By Brian Witte



The college application process is a long and winding road. For most students, preparing for college begins with the PSAT in October of their sophomore or junior year of high school. The PSAT does not greatly impact college applications – though the National Merit Scholarship is a sought-after award.

The college-bound student, then, must complete at least one of the ACT or SAT exams. Considering the schedule of the average high school student, with its admissions essays, athletics, extracurricular activities and other standardized tests – think the APs – when should you sit for an entrance exam: as a junior or senior? Here are some things students should know about the process as they decide.

1. Begin as soon as possible: The early completion of your goals – and the prep that entails – is a significant benefit. Many aspects of the college application process will proceed far more smoothly once you know what test scores you will use.

While it is true that your admissions essay, grades and letters of recommendation play critical roles in your application, very high or very low scores can eliminate certain schools or make “stretch” colleges more realistic. Your exam results can thus help narrow or broaden your options.

2. Consider your PSAT experience: Of course, the ideal situation for a student is to do very well on the ACT or SAT on his or her first attempt. The student can then concentrate on other elements of the application process. Choosing which test is best for you is another subject entirely.

Whether or not you will ultimately be able to do so rests on a number of factors, but one of the best early indicators is your PSAT score.

The PSAT is a useful barometer for your readiness for the full SAT or ACT. If you did very well on the PSAT, consider selecting the next available exam date for the ACT or SAT in your junior year. Act while your memory and test-taking skills are fresh. If you do well, you can move on. If you do not do as well as you hoped, however, you will have ample time to improve your results.

3. Assess scholarship implications: Certain states offer full or partial scholarships to state schools based largely on a combination of grade-point average and standardized test scores.

Residents of Arkansas, for example, are eligible for a scholarship of $10,000 per year toward tuition, fees and room and board if they score above a certain level and have a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Taking entrance exams early in your junior year allows you to better pursue such opportunities.

4. Retake as necessary: There is no rule about how many tests is too many. Roughly speaking, however, sitting for the SAT or ACT more than three times indicates poor planning.

Remember that most colleges and scholarship programs will consider your highest score. If you completed the exams as a junior, but fell short of the mark necessary to be a competitive applicant at your first-choice schools, retake the exam as a senior after further study.

Overall, the best strategy for the SAT and ACT is to take your chosen test as early as possible in your junior year of high school. This enables you to better focus your time and resources on other parts of the college prep process. If necessary, however, you can generally sit for the tests through November of your senior year. A high score as a senior is better than a mediocre score as a junior – and planning, as always, is key.