I took my first ACT in seventh grade, when I participated in a talent search sponsored by Northwestern University. I didn’t prepare for the test because I had never thought about college admissions before and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. As you might expect, the test confused me because it was filled with material I had never studied, especially in the math section. I was excited to take an exam intended for students several years older than me, but once it was over I mostly forgot about the whole process until I started high school. My score was below the national average for high school students, so I didn’t get anywhere with the talent search, although I suppose there are benefits for students who perform well.
I took my first SAT in ninth grade, when I participated in the talent search again. I didn’t prepare this time either, mostly because I was only taking Algebra I and I knew that the math section would bring me down even if I did well in the other sections. My score was better than my old ACT score, but I didn’t care because I still wasn’t very interested in looking at colleges and I wasn’t yet able to see the benefits of performing well on the tests.
I started my college search in my sophomore year, and I decided to take the ACT again because I knew more math and I thought I could score high if I prepared a lot. I borrowed several prep books from the library and took all the practice tests I could find, and my score increased as a result. During the test, my anxiety was lessened by the fact that I had taken the test before. The real test environment was more familiar than it would have been otherwise, and I was easily able to see how my knowledge had increased since seventh grade.
There are some drawbacks to starting as early as I did, although they probably weren’t present for me as much as they are for some people. Standardized tests are impersonal and inspire a lot of cynicism, so you might feel like you’re losing your childhood if you start worrying about them when college is still far away. Admissions officers would probably prefer that you begin your high school career by connecting with academic subjects and activities you love rather than the College Board. At the same time, the SAT and ACT are instrumental in getting scholarships and acceptance letters from selective colleges. If you start early, it’s relatively easy to make test prep a non-stressful part of your routine. If you’re a freshman who thinks about college admissions and reads The Prospect already, you’re probably ready to think about the SAT or ACT.
The widespread availability of practice tests means it’s probably not necessary to actually take the SAT or ACT before your junior year. In fact, the College Board and ACT, Inc. seem to discourage early testing because they won’t grant fee waivers to freshmen or sophomores. Moreover, the PSAT or PLAN will allow you to predict your SAT or ACT score (respectively) with reasonable accuracy at a lower cost. The main problem with these tests is that they lack an essay section.
You might worry that colleges will look down on you for having low scores on tests you took early in high school, even if you raise them later. Some colleges will allow you to use the College Board’s Score Choice option, but others will require you to send all your scores (not including scores from middle school). “The SAT is meant to test all students on a level playing field and determine their readiness for college,” writes Rebecca Safier at PrepScholar, “so it wouldn’t look all that strong to have to take the test more than 6 times to perform well.”
If you’ve taken the SAT or ACT many times, it might seem like you focused too much on tests rather than cultivating your personality and genuine interests throughout high school. For better or worse, it seems like colleges want to accept students who breezed through the tests without caring very much about them because they were so focused on other, more important things. Safier writes, “[Y]ou’re probably also taking other tests, like finals or the SAT Subject Tests, along with all your schoolwork, community service, and clubs or sports that require your attention. You wouldn’t want to drop the ball at this point in your high school career by diverting attention away from these other pursuits, as these are also all key parts of your college application.”
You may have a special reason to take the SAT or ACT early in your high school career, like a talent search or an application to some academic program (for example, I was a dual-enrollment student and they required test scores). These reasons may influence your decision, but ultimately you are the only person who can know whether you’re ready to start taking the tests.