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SAT and ACT Planning Strategy: Winter 2020

By November 26, 2019July 10th, 2024ACT, PSAT, SAT

Winter break is the time to get serious about college admission testing. From here, your actions and attitudes—two variables you can control—will have the greatest impact on your testing outcomes. Every year, our most successful students are those who are organized and informed. They have mapped out a thoughtful, strategic, manageable, and appropriate course of action. They remain focused, resilient, and sensible. And they invariably conclude this process with highly satisfying results.

Although sophomores have more time for planning, they will find it useful to draft a preliminary schedule and update it as circumstances change. Below are examples of pathways for the classes of 2021 and 2022.

Your pathway may be different. Regardless, you can start by tackling these 4 important questions now:

1. Have you researched colleges’ testing requirements and policies?

As you explore specific colleges, you must learn their admission policies. Even before finalizing a list of target schools, you should familiarize yourself with the range of testing-related policies that vary by college and that will impact your testing strategy.

For starters, every college will accept the SAT and ACT interchangeably (although some don’t even require either in the first place). But that’s about the only consistency across the confusing range of college testing policies you’ll encounter as you delve further…

Subject Tests [Read Policies Here]

Though only a handful of colleges still require Subject Tests in addition to the SAT or ACT, dozens more recommend or consider Subject Tests. A few will accept the ACT in lieu of the SAT/Subject Test combination, and some others will even accept Subject Tests in lieu of the SAT or ACT. If Subject Test colleges are in play for you, you should allocate a spring test date to complete those. May 2nd and June 6th are sensible options because year-long coursework will be nearly completed, and preparation for AP and/or final exams will begin. Subject Tests are offered only on dates that conflict with the SAT, so calendaring is an important exercise to begin now.

SAT Essay/ACT Writing [Read Policies Here]

Very few colleges still require the so-called “optional” essay that comes at the end of both the SAT and ACT. However, the presence of the UCs on that list drives many students’ decisions to take the essay. Another group of big and small colleges—like Chapman, Duke, Stony Brook University, and Stanford—“recommend” that you opt-in to the essay. While not required, it’s expected.

The essay policy is one of many test-related issues that varies by college. Schools with similar testing policies are not necessarily otherwise similar, leaving students unsure how to proceed. We strongly urge all of our students to complete the essay; it will have no impact at colleges that don’t consider it, but failing to complete the essay will disqualify the entire test sitting at colleges that do require it. Even colleges that superscore—combining section scores from multiple test dates—typically don’t consider any part of a test result that does not include the essay.

Score Choice and Superscoring [Read Policies Here]

College Board and ACT have “Score Choice” policies that give students some control over how scores are reported, but colleges have the final word on what should be submitted and how those submitted scores get used. It would be great to know the score-reporting policy of every college you’re considering, but your list may not be formed yet. We therefore advise our students to craft a strategic testing plan that removes score choice. If you assume you’ll send all scores to all schools, you will more carefully consider the timing, frequency, and level of readiness for your official sittings. Although colleges can’t access your scores until you provide them, you’ll be expected to follow each college’s testing policies.

Colleges routinely see 2 to 3 sets of scores of a given test from an individual applicant, so it’s perfectly reasonable (and in most cases smart) to re-test…within reason. Taking an official test too early or too often is unwise and inefficient. If it’s mostly practice and diagnostic feedback you’re after, that can be accomplished conveniently via proctored practice testing. Compass provides options for proctored testing both in-person and online.

Colleges that ask for all scores do so in part for the benefit of all applicants. A complete set of scores allows colleges to see what they want to see across a broader data set. Some admission offices, for example, will create superscores by combining highest section scores from multiple sittings. They don’t want a student to inadvertently neglect to send a high section score. A superscored set of test scores looks like this:

Test Optional [Read Policies Here]

Going test optional is a decision best made at the application stage rather than during the testing process. Your SAT, ACT, and Subject Test scores may or may not put you in a favorable light, but you won’t know that until after you have completed your testing. Despite the significant number of colleges that have gone test optional, students should not limit their choices before the application process even begins.

Self-Reported Scores [View List Here]

Among the many expenses that add up in the college admission process are application fees, test registration fees, and official score report fees. Many students are eligible to have these fees waived, but other students who don’t qualify for waivers may still find the costs to be a burden. A typical scenario might involve a student taking both the SAT and ACT once or twice, applying to 8–10 colleges, and spending a few hundred dollars simply to have official score reports sent to each college.

Colleges in the list we maintain have stipulated that students may self-report their test scores in their applications and submit official scores only once students have accepted offers of admission.

Test Scores for Target Colleges [See Score Ranges Here]

You may have a fully-formed list of colleges, or you may still be a year away from formulating a plan. In either case, knowing the typical scores of enrolled students can give you a better sense of what needs to be accomplished and how you might refine your target colleges. Keep in mind that at this point in the process, you likely have room to significantly improve your scores. Sophomores, in particular, are still building important academic and test-related skills.

2. Have you mapped out a strategic testing plan for the months ahead?

With this contextual understanding, you are now poised to tailor an individualized testing plan that suits your schedule and serves your needs. Get out your calendar and familiarize yourself with the 2020 slate of official test dates below.

Test DateTestRegistrationLate RegistrationMultiple Choice Scores Available
February 8, 2020ACT January 10, 2020January 17, 2020February 25–
April 3, 2020
March 14, 2020SATFebruary 14, 2020March 3, 2020March 27–April 2, 2020
April 4, 2020ACTFebruary 28, 2020March 13, 2020April 14–May 29, 2020
May 2, 2020SAT & Subject TestsApril 3, 2020April 21, 2020May 15–21, 2020
June 6, 2020SAT & Subject TestsMay 8, 2020May 27, 2020July 15, 2020
June 13, 2020ACTMay 8, 2020May 22, 2020June 23–August 7, 2020
July 18, 2020ACT (Not Offered in NY)June 19, 2020June 26, 2020July 28–August 31, 2020
August 29, 2020SAT & Subject TestsJuly 29, 2020*August 13, 2020*September 22, 2020*
September 12, 2020*ACTAugust 7, 2020*August 21, 2020*September 22–October 6, 2020*
October 3, 2020SAT & Subject TestsSeptember 3, 2020*September 20, 2020*October 16–22, 2020*
October 24, 2020*ACTSeptember 20, 2020*October 4, 2020*November 3–November 17, 2020*
November 7, 2020SAT & Subject TestsOctober 7, 2020*October 25, 2020*November 20–26, 2020*
December 5, 2020SAT & Subject TestsNovember 5, 2020*November 23, 2020*December 18–24, 2020*
December 12, 2020*ACTNovember 6, 2020*November 20, 2020*December 22, 2020– January 5, 2021*

Dates marked with an asterisk (*) are anticipated and not yet official.

Count the number of weeks (and conflicts) you have leading up to different test dates. Test date selection should be based on academic readiness, test preference, desired preparation timelines, date conflicts, and application deadlines. There’s no such thing as predictably “easier” or “harder” test dates.

We generally advise our students to complete at least one SAT and/or ACT before the end of junior year and to remain open to at least one re-take in the early fall of senior year. The temptation to “get testing out of the way early” is understandable but often unwise. We often see peak results occur in late summer or fall of senior year as the combined forces of maturity, experience, and summer refresher prep give a difference-making lift. Nationally, roughly two-thirds of college applicants take their final admission test in the summer prior to senior year or in the early fall of 12th grade.

In addition to at least one SAT and/or ACT in the spring, juniors are strongly urged to consider Subject Tests while the material is fresh. Students taking an AP, Honors, or advanced course in a given subject are especially good candidates for a corresponding Subject Test. Practice testing is available from Compass for students trying to choose among subjects.

Choosing Between SAT and ACT [Read More Here]

And although no college asks students to take both the SAT and ACT (or credits them per se for doing so), many students end up taking both. We prefer to see a student focus on one test, or at least one test at a time. A careful analysis of the PSAT and a practice ACT might yield a clear recommendation, or the decision to focus on one test or the other could be more of a judgment call. Preparing for one test for a few months prior to a scheduled test date is typically a sensible approach, and that preparation will pay at least some dividends on the other test if a student decides to switch gears or cover both bases in the future. This has become even more true since the overhaul of the SAT in 2016, resulting in an SAT and ACT that are more similar than ever before. The July ACT and August SAT dates are a big positive for juniors planning ongoing work over the summer.

Finishing Strong this Summer

By June, you’ll be a rising senior. Your three-year cumulative GPA will be set, and you’ll have a first set of test scores in hand. You’ll also likely have a more refined college list. It’ll be a time of reckoning. What more you should do from there will be self-evident. You may further refine or expand your list, and you may decide to test again in the summer or fall. The early ACT test dates of the season are July 13th and September 12th, and the first SAT dates are August 29th and October 3rd. All four dates are generally safe options for early decision/early action deadlines, although the October SAT may be too late for the earliest deadlines. While some ED/EA deadlines still accommodate the late October ACT date and early November SAT date, scoring delays can create headaches. It’s best to reserve these later fall test dates for regular decision applications.

3. Have you created a College Board and/or ACT account and registered for upcoming tests?

Some students make elaborate testing plans and then neglect the critical mechanics. Assuming you took the PSAT, you’ve most likely already set up a College Board account, which allows you to register for the SAT and Subject Tests, access your results, and submit scores to colleges next fall. A separate ACT account is required to manage your ACT testing. Registering early increases your chances of reserving a seat at your first-choice venue. Tests are not offered at every high school, so it’s likely you’ll need to travel to another school in your region. Make sure to opt-in for the essay during registration and take note of what’s required (and forbidden) on test day. If you require special testing accommodations, be sure to have those approvals in place.

