their first ACT in December of 11th grade and will begin preparation in the summer months, meeting with their tutors once or twice per week and taking 2-3 full-length ACT practice tests to monitor progress. If practice tests indicate a meaningful increase in scores, students can confidently sit for the December ACT. If the needle isn’t moving enough and more tutoring is desired, the first official sitting can be tabled until February.

Second Sitting

SAT students in this timeline typically complete a second test in March of 11th grade. If practice test results are deflated relative to students’ expectations, they may delay their second attempt until May or June. Most students in the accelerated timeline round out their SAT testing portfolios by October, but occasionally there are some who sit for a final SAT in August.

ACT students in this timeline typically take a second test in April of 11th grade. If practice test results are not up to snuff, students may postpone their second attempt until June of 11th grade. Most students in the accelerated timeline finish their last ACT in June, but occasionally there are a minority of students who take a July or September exam.

Conclusion

Although the timelines described in this post are incredibly popular among Compass families, by no means are they set in stone for all students. Apart from differences in the sequencing of test preparation and official test dates, all three timelines bear similarly helpful hallmarks: 1) a one-month pre-preparation window that allows for consultation with testing experts, discussion of students’ schedules, and the completion and review of practice testing; 2) a four-month preparation window leading to a first official SAT or ACT administration; 3) ample opportunities for re-testing in 11th and 12th grade; and 4) a general de-emphasis of premature prep or official test-taking that is not sensitive to each student’s initial performance on the 10th grade PSAT and/or practice ACT.

Should you have any questions about building your own customized testing plan, please contact a Compass director for a complimentary consultation and proctored practice tests

Matt Steiner

About Matt Steiner

Prior to joining the Compass team, Matt obtained an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a BA in Psychology from UCSC. He has over eight years of experience in the field of test preparation, working as both an instructor and an administrator for multiple tutoring firms in Los Angeles. In his role as Director of Marketing, Matt enjoys building partnerships with schools and independent professionals throughout California. He is also responsible for leading web-based initiatives that spread the word about Compass' exceptional services.

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