ESM Prep Director of Curriculum Brian Smith explains how to approach choosing a standardized test for students beginning that process over winter break. Find out which diagnostic tests to take when, as well as how the introduction of the digital SAT in March 2024 will affect your decision.
With the first semester nearly finished and the arrival of winter break, it is time to start thinking about preparing for either the SAT or ACT exams! For juniors that have yet to start prep and sophomores that wish to try and finish testing before junior year, winter break is the opportune time to jumpstart the test preparation process. It is just as important as ever for applicants to take one of these tests, so it is best to get started as early as possible to give yourself the necessary time to reach your highest potential score.
The first major decision in your preparation will be to decide which of the tests is a better fit for you, and the first step towards that is simple: taking diagnostic tests! Colleges do not have a preference between the SAT and ACT, so your decision will be based primarily on which test you prefer and which test provides the easiest path to your target score level. Winter break is the optimal time to take diagnostics, as you do not have to balance the time commitment of school, sports, and other extracurriculars.
Depending on your class level, there are a few differences (especially with the advent of the digital SAT in 2024), so please read through the below scenarios to find the best plan for you or your student.
Did you take the PSAT? Most juniors were required to take the PSAT this fall. If you did so, congratulations, you already have an SAT diagnostic! The PSAT and SAT aren’t exactly the same, but they are similar enough that you can use your PSAT results as a diagnostic. The College Board recently released the full test along with your missed answer choices, so you’ll be able to review it in depth on the College Board’s website. That means that you only need to take an ACT diagnostic! Sign up for one here.
Did you not take the PSAT? If you did not take the PSAT (or didn’t try on it), then you’ll have to take both ACT and SAT diagnostics to compare the results. Sign up for one of each test here. You will be taking the paper SAT if you prefer that test over the ACT.
For sophomores in advanced math, or student athletes that want to gain an advantage in the recruiting process, we usually recommend taking at least one test by the end of their sophomore year. For other sophomores in the U.S., the decision on when to start prep is made a bit more difficult by the arrival of a new digital, adaptive SAT in March 2024. So, you first need to decide whether you want to start full preparation right now, this summer, or this time next year. Here’s how to make that decision:
Have you already taken Algebra II? In this case, you’ve already seen the vast majority of the math tested on both exams and are ready to begin preparing for the SAT or ACT! Register for both SAT and ACT diagnostics so that you can get your results instantaneously and start to plan your testing timeline. If you took the official PSAT as a sophomore (as opposed to an unofficial version of the new digital SAT), that test can be used as a diagnostic.
Are you currently in Algebra II? In this case, you may or may not be ready, so we would still recommend registering for diagnostic exams to determine your current score level. If you score highly on your diagnostics, then you may consider prepping for tests in the late spring and early summer (April-July). By waiting, you will be able to finish Algebra II and round out your math knowledge. If your diagnostics indicate that you aren’t quite ready, you’ll want to wait until at least next summer to prepare for the paper SAT or ACT in the fall.
Are you currently in Geometry or Algebra I? You still need to learn many of the concepts needed to score highly on either the SAT or ACT. Don’t worry about taking your full diagnostics until this time next year. You will be taking the digital SAT in Spring 2024 if you prefer that test over the ACT.
Have you already taken or are currently in Algebra 2? We rarely recommend starting test preparation this early, but if you have already completed or are currently taking Algebra 2, it is potentially worth starting. Register for both SAT and ACT diagnostics here. If you prefer the SAT, you will likely be taking the paper SAT, but you will have the time to try out the digital SAT as well.
Are you currently in Geometry or Algebra I? You still need to learn many of the concepts needed to score highly on either the SAT or ACT. Don’t worry about taking your full diagnostics until at least this time next year. You will be taking the digital SAT if you prefer that test over the ACT.