One and Done: Practice Early, Test Early, Be Done

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Though many elite colleges dislike “score choice” and insist that students disclose all scores come application time, none discriminates against students with multiple scores. Students need not fear the multiple scores, and those students who build ACT or SAT success early STILL have a major advantage.

The strategy students should follow is:


Strong practice tests are the best indicator of strong actual scores. (Remember, a well-timed practice SAT is a better dry-run than the PSAT). On a Test Day with no aberrations, a student is likely to score within 60 points (out of 2400) of her or his best practice test. Many students who begin their test prep early have practice tests that reveal that they can post impressive scores early (fall of Junior year). Those who start prepping early but whose progress is slow STILL have multiple test dates in the winter and spring of Junior year. ALL students who do well as Juniors avoid a crowded last summer, and avoid the pressure of Senior year “do-or-die” testing.

There is NOTHING in the SAT that relies on junior year academics. The SAT Math, Reading and Writing covers skills presented in the sophomore year and earlier. Students waiting for an extra year of academics to feel “ready” for the SAT get an incremental bit of vocabulary – that’s all*. Meanwhile, students taking pre-calculus or calculus are actually REMOVING themselves from the core SAT math: Algebra I and low-level geometry.

The result of early prep and early testing is:


For ACT, which includes some trigonometry and higher level math functions often covered in junior year, early is STILL sensible if the family is willing to have a tutor give those higher level math skills in the summer.

Unless a student’s prep takes away from good academics or good extra-curricular activities, there is NO downside to a well-prepped student testing early. (To avoid prep greatly conflicting with academics, we at Ivy Bound encourage 2 – 4 weeks of summer SAT or ACT prep and then a light fall ramp-up.) The up-sides to posting a good score early are:

  • knowing what colleges are realistic, and thus making intelligent campus visits
  • giving recruiters (especially coaches, but also academic department heads) an early reason to woo you
  • avoiding the pressures of junior spring and senior fall, which are otherwise very busy
  • being DONE, and getting on to other pursuits

Remember, nothing on the SAT requires high level math. A semester each of Algebra and Geometry is all a student needs to take advantage of SAT math topics. Most students have had that requisite Algebra and Geometry by the middle of sophomore year. The SAT math topics that might fall outside of that early Algebra and early Geometry can be covered well in a good prep course, or even in a few hours of private tutoring.

The student who takes a fall test Junior year and doesn’t do well still has three advantages for the next test:

    1. A student can learn from the testing experience. Making the best use of time,knowing what to expect of the proctors, and avoiding distractions can all incrementally help on the next test.
    2. Even a student whose abilities have not improved from one test day to another may still see a better score owing to the vagaries of the test.


    3. Even a student whose abilities have not improved from one test day to another may still see a better score because that student approaches the test differently the next time.

Our students have always had the chance to take frequent practice tests (Ivy Bound pays for all our students to make maximum use of College Board’s released tests). The students who start with us before junior year will be taking a REAL test in the fall. Few high school counselors push for fall SATs, but they should.

Foreign students command high regard by American colleges — they add “diversity”. The way to fight for a place at a competitive college remains being a standout on test scores, grades, or extracurricular excellence. “Legacy” status and just plain well-roundedness will continue to diminish.

This may be a wake-up call to some, but knowledgeable parents have long demanded that their kids test a lot. Savvy parents know what it takes in the modern era for competitive admissions, and their students are getting the coveted admissions and merit scholarship awards.


  1. Consider an experiment of two practice SATs and two practice ACTs on consecutive weekends. This gives clarity about which test gives the better likelihood of a top score. The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide provide the comparison opportunity.
  2. Don’t prep long, but prep WELL. Ivy Bound encourages only 3 – 9 months for SAT tutoring. When done well, no student has to be saddled with 20 – 24 months.
  3. Don’t take the SAT “cold”. Unless you can attain a score that will guarantee you admission to your cherished program, testing cold is a wasted opportunity. Do at least SOME prep. Get to a level where you can on a good day show a great score (for the colleges you aspire to attend) on at least ONE section. Once one section is “nailed”, it’s good for life at most colleges, and thus the student might be able to end study on that section and concentrate on the other two sections.
  4. Ideally, do all prep you expect to do before the first SAT. That gives you the chance to make it the last SAT as well.

All of the above suggestions apply to the ACT. Colleges do not need both an SAT and an ACT, and we know of NONE that has even a mild preference (BYU’s former preference for ACT ended last year). All other things being equal, the SAT is typically more coachable with less tutoring time, and more colleges “super-score” (i.e. cherry-pick the best sections) on the SAT than the ACT as of 2011. A student with a poor ability to learn new vocabulary may be better off on ACT, which does not directly test vocabulary.

* There are exceptions. Students who have not had a semester of algebra and a semester of geometry by sophomore year may deserve to wait until later in the junior year to cover the basic math prior to their first SAT. And some students actually get vocabulary-intensive English courses as Juniors, though this is rare since most school administrators dislike direct SAT prep.

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