When to Start Prepping for the SAT & ACT
When Should You Start Prepping?
If you show me two students, and I have to guess which one got better SAT and ACT scores, I only need to ask one question: when did they start studying?
Of all the things you can do to improve your child’s SAT and ACT scores, starting early is the easiest, most effective, and least costly. Many parents are under the (very) mistaken assumption that they should wait until their child’s junior (or, god forbid, senior) year to start prepping. The reasoning behind this is horrendously flawed: parents and students are told that the SAT and ACT are reflections of the work they do in school, and that by delaying their prep, they’ll pick up more essential mater. This is TOTALLY FALSE.
I’ve worked with hundreds of students one-on-one, and thousands more through my online programs. I’ve crunched the data, and I have seen zero difference between the scores and capabilities of FRESHMAN vs. SENIORS, or any grade distinction therein. Once your child is in high school, he or she has all the gray matter necessary to get a high score. This has nothing to do with “mental maturity and everything to do with consistent practice.
But what about all the subjects that my child hasn’t learned yet!? True: the SAT and ACT test a few concepts that your child probably hasn’t seen yet. But there are two important things to understand:
1. This stuff doesn’t take months or years to learn – it takes HOURS to learn! If your child hasn’t taken pre-calc yet, he or she won’t know how to use SohCahToa, a concept required by both tests’ math sections. But guess what? I have successfully taught students to use this concept in fifteen minutes. And with a bit of independent practice, they’re off to the races. This is not rocket science, and students shouldn’t sit around waiting for an entire term’s worth of math to get the 15 minutes’ worth of knowledge necessary to get perfect SAT and ACT scores.
2. For every new fact they’ll learn by waiting, they’ll FORGET two more! The vast majority of the material tested by these exams is taught to your child before high school!. If I had a dollar for every time I had to remind a student how to use fractions, or remainders, or how a comma worked, I’d be a billionaire. Most of the stuff on these tests is covered in middle school and grade school, and my older students are often the MOST disadvantaged!
The entire reasoning behind the classic “test prep delay” is total bologna!
The most informed, stress-free parents always begin this process as soon as they can. A few reasons why I encourage you to begin your child on the test prep process as early as your freshman year (and if that ship has sailed, to start that process at this exact moment):
Consistency and Long-Term Prep Are the Two Keys to Score Improvements
You cannot cram for the SAT and the ACT. These exams test enormous quantities of material, process, and strategy. Learning to master these exams requires one essential ingredient: time. To consistently and effectively perform the sequences required by these exams requires a significant alteration in a student’s neural circuitry – a process that simply can’t happen without enough time on your side.
Studying for the SAT and ACT shouldn’t be an all-day affair. In fact, the polar opposite is true. In a perfect world, your child would spend no more than 45 minutes/day prepping for these tests – but he’d engage in this consistent practice for months. Much like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes, studying for the SAT shouldn’t be a major obligation or time sink – instead, it should just be something you spend a bit of time on each day – a healthy, productive habit that you work into the fabric of your everyday schedule.
Have you ever lived abroad, and become almost fluent in a language in a matter of weeks? The reason is simple: you use that language every single day. The same goes for any discipline: if you want to get good at something, engage in it on a daily basis. If you give your child a long runway, and allow him to consistently pick up the material, strategic, and process-based knowledge that these exams require, you’re allowing the well-established tenets of education and neurochemistry to take place.
Aside from the extremely obvious fact that consistent, long-term studying is the best way to learn, there’s another beautiful side effect of starting early:
Starting Early Eliminates Stress
Show me a student in his senior fall who still hasn’t taken the SAT, and I’ll show you a very stressed out person. Deadlines = stress. Eliminate deadlines and arbitrary “make or break moments” from your child’s college application process, and you’ve completely eliminated 90% of the stress inherent in this process.
When my students start studying their freshman or sophomore years, stress almost never enters the equation. If it’s the fall of their sophomore year, what’s the worry? They can prep for months, a little bit at a time, and if they’re ready by January – great! If not, so what? Keep putting in the daily effort, and eventually, they’ll be good to go – with plenty of time to spare.
When my students start studying in their junior spring, it’s a very different story. What if you don’t hit the mark on your June exam? Well…you have a summer to prepare, and if you don’t knock the tests out in the fall, there goes your opportunity.
