For high school students nearing the end of 10th grade, right now is a challenging time to figure out what to do about their standardized test plan for college applications.

There’s been a tidal wave of test-optional policies implemented by colleges across the United States. Some colleges have done away with testing altogether. Some have gone test-optional for a limited time while others are “test flexible.” And still others have been testing optional before the pandemic.

If a student does not have test scores, how do colleges compensate and make fair decisions? Should students forget testing altogether and double down on more extracurriculars? What about AP exams? Are they more important than ever? 

It’s confusing even to me. But it’s important to start putting the pieces of a test plan together now.

Making Sense of Standardized Testing

As an experienced college admission consultant having counseled thousands of students through this process, here’s some clarity that I’d like to impart.

1. Be prepared but flexible with test prep

Yes, more colleges will likely come back to requiring or expecting test scores. At the same time, many others will continue their test-optional policies for a few years or permanently. Ultimately it is up in the air right now. But I am approaching test planning with all of my 10th-grade students as though standardized tests are moving forward as before the pandemic. 

Depending on the student, it is prudent to be a little more relaxed about test prep because there is a good chance the students will be applying to colleges that will be test-optional. This may mean spending a little less time or money on test prep until the college list is solidified and you know the policies of specific colleges. 

2. Do not rush the test prep timeline

Starting test prep this summer for 99% of current grade 10 students is too early. 

However, we put some building blocks in place this summer that will ease the test prep process over the following months. Even students who need a little bit more time to study—I describe this as requiring a longer runway before they take off—do not benefit from starting their test preparation in the summer before junior year. The reason is that studying for SAT or ACT should not get dragged out too long. Most students need to pace their SAT or ACT studying to line up reasonably close to the actual test date.

If a current 10th-grade student does choose to study over the summer, then it’s only prudent that they take an SAT or ACT the first thing junior year. In most cases, this is way too early. Most smart students need to develop more “testing maturity,” which starts to grow in the earlier part of junior year and typically peaks mid or late junior year.

3. Know when it is OK to accelerate the testing timeline

Some students can test early. This does not mean, however, they will do better on the tests than other students on a “typical” timeline or get into better colleges. I know there is a lot of talk about taking tests early because it feels like it’s a race. Or it feels satisfying to get one of the more tedious college application steps out of the way because you want to do everything you can to make the whole application process easier for a student that could potentially get overwhelmed with lots of application steps. 

I disagree. Rushed testing just causes more stress. 

However, a candidate to take a test earlier (i.e. early junior year after a summer study) is someone that already shows they are close to getting a peak score right now. A 10th-grade PSAT score can measure this. If the student does not have a 10th-grade PSAT score, then not to worry. Just follow the steps listed below.

4. Start now crafting a test strategy

The first step to figuring out a 10th-grade test plan is taking a full-length practice SAT as well as a full-length practice ACT. This is different from taking a PSAT at school, a substantively different exam than the actual SAT. Comparing these scores allows the student to choose one that is best for them. 

If a parent or student is anxious to get started with a test strategy, this step can be taken this summer. But I advise my 10th-grade students that they can take this step any time before November of junior year.

5. Tailor the test timeline to the student’s unique needs/abilities

If the results of the practice SAT and practice ACT show a remarkably high score, then the student may be a candidate to test earlier. And jumping directly into summer preparation to sit for the SAT or ACT (not both!) in the early part of junior year may be a good idea. 

Otherwise, as I’ve written about elsewhere, slow and steady wins the race when it comes to many parts of the college application process. There is plenty of time for most students during their junior year to start studying and plan on taking their first SAT or ACT in the spring.

My years of experience as an Independent Educational Consultant have given me distinct insight into the college admissions process. If you’re interested in tapping into my expertise in high school college counseling, I invite you to contact me.