Creating a College Exam Test Taking Plan

When should a student take the PSAT and SAT tests?

Creating a Test Taking Plan

Most college admissions officers will tell you that from spring of junior year through the fall of senior year students should be focusing all their attention on college. This means that students should start thinking about where they would like to apply and start making the all-important college visits. One important component of an overall solid college admissions plan is having a solid test plan. Two key questions will need to be answered in order to develop the plan: Which tests should I take and when do I take them?

Most colleges require either the SAT or the ACT (although there is a growing number of colleges that no longer require standardized tests, see our resources page for a link to a list of these colleges). Then, depending on the colleges where a student is applying, it may be necessary to also take the SAT II. Two or three SAT II’s (it varies depending on the school) are required at most competitive colleges, such as Ivy League schools, Trinity, Connecticut College, Wesleyan, Tufts, MIT, and a number of other competitive institutions. Parents may know the SAT II as the old Achievement tests. The SAT II’s test your knowledge in a specific subject. Each test is 60-minutes, and you can take up to three tests in one sitting. You can take the SAT II in a variety of subject areas, such as Math I or II, English Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Foreign Languages, U.S. History, or World History. Since they test your knowledge in a specific subject it is best to take these tests at the end of the year when the student is actually enrolled in that subject, as all the knowledge will be fresh in the student’s mind. For most students this means that they should take the SAT II in June. However, if a student is enrolled in AP courses and has to take the AP exams, then she may consider taking the SAT II’s in May. That will be the same week as the AP exams, but all the information will be fresh in her head and the SAT II’s are actually easier than the AP exams.

Many students do not feel that the SAT score is indicative of their true academic ability. There are still several options for these students. One option that has been growing in popularity is taking the ACT. All colleges in the country with the exception of one will accept the ACT in place of the SAT. In addition, many of the competitive schools that require the SAT plus two or three SAT II’s will accept the ACT in place of all of those exams. There are several key differences between the SAT and the ACT. First, the ACT is more of a knowledge based test rather than a reasoning or aptitude test. On the ACT you do not get any points off for getting a question wrong, so it is to the student’s benefit to answer all of the questions. There is a science reasoning section on the ACT. The essay on the ACT is the last section and it is optional. Warning, however, most colleges want you to write the essay, even though they won’t be reading it. They don’t want you to use the ACT to get out of writing the SAT essay. Many students, especially female students, will perform better on the ACT than on the SAT. We recommend students to take a practice test and score the test. Then, convert it back to an SAT score, since most colleges on the east coast will convert the ACT back to an SAT score and treat it like an SAT.

PSAT test:

  • Often taken in spring of sophomore year, and/or in the fall of junior year.
  • PSAT scores do NOT go to colleges, but are used in determining whether or not a student is eligible for a National Merit Scholarship.

SAT test:

  • Taken in the student’s junior and senior years.
  • We recommend the student take it at least once (twice is even better) in the winter/spring of their junior year (tests are in January, March, May and June), and can take it again in the fall of senior year (Oct and Nov).
  • We recommend a student take it twice in the spring if he is prepared because the fall gets hectic with college applications.
  • You should take the SAT no more than three times. All scores will be sent to the schools where a student applies.

SAT II tests:

  • Also known as subject tests, these are required for many of the more competitive schools.
  • You can find out if a school requires the subject tests by checking the admissions requirement on their website or calling the school. Usually a more competitive school will require 2 or 3 subject tests.
  • Students should take these in June of their junior year, or while the student is enrolled in the subject of the test he plans to take (ie. Biology, Chemistry, French, etc.).

ACT test:

  • Generally the ACT follows a similar schedule to the SAT in that students will take the ACT in their junior year.
  • Often students will take the ACT and SAT in the same season but different months to see which they score better on, but some students will take the ACT after they have received a score on the SAT they were unhappy with.
  • ACT scores don’t automatically go to schools so there is no harm in trying the ACT. It is usually not worth it for students to take the ACT more than twice.

Things to Consider When Deciding Which Tests To Take

  • Does your school require SAT IIs?
  • Would your school take the ACT in lieu of both the SAT I and SAT IIs?
  • Are you applying early to any schools?
  • Have you taken the SAT and are unhappy with your score?
  • Have you studied for the SAT and your scores won’t improve?

James Maroney, the author of this article, is the founder of First Choice College Placement, an educational consulting firm located in Milford, Connecticut. He has been working with students and families for over 10 years helping them find, apply to, and finance the college of their dreams. He is also the publisher of, a website that helps students locate college-based scholarships,, a website that focuses on the college admission essay or personal statement.

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