Every week or so, some bright young student posts on Reddit that they have come up with the brilliant plan of taking the SAT before junior year to “get it out of the way.” Many of these students plan to take the test during sophomore year or even as freshmen. The reasoning always goes like this:
- Junior year I’ll be super-busy; I’ll have 33 AP classes, I’ll be engaged in a bunch of extracurricular activities (ECs), and then after the school year ends, I’ll have a summer internship to pad my college applications – and of course I’ll be working on those applications all throughout junior year, so there will be no time at all to prepare for the SAT.
- Senior year I’ll be totally occupied with college applications, and besides, I’ll be applying Early Decision/Early Action, so I don’t want to take a test later than August anyway.
- No matter when I start studying for the SAT, it will take the same amount of time to prepare for and obtain my best score, because I just have to learn all the material and the quirks of the test, so it’s perfectly logical to take the SAT as a freshman or sophomore before that super-busy junior year.
Our recommendation is for students to take a warm-up test in the spring of junior year while pacing their preparation so they get their best score on the August test, keeping the fall test dates during their senior year in reserve as backup opportunities. Importantly, this means that the spring test score doesn’t matter very much, because the best score will almost certainly be obtained later, after several more months of preparation; that spring test is primarily for experience and feedback about the efficacy of study methods being used, not to achieve a score you’ll end up submitting to schools.
Keeping that plan in mind, let’s take apart the reasoning behind “get it out of the way early” and show that it is faulty, and that taking the SAT early to get it out of the way is a cause of low scores and deficient college applications.
- Claim: There’s no time to study for the SAT junior year.
There is ample time to start your prep during the late winter and early spring before AP season begins in earnest, and your spring score doesn’t matter much if you’re (wisely) planning to take the test again in August or the fall of senior year as we recommend. A typical summer internship or job leaves more free time in the late afternoons, evenings, and weekends than does attending school, because those summer activities don’t have any homework, so you’d have lots of time to continue your prep over the summer with the goal of getting your best score on the August test. And, of course, there’s senior year, when there are two or three more test dates available. Students might think that working on college applications takes several hours every day for a year, but that’s nonsense; it’s mostly bursts of activity to produce essays, and that means a few hours here and a few hours there, not some sort of sustained daily effort month after month. In sum, the “I’ll be super-busy” reasoning is faulty.
- Claim: The November and December test dates are not options due to ED/EA, so it’s too risky to wait until August or October to take the test.
We've seen this odd assertion repeatedly. SAT scores from the August and October administrations are available in time for ED/EA applications, so this is a non-issue.
- Claim: SAT prep is the same, and produces the same score, regardless of when you undertake it.
This is simply untrue, for several reasons:
- The SAT assesses academic skills acquired throughout high school; that’s its purpose. If you prep before you’ve learned those skills in school, you’ll have to do extra work on your own that would be routinely covered in school later on. This is extremely wasteful of your precious time; why break from your school’s curriculum to self-study a subject you’re going to be taught later on?
- The SAT assesses your reading comprehension skills and familiarity with good writing, and those skills are primarily built through the activity of reading. Therefore, the more you’ve read, the better you’ll do on the corresponding test sections, but the earlier you take the SAT, the less you will have read when you take your test. The result? Depressed reading and writing scores. An additional year or two of daily reading will produce great gains in reading and writing skills, and thus in the corresponding SAT section scores. Why shortchange yourself by squandering all that improvement time?
- The older you are, the smarter and more mature you are and the better-equipped you are psychologically for the rigors of preparing for and taking the test. You can conduct this thought experiment right now: Consider whether year-ago-you (or, worse, two-years-ago-you) would be better than today-you at any sort of intellectual challenge. Is there any question which person you’d choose? Of course not. This means that the later you take the test, the higher your score is likely to be, even with the exact same preparation.
There’s one more extremely important reason why it’s a major mistake to focus on the SAT as a freshman/sophomore and turn to developing ECs as a junior. ECs are like plants; the earlier you plant the seeds, the larger and healthier they will be when you “harvest” them by reporting them on your college applications. If you concentrate on SATs as a freshman/sophomore, and then turn your attention to ECs in junior year, you will have lost years of development of those aspects of your life, and it will show; you’ll scramble to load up on the predictable set of standard ECs instead of simply nurturing your true interests the seeds of which were planted years earlier. How can one year of personal development compare to twice or three times as much time? It can’t.
“Getting the SAT out of the way” and pushing off the development of your interests until later is a near-perfect lose-lose proposition: Your SAT score will be lower than it would be if you took the test later, and your EC orchard’s development will be stunted due to late planting.
Many before you have made this mistake. Freshmen and sophomores believe they've discovered this brilliant plan that will serve them well. They're wrong, but they generally won't listen to either reason or experience.
Every minute you spend preparing for a test you don't have to take for almost two years is wasted. You're throwing away an irreplaceable time in your childhood when you should be digging into your outside interests and generally being a kid. You'll look back and regret squandering this precious time with a pointless activity.