Five Secrets of Planning and Testing for Parents of Rising Juniors

If you are parenting a current ending-year sophomore or rising junior in high school, and this is your oldest child, beware of the chaos of the upcoming college preparation time: a menagerie of tests, college visits, counselor visits, and applications. Having worked with hundreds of families through this period, I have compiled my Five Secrets to make sure that you feel like a pro as you parent your junior through this demanding year.

Secret #1) Get out your calendar and plan the entire year ahead of you!

You may find it hard to believe that as your child is finishing his sophomore year in high school that I am urging you to plan a full year ahead, but if you do so, you will be grateful next year. You will need to plan for the PSAT in October (this one counts toward NMSQ), likely two to three SATs (and/or possibly at least one ACT), SAT II subject tests (usually in May or June), AP tests (May), guidance and possibly college counselor visits, college tours, and college applications. The SAT months for juniors are late January, March, May and June; the ACT months for juniors are December, February, April and June. Some students (primarily athletes and those prepping for NMSQ PSATs) who have already completed Algebra 2 may plan for the November or December SATs as their first tests. Assess your child’s busiest seasons and plan the test(s) during the most opportune month(s). Register at least two months in advance to obtain the desired location for testing. Have your student prep beginning at least three months in advance. Set aside time for college tours in the spring and summer of junior year and make sure that your child completes her major essays for college applications over the summer -- before senior year begins.

Secret #2) Take advantage of the SAT’s Question-and-Answer (Q&A) and the ACT’s Test Information Release (TIR) Services!

Most students take the SAT at least twice; the same goes for the ACT. Be aware that both Collegeboard and the ACT release the actual test booklet and answers for only three tests per year (those are the dates for which the Q&A and TIR services are available). For the SAT, the QAS is always available for the January, May and October tests; for the ACT, the TIR is always available for the December, April and June tests. (Even if your child is a senior when taking the October SAT, I would recommend purchasing the QAS if you have younger children who will soon be going through this process.) If one or more of these months work well for your child’s schedule, plan to have him take his first test during one of these months. Receiving the actual test and answers – and not just the scores and categories of misses – is extremely beneficial (especially for a tutor!) to assess the best methods of preparing for the second test-taking opportunity.

Secret #3) If your child is not naturally gifted at reasoning tests and/or has a weak vocabulary, advise her to consider the ACT instead of the SAT!

The ACT, once primarily a test accepted only at California and Midwestern schools, has been universally accepted at all colleges across the country for well over a decade now, including at the Ivies. The ACT has a different format from the SAT, and the questions are worded in a more “student-friendly” manner. This test is slightly shorter (3 hours and 25 minutes as opposed to 3 hours and 45 minutes), and instead of containing 10 shorter sections which alternate between math, reading and grammar as in the SAT, the ACT has four longer individual sections (including Science, unlike the SAT) with an optional essay.

Based on my experience, some students are able to score significantly higher on the ACT.  Typically, students whose strengths are in the math/sciences area and who are faster-paced in their problem solving tend to do well on the ACT. ACT questions appear in a more straightforward content-driven format whereas many of the SAT questions look like miniature puzzles. Another advantage of the ACT is that some colleges accept the ACT in lieu of required SAT II subject tests.

For those students who are uncertain which test may be best, I recommend taking one SAT and one ACT early on (either as mock tests or real tests) or in the winter. Based on scores and comfort levels, the student may then choose to focus on one test only or decide to pursue both.

Secret #4) The PSAT is a practice test and provides only an indication of what one may score on the real SAT.

Do not fret if your child’s score is lower than hoped for; on the other hand, do not expect your child to score as high on the real SAT without additional preparation and practice.

The Practice SAT (PSAT) is a 2-hour, 10-minute test (and does not contain an essay); the real SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes – almost 75% longer. Use the PSAT scores to assess challenge areas and to plan the best course of preparation for the real SAT.

Secret #5) The SAT and ACT are highly “practice-able” tests!

A good classroom course (and/or even better, a skilled tutor) can be invaluable to your child for teaching structure, strategies, practice techniques and accountability. Reviewing content and learning short-cuts and tricks can improve efficiency, effectiveness and pacing. Students who are invested in their success and put in significant practice for the SAT or ACT should improve their scores substantially. Many quality retail books -- containing content material, strategies, and numerous full-length practice tests (some with strategic explanations) -- are available. Some course providers offer higher-score guarantees; tutors should be selected based on their experience and previous success. SAT score increases of greater than 200 points, and substantially higher, are not uncommon. ACT score increases of greater than 3 points on the Composite are likewise not uncommon.

Good luck parenting your rising junior!

This mini-calendar may help you visualize some of the planning required:


• Determine best time of year to take tests based on student’s current Math level and extra-curriculars

• If student has NMSQ potential, consider tutoring for PSAT

• Consider taking mock tests of ACT and SAT to help guide test selection

• If student may benefit from accommodations, understand the next steps and whether new testing may be required


• Begin tutoring or class if preparing for PSAT or early SAT/ACT

• If a senior, your final shot at the SAT and/or ACT is during these months if you are applying EA or ED

• If a student may benefit from accommodations, begin new testing if needed and communicating with Guidance Counselor who will submit requests to ACT & SAT


• Continue class or tutoring if taking an early SAT or ACT

• PSAT score results back in early December – take time to review these results carefully with a tutor

• Consider registering for at least one test and for the June subject tests to get your preferred testing location


• Continue class or tutoring if taking an early SAT or ACT

• Begin class or tutoring if considering a spring SAT or ACT

• Midterms

• Consider college visits during February break

• Begin working with Guidance counselors at school and using Naviance to better understand student profiles and their relationships to college acceptances


• Continue class or tutoring for spring SAT or ACT

• Consider college visits during March break

• Begin refining potential college interest list

• Pay attention to Test Registration deadline dates


• Final spring test dates

• June SAT date is usually reserved for two SAT subject tests

• Final academic exams

• Continue intensive class or tutoring if taking May/June tests

• Don’t forget to comprehensively review QAS or TIR with a tutor


• Begin writing College Application Essay and starting the Common App forms

• Continue to refine college application lists

• Visit any remaining colleges not yet seen to which student is going to apply

• Determine if student will take one final ACT or SAT in the fall of senior year

• Brush-up or Review with tutor beginning by August


• Final ACT/SATs for students applying EA or ED

• Potential re-take or new SAT subject tests

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