Additionally, having a long runway eliminates the “doom and gloom” of the actual test day itself. If you have two more years to prep, who cares if you have a bad day? We’ll cover this more in my guide to eliminating testing anxiety, but for now, just know that you’ll have a much happier time as a parent if you get started on this process as soon as you can.
So you know that long-term prep works better, and that it’s easier on the old adrenal gland, but it gets even better:
You’ll Have More Backup Tests (and you can make room for Subject Tests, APs, etc.)
I always recommend that my students take the SAT or the ACT twice. When you allow yourself time for a backup test, you allow for statistical variance (no student ever scores the same exact score on two tests – one will always be better than the other), you make way for “bad days” (sometimes you wake up on the wrong side of the bed), and you eliminate the devastating possibility of unforeseen events (I once had a student who got a concussion the day before his ACT – it didn’t turn out well).
Taking a backup test is always smart. If you get the score you’re looking for on the first attempt, hooray! You can just cancel the backup and be on your way. However, if you don’t get the score you’re looking for on your first try, it won’t be a big deal – you can just pop back in and take it again. But if you’re not giving yourself enough time, and if you’re not planning far enough in advance, you either won’t have the time for a backup, or you won’t be shooting for the right “cluster” of tests (we’ll discuss this in more depth later, and you can learn all about SAT and ACT test dates here).
But it gets even better. You also need to keep your other testing obligations in mind. You have SAT Subject Tests, APs, and major academic exams. If you plan far enough in advance, you won’t need to worry – you can slot these tests into their appropriate calendar dates, then take the SAT or ACT whenever it suits you best. However, if you leave all of this until the last minute, you might be dealing with a total nightmare. I’ve had stellar students who waited too long and couldn’t take their Subject Tests because they didn’t have the time to study for both those and their SAT 1 or ACT. These were students who should have had incredible applications, yet were utterly hamstrung by a simple lack of planning.
If you’re not convinced yet, there’s one more major reason why you should consider starting your SAT and ACT prep today:
Schoolwork is Irrelevant to the SAT and ACT, BUT…the Sooner You Get These Tests Out of the Way, the Better Your Child Will Do On His Schoolwork.
If there’s one reservation I usually hear about starting SAT/ACT prep sooner rather than later, it’s this:
My child hasn’t taken [algebra / trigonometry / sophomore English / etc. etc. etc.] yet – won’t that put him at a disadvantage?
At first, this reservation makes a lot of sense. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if your child had another year of algebra and high school grammar under his belt before tackling these exams?
In reality, the opposite is true. As we’ve already discussed:
- Most of the material required by these exams takes minutes, not years, to learn. For instance, most schools spend weeks or months teaching students the pythagorean theorem – yet a good SAT or ACT prep program can teach students this material in a matter of minutes. Why wait an entire year to begin this process when your child can learn all the material he’s “waiting for” in a couple of days?
- A lot of the material required by these tests is covered in grade school and middle school, meaning that every day you wait is another day for this information to atrophy. For example, the SAT and ACT cover remainders and fractions quite extensively – two subjects that most students stop studying after 5th grade. The longer you wait to prep, the more of this information your child will need to recover.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY, by learning this information for the purposes of these exams, your child will also be able to apply it back to his or her schoolwork. If your child improves his algebra and geometry skills while he’s studying, he’ll end up with better grades in math. If she improves her grammar, she’ll end up getting better English grades. That’s what we like to call a win-win scenario.
- Finally, you will be done with this process sooner, and your child will be able to put his full focus back on his schoolwork and extracurriculars. Remember: junior year is usually seen as the most important academic year. If you’re studying for the SAT and ACT during this time, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. Instead, knock these tests out, get them done with, and then move on to greener pastures.
Hopefully, you’re convinced!
If there’s a single lesson that I hope you take from this guide, it’s that the students who start earliest have an easier, more successful, and much less stressful test prep journey. Feel free to check my online prep programs if you want to kickstart this process. They’re delivering an average score improvement of over 345 points on the SAT and 4.66 points on the ACT, and you can use them on your schedule so that you can weave them seamlessly into your child’s other obligations.
But no matter how you choose to prep, start prepping! It’s THE fundamental difference between the winners and the losers in the test prep process.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s focus on the next most fundamental block of your child’s test prep: motivation.