Parents of high school freshmen and sophomores often ask me what their students should be doing to prepare for the big test, and when they should begin. However, like so many parts of the standardized testing process, more isn’t always better. And earlier isn’t always better, either!
Think about this: if you were training for a marathon, you’d have a training schedule. You’d schedule your road miles and rest days. You’d gradually increase the length and frequency of your long runs, extending your endurance. But despite their months of training, marathoners usually don’t run the full 26.2 miles until race day. In fact, they taper their training for several weeks beforehand to prevent burnout: they know the danger of expending so much energy in training that they’ve got nothing left when they hit the road for the real race.
Studying for the SAT and ACT is really similar. While certain students might do an intense 3-month study program, and others may need to start at the beginning of junior year, you probably don’t want to commence your test preparations too much before that. Here’s why:
1) You might peak too soon.
This peril applies especially to the ACT, since the Reading and Science sections are so based on timing. If you learn all of your grammar, math, reading, and science content and strategies, and then you master the timing, then it’s time to take the real test.
If you start freshman or sophomore year, however, you’ll peak during the fall of junior year, or even earlier. While you may think this is a fantastic idea of get your SAT or ACT out of the way, you’ll be competing with seniors who are taking the test with you for your target score. That means competing with people who have had more time to mature academically and even cognitively. Better to wait so you get all the components working in unison during the spring of your junior year, when you’ll be among the oldest students taking the test—and hopefully be the person ruining the bell curve for everyone else!
2) You'll waste the real SAT practice tests.
Unfortunately, there are currently only 6 real College Board practice tests available to students prepping for the SAT. (There should be a couple more later this year.) Yes, there are dozens of “practice tests” found in test prep books, but they’re written by people at test prep companies (Kaplan, Princeton Review, McGraw Hill, etc.), NOT released by the College Board. They’re written in the style of the SAT, much the same way that the karaoke track of “Blank Space” is written “in the style of” Taylor Swift. Substitutes, not the real deal.
You desperately need to save those 6 College Board practice tests for when it really matters. Use one as a diagnostic baseline before you begin prepping, and use 3-4 of them the month or so before test day, taken in a timed setting, as a real mock test. If you start with them now, you’ll run through the best prep materials before you’ve really figured out what you need to target intensively—if you extend your prep timeline, that means you’ll have to rely on less trustworthy materials more often, including during some of the most important parts of preparation.
3) You'll use up the most reputable test prep problem sets.
In addition to exhausting the limited set of real SAT practice tests, you also should be mindful of depleting other resources as well. For instance, if you start going through the reputable test prep books, grammar topic question sets, math problem sets, etc.—thinking just “doing more problems” will get you a higher score—you will eventually run out of targeted practice material and have nothing to use when you finally really know the content and just need to fine-tune your execution of applying your knowledge to the real format of the test you're taking.
For example, if you truly do not understand transition words on the English ACT or Writing SAT section, you need to do targeted practice—i.e., a giant worksheet of JUST transition word questions so you can have your “aha!” moment and finally get it. Yes, Barnes & Noble is filled with test prep books. But most of them are crappy. And if you need thorough drills on specific grammar topics or specific math concepts in the style of the ACT or the SAT, there just aren’t that many good ones. Off the top of my head, I can think of two transition word practice question sets out there that are really in the style of the ACT and another two for the SAT. If you use these as a freshman or sophomore as your initial learning of the topic (like example problems you stumble through with your tutor), what will you use junior year when you’re still making transition word mistakes and need to have a breakthrough before test day and truly evaluate how you’re doing?
4) You should be spending your freshman and sophomore years finding your passions and establishing your academic interests!
Contrary to popular (hopeful? ambitious? just plain reductive?) belief, a perfect score alone will not get you into your dream college. You have to be an authentically awesome person with cool interests. And you can’t possibly do that by spending three years with test prep as your main extracurricular activity.
In addition, your freshman and sophomore years are when you learn a large chunk of the math and grammar topics that show up on the SAT and ACT. Allow yourself to learn them first in school, with instructional and practice time every day devoted to getting better. Then, when you start to prep for the SAT or ACT—after your sophomore year—you can let your tutor or test prep book help you connect the dots between the topics…so you can ace your test!