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How College Admissions Tests Work

Timelines for College Admissions Tests
To set a timeline for yourself, visit the test makers' Web sites to see on which dates the exams will be offered.
To set a timeline for yourself, visit the test makers' Web sites to see on which dates the exams will be offered.
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When is the best time to take your college admissions test? There's no one answer that fits everyone, but specific questions can help.

An essential question: What's the cutoff date for applying to your institutions? Your SAT scores are accessible online about three weeks after testing, and they're sent to colleges then, if you request. ACT results arrive through the mail three to eight weeks after testing if you've taken the four-section test. If you complete the writing portion as well, expect to receive the entire results in five to eight weeks. Take these deadlines seriously -- if colleges don't receive your scores on time, they may not consider you despite an impressive GPA or extensive extracurricular activities [sources: College Board: Scores, ACT: When].

Next, you must figure out where you want to take the exam and when it's being offered. Although both tests are given several times each year, not all testing dates are available at all sites. Check the tests' Web sites for specific dates in your area.

Now you need to be introspective. Honestly, you probably already know how you tend to perform on standardized tests. How well do you think you'll do here? Can you sit down and breeze through a test, or are you easily stressed? If you think you'll turn into a bundle of nerves, you may want to consider taking the test as a junior, then retaking it early in your senior year. This strategy may allow you to do the following:

  • Reduce the pressure on your test date because you have a back-up plan
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses and learn how to focus future preparation
  • Send colleges only your best total score from a single exam date, even if you take the test several times. (This must correspond to your college's policy, however. Some institutions want results from all tests you've taken, though the College Board asserts that most colleges consider a student's top score only, even with multiple submissions.)

[source: College Board: Score Reporting]

Many students decide to take admissions tests twice and do somewhat better the second time, although it's unusual to see radical changes. If you want, you may take either test a total of 12 times. There are no age or grade restrictions, so evaluate your personal situation.

If you are interested in taking an SAT Subject Test, plan ahead. You cannot take it the same day as the basic SAT, nor can you take more than three Subject Tests in one day.

Once you've chosen your test date, what can you do to prepare for it? Read on to find a few suggestions.