For more information on accommodations, see our most recent post on SAT and ACT accommodations. The testing organizations have crucial differences in their policies.

You can find more registration details, including costs, on our “SAT and ACT Testing Dates” post.

4. Do you have a test preparation and practice test plan in place?

Most of Compass’s students spend 3 to 4 months preparing for the SAT or ACT (and some then continue with 3 to 4 weeks of Subject Test preparation). Compressed programs can be accomplished, but they should never be the default choice. Juniors who are just starting now are likely targeting either the April ACT or the May SAT. For sophomores, spring months are an excellent time to plan a practice ACT. Combined with PSAT scores (or a practice SAT), the results provide early guidance for students looking to begin preparation over the summer.

Each student typically meets in-home or online individually with his or her tutor once or twice a week for 90 minutes. The sessions are instructive, strategic, and interactive. As they clean up content gaps that are identified by diagnostic tests, our students also gain critical insight into subtle test traits and their own blind spot tendencies. Students develop control of the test, the clock, and their own testing habits. They grow to anticipate what’s coming next and maintain a rhythm and efficiency that allows them to focus on accuracy while finishing every section on time.

Each week, our tutors also assign several homework sets, which provide necessary exposure to the content and important fodder for ongoing error analysis. And in the 3 to 4 months leading up to an official test date, our students complete a proctored practice exam about once a month. Unlike official exams, these practice tests are scored promptly, kept off-the-record, and provide completely transparent diagnostic analysis.

But even without a Compass tutor, all students can successfully prepare for these high stakes exams by employing the same best practices. All good test preparation should involve a regular, persistent commitment to evaluated practice over a reasonable amount of time, exposure to authentic testing practice material, and a few dry runs on full-length exams. Both ACT and College Board offer free or low-cost access to excellent practice material.

We’re happy to provide proctored practice tests and personal consultations for families at any stage of the college admission testing process. Our program directors are renowned by college counselors nationwide for their honesty, experience, professionalism, and warmth in the guidance they offer. Please feel free to contact us to see how we can help.

Bruce Reed

Bruce graduated from Colby College and has served in leadership roles in education for more than 25 years. Bruce founded our Northern California office in 2004 where he continues to serve as its hands-on leader while also guiding our national team in his broader role as Compass’ Executive Director. Bruce is recognized throughout the Bay Area and beyond as a visionary and passionate voice in the realm of teaching, testing, and educational development. His extensive experience in one-on-one test preparation, college admissions, and professional development makes him a trusted resource for parents and counselors.


  • Heidi Wright says:

    I was wondering if you have any comments on the recent article i Admissions Intel: “Georgetown dean suggests admissions advantage for students submitting the ‘new’ SAT” .

    As a long-time test prep coach who has spent a number of years convincing parents that colleges have no bias in favor of or against either the SAT or ACT, I found the revelations made in this article horrifying. For a school of the stature of Georgetown to make such a whimsical decision, without prior notice to applicants, is the height of standardized test misuse. This is particularly true (as the article points out) given that Georgetown’s Dean of Admissions, Charles Deacon, has seemingly based this decision on a faulty understanding of how the scoring on the revised SAT test works, rejecting even the College Board’s own concordance tables.

    I appreciate Compass’s sound and measured analyses of various aspects of test prep industry and look forward to any comments you may have on this recent disclosure.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      As you might imagine, this has been a topic of some interest around the Compass water cooler. There has also been extensive discussion and debate on the college counseling forums. I’ve posted my own thoughts here. Bruce’s take might be different, although I think we share your incredulity. I bounce between feeling that it probably had a limited real world impact on applicants (Georgetown finds the students that Georgetown is going to find) and being aghast that the messaging could be so tone deaf. I try to remind myself that Dean Deacon was being quoted in the student newspaper for what is usually an annual puff piece and was not necessarily thinking through the implications of his reasoning. I’ll leave it to you to decide if my own piece is either sound or measured.

  • Cesar says:

    Can the SAT Essay be super-scored, i.e. for colleges accepting super-scoring, may I choose what Essay score to submit to them?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      What you are describing sounds more like Score Choice than superscoring. Superscoring is done by colleges when they receive multiple test dates. Some colleges will use your best Essay scores when you submit more than one date. There is no ability to send only an Essay scores in the same way that there is no ability to send only a Math score.

  • John says:

    This article is excellent! Is there any chance that it can be updated for Winter 2020? Thank you.

    • Margaux Erilane says:

      Hi John,

      Thank you for checking out the piece! We have just updated it for 2020. Please reach out to us if you have any questions about test preparation planning.

  • John says:

    This is such a great resource. Thank you.

    I am curious if you plan to offer an addendum or a “Class of 2021 supplement,” considering testing opportunities for this class will probably be limited. Those of us working in high school always appreciate your thinking on these matters.

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