How to navigate the obstacle course of academic tests, Part 2

Incoming Juniors: How to prepare for the SAT or ACT

Many students wait until the second semester of junior year to start preparing for the SAT or ACT, right before school-mandated SAT tests are given in February or March. However, we believe that for most students, the best time to prepare for these tests is during the summer between sophomore and junior years. This is when students can devote a good chunk of time assessing and addressing their strengths and weaknesses in targeted areas without the pressures of schoolwork.

If a student is well prepared, taking the SAT or ACT during early fall of junior year is a good idea. This will establish a baseline score that can be used to narrow down a college search and to leave time to improve through their classes during the school year. Also, students who may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Tests can prepare for their October PSAT/NMSQT test.

Putting in the time and effort early can really pay off. For example, students who prepared for the ACT with us gained an average of over 5 points on their ACT scores. All the students who prepared for the PSAT with us last summer came in at the 99th percentile on the test, and half of these qualified for the National Merit Scholarships. These test results opened up new college options for the students. Also, the monetary return on their efforts, in the form of scholarships and grants, far exceeded what they could have earned from any summer job.

In addition, preparing in the summer and taking fall exams allows students to have more buffer time and room for improvement. Students who do poorly in the fall have time to review and prepare for winter exams. Students who do well can continue learning and take subsequent tests with no pressure  (if they’re willing), since a good baseline score has already been secured. In both cases, students would be done with their college exams before the end-of-school-year busyness, final exams, and AP Exams.

When planning, however, students and parents should take into consideration the individual student’s unique strengths and weaknesses. Since different students will do best with different plans, here’s a short list of pros and cons of preparing in the summer after sophomore year versus starting in the middle of junior year:  

Starting preparation in late winter or spring of junior year


You will have more “academics” under your belt. If you have a weak academic background, you can use an extra semester to build your academic strengths.

You might have secured a good summer opportunity, such as an internship, enrichment courses, or a quality job. Make sure to weigh your options carefully, and try to get at least some studying done throughout the summer: reviewing math, developing good reading habits, or learning vocabulary might be things you can do in small chunks of time.


You will likely find yourself with not enough time to prepare later on when things get busier later in the school year, especially those who are anxious or who need more time to learn or practice.

You will have no buffer or retake time before the deadlines for submitting college applications.

Starting preparation during the summer between sophomore and junior years


You will allow yourself more time and practice. You can have a concerted time to learn a good chunk of the content needed to prepare without getting out of the “mindset” during the school year.

You can use the standardized tests as formative assessment — a kind of mid-high school check for your college readiness. Standardized tests are supposed to show your preparedness in the skills needed for college success; you can know your strengths and weaknesses in preparation for college.

For high achieving students who have a chance at qualifying for the National Merit Scholarships (NMSQT) with PSAT in October of junior year, summer preparation is crucial. Students looking to qualify should prepare during the summer for the October PSAT/NMSQT exams (along with the SAT Test, of course) so you can be “done” with testing in the fall altogether. Even if you may not end up qualifying for the National Merit Scholarships, you will certainly have a strong baseline score with which to start your junior year. We can certainly help you prepare to be a strong candidate.


Starting at this point may be difficult for some students who have a weaker academic foundation. For example, students who have not had Algebra 2 by the end of sophomore year may find themselves lost in a few areas or subjects (such as series, matrices, or conics). For such students, an extra semester of Algebra 2 will certainly help. Nevertheless, these students can’t ignore the benefits of starting early. A few adjustments can be made in such cases:

  • Start preparing everything else you can. If you’re lacking Algebra 2, then study everything before Algebra 2. Also, don’t forget you can still prepare Reading, Writing, and Essay for the SAT or English, Reading, Science, and Essay for the ACT. Even without Algebra 2, you can score above a 30 on the ACT Math, for example, if you’re well prepared for the rest.
  • Consider signing up for an Algebra 2 Bootcamp. Because there are just a handful of topics that appear on the SAT/ACT from Algebra 2, these topics can be learned in a relatively short amount of time; you don’t need a full year’s worth of Algebra 2 to do well on SAT or ACT tests. More Than SAT offers a summer Algebra 2 Bootcamp a week before our SAT or ACT summer classes start so you can learn the topics you need to cover everything on these tests.

Incoming 7th or 8th graders: How to prepare for PSAT 8/9 as placement test

Starting last year in 2016, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) confirmed that Illinois would begin using the redesigned SAT as the state’s official exam. It means that all the high school juniors in Illinois public schools will take the SAT in the spring instead of the traditional ACT Test. While the transition itself has caused a lot of confusion and anxiety among high school students, the change is also important to 6th and 7th grade students because it impacted the trajectory of the high school placement test, typically taken in the fall or winter of 8th grade year.

Though a sudden and recent trend, more and more high schools started using the PSAT 8/9 as a placement test for students in its feeder junior high/middle schools. PSAT 8/9 is an “easier” version of the SAT test given to students in their 8th or 9th grades. More and more districts are sure to follow in this trend of using PSAT 8/9 test as a placement test for their incoming class. (See our in-depth, three-part series article on the new suite of PSAT and SAT tests.)

Though it varies with each school district, making sure that students are placed into the appropriate level classes can help ensure a strong start and a successful high school career.

If students are placed on a lower academic level than their abilities indicate, they lose the chance to make the most from the academic opportunities given in school and can become academically less competitive for college. In many high school districts, it is difficult to “move up” to a higher level academically (for example, from a regular English class to an Honors English class) once a student is placed into a track. Furthermore, such students may get bored and become disengaged because of the lack of challenge.

On the other hand, if a student is placed in a higher academic level than their abilities indicate, then there is a chance that student will struggle. The transition into high school is difficult enough without adding to the academic pressures. We have seen many students who become less confident and parents who regret putting their child into an accelerated class that’s beyond the student’s abilities.

While it is true that some students actually do well and rise to the challenge, and that challenging the students does not always bring a negative consequence, it is important to realize that building a solid academic foundation — both in terms of academic knowledge and study habits — is crucial for long-term success. It is important for the students and parents to be honest about how the individual student will likely respond to the academic challenges. These questions must be posed to the student: Are you willing to commit to the challenge, not just as a one-time decision but as a day-to-day effort? What are some strengths you can build on, and what support do you need?

So, going back to the main point about having good academic preparation, the summer studies for middle school students preparing for PSAT 8/9 should focus on making sure that the test results really reflect the student’s abilities. For example, many students have forgotten a lot of the math from previous years and this will adversely affect them on the PSAT 8/9 test. Focus should be placed on reviewing and gaining a deeper understanding of the content already learned so far. On the other hand, it would not be wise for students to learn new content just for the sake of getting their PSAT 8/9 scores up, unless they really do take the time in the summer to gain the academic foundations necessary to do well in higher level classes.

The PSAT 8/9 should be used as a good gauge for determining students’ strengths and weaknesses, and how they can use the summer to fill any learning gaps or develop good learning habits to prepare them for high school success. More Than SAT offers a summer review class specifically for incoming 7th and 8th graders for the PSAT 8/9, as well as an Essential Learning & Study Skills course to help students gain good habits to support their goals.

Find out how More Than Scores And Tests can help you reach your goals and your full potential through our unique process and services. Sign up for a free academic evaluation and consultation.

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