You generally need to take your ACT by the fall of your senior year at the latest. Most universities want to see your scores almost a year before you’d actually begin your fall university studies. So students should choose their ACT test dates with this in mind.
However, for most students, it’s not a good idea to wait until the fall of senior year to take the ACT. The most common time for a first go at the test is in the spring of junior year. That way, there’s plenty of time for a retake if you don’t get the score you want or need.
Then there are the students who get an even earlier head start, and take the ACT in the fall or winter of junior year. But is this really a good idea? Turns out there are both advantages and disadvantages to taking the ACT earlier than you actually have to.
Early ACT Testing and the Learning Curve
The ACT measures your ability to master high school level academics, to the point where you are ready for the next step: higher education. If you take the ACT when you’re only halfway through high school, you probably won’t have completed coursework in every ACT skill. If you’re just starting your junior year or are still in your first two years of high school, you may encounter math problems that you haven’t learned about in class. You could also face reading, English, and science problems that are more sophisticated than anything you’ve seen in your textbooks so far.
This can potentially work in your favor. By preparing for the ACT before the spring of your junior year of high school, you’re not only reviewing the high school classes you’ve taken so far, you’re also “working ahead.” Early ACT prep allows you to study content and build skills that you’ll need to master for your upperclassman courses, and if you prepared for exams such as the PSAT or PreACT, you might be able to directly roll this into prep for a winter ACT. Then, if you get the score you want, you can move on to other aspects of your high school career and stop worrying about test prep.
On the other hand, working ahead in this way can be difficult. Younger high school students will find the ACT much more challenging. Prepping for the ACT earlier in your high school career can be a real strain, and might potentially distract you from your studies. And there’s a risk of working ahead insufficiently. Early ACT test-takers may get a poor score on their ACT and need to retake it later anyway. So make sure you are ready for the test and have taken the advanced classes that will help ensure you are fully prepared. (Remember that some competitive schools require all of your ACT scores as part of your application).
Early ACT Testing vs. Early SAT Testing
It’s also important to consider the ACT vs. the SAT if you’re thinking about an early ACT testing month. Make sure you are taking the test that is best for you! Evaluating the SAT should be part of your plan before deciding to take the ACT early and be done with it. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are less risky ways of test-driving these tests. The PreACT is a junior ACT and the PSAT is a junior SAT that can give you a good feel for these tests without the risk of scores that could be sent to colleges.
It certainly is possible to take the ACT before the spring of junior year, but if you plan to do so, make sure you’re truly ready. ACT testing is never something to rush.
David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent.