The Road To The SAT/ACT: Advice for 9th, 10th, and 11th Graders

road to the sat act image 1If you’re like most parents in our area, the once-far-off idea of your son or daughter heading off to college starts to come into focus as soon as your child hits high school.

Not only are classes starting to get more “college-like,” they’re actually beginning to count for something. The march towards college applications has started, and you’re starting to assemble in the back of your mind the laundry list of requirements college will need to see.

Where do they want to attend?

What do they need to do in order to get in?

When should we start thinking about the SAT or ACT?

We get these questions all the time from our tutoring and test prep clients, so we figured we’d put together some information for you on probably the most stressful aspect of that process: the SAT and ACT.

Ann (our president and founder) sat down with our Test Prep Manager Nicole for a brief chat about what the SAT/ACT preparation roadmap looks like for 9th, 10th, and 11th graders to give you their advice on how to best approach it.

You can read our entire interview, or just skip to the appropriate section using the links below.

Read our advice for 9th graders.

Read our advice for 10th graders.

Read our advice for 11th graders.

9th Grade: Early Practice Is Good Practice

Nicole: Ann, what do you recommend a ninth grader do to get ready for the SAT or ACT?

Ann: I think 9th grade is early to start preparing, considering you have plenty of time. You don’t have to stress out too much but it’s also the year things start to count. I suggest taking the PSAT if their school offers it. Not all schools offer it to 9th graders. However, if it is offered, kids should absolutely take advantage of it, although it might feel too early. It’s important to get yourself on a track for success now and that begins with lots of practice!

10th Grade: The New Junior Year For Test Prep

Nicole: What about 10th graders? What should they do?

Ann: You know it’s interesting Nicole, we’ve seen great results when kids take tests early. Twenty years ago, when I first started Educational Connection in March 1998, students almost always took the test in the spring of their junior year and the fall of their senior year. However, we’ve seen a huge shift in the last couple of years where kids are taking the tests sooner. For that reason, it’s important for kids to start with the PSAT if their school offers it in 10th grade.

Now, the PSAT is really valuable because nobody sees it. It doesn’t get sent to colleges; meaning there’s no disadvantage of taking it several times. Taking the PSAT allows parents and students to get a better understanding of how their child might score on the actual exam. Therefore, I believe taking advantage of the PSAT during the fall of the 10th grade year is helpful. I’ve also found that it’s beneficial for students that may want to take the test in their junior year to start the summer after their sophomore year.

For example, my son Will, started prepping for the PSAT during the summer, at the end of his sophomore year. In his case, prepping during the summertime was very helpful because he played a varsity sport in the fall semester and I knew that he wouldn’t have the time to prepare for the test while he was busy with sports. Therefore, Will began prepping in the summer and took the fall off. He then resumed prepping after his sport season was over.

Generally, taking the PSAT in 10th grade can be a valuable testing experience as it will tell you where you need to improve for junior year. It’s a good idea to consider summer prep before the start of junior year.

Nicole: Often, we’ve seen most students do most of their prep to take the SAT during their junior year. Today, that’s not the case. Students are taking standardized tests earlier. What would you recommend as a game plan for a junior?

Ann: Although kids are taking tests earlier, it is most common for students to take their first exam in the winter or spring of their junior year. Before, colleges wanted to see all the student’s scores, but today, that’s no longer the case. Students now have the option to choose the scores they want to send to colleges. For that reason, kids no longer feel so much pressure taking it early. Now if your child has, for example, a spring sport and wants to take it early in their junior year, they can certainly do that. However, we always recommend that before going out for the actual test, kids take a practice test. This is helpful since they are taking the practice test in an authentic test environment. Keep in mind that this practice test won’t ever be in the student’s record. Generally, taking practice tests has proven to be valuable because it is both diagnostic and predictive, as it tells you where you’re headed and what weaknesses you can turn into strengths to achieve your junior year goals.

11th Grade: It’s Crunch Time

Ann: Nicole, what should 11th graders know about the SAT or ACT?

Nicole: 11th grade is a crucial year since this is the time students register for and take their SAT/ACT tests. Most students are taking it for the first time in the winter or spring of their junior year. This will ensure more time to take the test more than once. Often, students reach their desired score prior to their senior year, after having it done two or three times.

What’s crucial to do early in the junior year is to figure out which test is best for the student. At this point, they’ve probably taken the PSAT several times. It’s also a good idea to have taken the practice ACT test during their junior year. Once the practice ACT and PSAT have been taken, we can then compare both scores and help you decide which test represents your natural strength.

Now, while it is common for students to take both tests, I have seen that taking a practice test early allows you to focus your time on the one test you’re performing better on. As you’ve previously mentioned, when taking practice tests, it is important to have a test-taking environment that is similar to the environment the student will have for their actual test. Having a proctor and other test-takers present during the practice test ensures stability. The other benefit is that students are not required to register. I believe this is a terrific way to familiarize yourself with the structure, content and process of the SAT/ACT. More importantly, I think the biggest benefit is that the score is shared with you. Kids often like this because they don’t have to worry about the score existing somewhere with the ACT or the college board. For most kids, the first time their scores are released, they often aren’t in line with what they’re expecting. This can be damaging to the student’s self-confidence if they consider it a real test.

Ann: That’s a great point Nicole. Thank you for sharing that. How many times do kids typically take the test?

Nicole: Usually two to three times. It’s nice to allow yourself room to take it three times if you need to. A common schedule that we’re seeing for a lot of kids is to take the first test in the late winter or early spring of junior year, the second test by the end of spring semester during junior year, and then finally, one in the early summer. Both the SAT and the ACT now offer summer options, as I believe it’s a great opportunity for student who need that third administration before the start of their senior year.

Ann: Let’s talk about senior year. It was very common for students to take it once during the spring semester of their junior year and then to take it again during the fall semester of their senior year. We have found that it’s no longer the case anymore. What are you seeing for kids in their senior year today?

Nicole: A lot of kids, if they start early, have the goal to get done before they’re a senior, which is fantastic. If you start early and you plan ahead, that’s a great option. That said, if you find that you still need to take it once more or that you’re not happy with your final results, you still have the fall of your senior year to do that.

It’s important to keep in mind that leading up to that test, you are studying and doing some type of prep. In this case, it would be ideal to begin during the summertime between 11th and 12th grade. Whether it’s self-study or working with a tutor, you want to make sure that you are not taking off all summer. When students leave the studying until fall time, they are more likely to see their scores drop.

Ann: I definitely understand that since they haven’t been immersed in learning and haven’t read and practiced math. Even if you’ve prepped for some time, it is not enough time to make up for, considering you are off of school.

We talked a little bit about practice tests and using them as a determinant for whether one should take the SAT or ACT, but what else can practice tests be used for?

Nicole: Practice tests are the single greatest thing you can do to help get ready for the test. With these tests, whether you go SAT or ACT, they’re a marathon. It’s not only important to know the content and the strategy, but you also need to be prepared to know how you sustain yourself throughout that long test.

When we look back and see the kids that have made the biggest improvements from their baseline score to what they actually score when they sit for their administration, we have noticed that it’s the kids that are coming to practice tests that score highly. Therefore, we encourage all of our kids to complete a practice test more than once. The more practice, the greater investment of your time.

Ann: For kids that have signed up with us and that are in a package, it’s free for them?

Nicole: Yes it is free!

Ann: For those in the community, they can come out and take a practice test anytime that we offer it as well. I highly recommend doing so as it is a super valuable tool! The content, the strategies, and the simulated practice tests are the number one way kids can boost their scores.

Well great Nicole, thank you. Is there anything else that you think might be helpful for parents to know when it comes to the timeline?

Nicole: Start early and plan ahead.

Ann: All right, thank you! Remember, start early and plan ahead!

Next Steps To Prepare for the SAT/ACT

Okay, hope that gave you a good picture of what the road ahead looks like for your child and their SAT or ACT preparation.

What’s next? Here are a few actions you can take depending on which grade your child is in currently.

If your child is in 9th grade:

  1. Have them take the PSAT if it’s offered at your school. It’s a great opportunity to get introduced to the SAT format and establish a baseline score.
  2. Register for a mock test if you’d like to get a head start on preparing. Although it’s not necessary at this stage, we have seen the earlier kids start, the more their scores improve over time.

If your child is in 10th grade:

  1. Make sure to take the PSAT. This is the year for which the PSAT is most valuable. If they took it in 9th grade, it will be a great opportunity to get another score in (that doesn’t count, so the pressure is low) and see where they stand. That will then help inform you on what the best next steps are to prepare for taking the SAT for real.
  2. Register for a mock test for both the SAT and ACT. If your child took the PSAT, this will be yet another opportunity to get practice and build their test-taking skills. We also recommend taking an ACT mock test as well, because some students perform better in that test format. We then offer free consultations to help you decide which test your child would be better off focusing on, and which areas you should direct their test preparation over the next year. Send us a message or feel free to call us at (703) 934-8282.

If your child is in 11th grade:

  1. Decide whether you will focus on the SAT or ACT. Feel free to contact us or call and we can help you determine which one would be best based on your child’s practice ACT or PSAT/practice SAT scores. Also, still feel free to register for any of the free mock tests we offer on most Saturdays.
  2. Register for your first SAT/ACT for winter or spring of their Junior year. Get a test scheduled on the books so that you have something to plan around. Taking it during this time period will also allow enough time to take the test again prior to college applications in case they need to work on their score further.
  3. Make a test prep plan and commit to some form of practice. There are plenty of independent study options out there which are helpful once you know what your child needs to work on. We also offer Test Prep Packages that guarantee improved scores, and can help accelerate your child’s progress (especially if they’re late to start). Contact us here, or call (703) 934-8282 for more information.

And best of luck!

This can be a stressful time, but if you take the appropriate steps, your child can be prepared, confident, and ready to achieve a score that will help them put their best foot forward on college applications.