The Perfect Time to Start That All-Important College Test Prep

The middle two years of high school are typically when students start to picture themselves as future college students. They’ve found their stride in school, are digging into academics, sports, and extracurriculars and are looking down the road to their college applications.

So, when is the right time to start prepping for the SAT or ACT? “That all depends on the student and finding the right time academically in their high school career,” says Carla Pedersen, regional director at Academic Approach, the Lincoln Park-based organization dedicated to improving students’ standardized testing.

Successful test prep efforts work in balance with a student’s maturity, academic achievement, and extracurricular schedule, which means the right time is highly individual. “There’s no one perfect time for every student. Don’t let the fact that your daughter’s friend has been preparing for several months or a neighbor’s son starting preparing as a sophomore make you create a timeline that might not be relevant for your child,” Pedersen says.

Start with a conversation

Instead, start with a conversation with a director at Academic Approach, who will talk with you about your student’s goals, the colleges they aspire to, the level of math they have taken, and many other issues related to successful test prep. “Whether your student is a sophomore or a junior, this initial conversation will help you form a plan,” says Andrew Ferguson, director of client services at Academic Approach.

“That’s truly what our job is. We help families put together a plan, something to guide them through this,” Ferguson says. This initial conversation is followed by a proctored, online practice test, and a detailed analysis session, involving an Academic Approach director, the student, and the student’s family. “Families love this session because it provides specific, detailed analysis of the student’s skills, which gives clear insights into where we are and helps set clear and realistic short-term and long-term goals,” he explains.

That first practice test, and the in-depth consultation with the whole family that follows, is complimentary at Academic Approach. “That test analysis session gives us so much personalized information on the student,” Pedersen says. “Guided by that analysis, we identify specifically the opportunities for the student’s growth and then design a program around that student as an individual.”

Most of all, the Academic Approach director listens. “Parents are the best and most knowledgeable when talking about their children, and they give us essential information to help put together our plan, including everything from many years of learning history to whether or not a baseball, tennis, or golf season is coming up,” says Ferguson. “We’re also looking at data and listening to determine which test — ACT or SAT — features the student better, and which instructor would fit the student’s learning needs and personality best.”

With thousands of lessons and assessment items to target key skill-building, Academic Approach’s curriculum is research-based and tailored to a student’s personality and needs. Instructors use these resources to deliver the plan of instruction and drive powerful growth in skills and scores.

Maximize your student’s strengths

What students also discover is which of the two standardized tests accepted by colleges is most appropriate for their own test-taking style. “Families might believe that because their student will take the SAT at school in April of their junior year, that’s the only test they need to take,” says Ferguson. “The SAT and the ACT are two different tests for a reason, and they have different ways of determining a student’s academic strengths. They are even different enough — and students experience them differently enough — that we have a clear idea once a student has both test scores which is a better fit.”

“Whether a student is a sophomore or junior, an individualized test-prep plan from Academic Approach will also include some sound advice about maximizing learning opportunities in the classroom,” Pedersen says.

“Sometimes, it all comes down to challenging the student academically, pushing the student’s depth of understanding and rigorous work, by focusing on critical thinking, critical reading, and mathematical problem-solving,” she says. “Thinking about the connections that can be made from one subject to another will support future testing success and success across the curriculum. The goal across the board is to support college-level thinking. It sounds simple, but it involves work and specific academic skill-building, so don’t take your high school courses or test preparation for granted. Be in the moment and get as much out of them as possible.”

Academic Approach has offices in Chicago, Winnetka, Highland Park, and Clarendon Hills as well as New York City and Boston. For more information, visit

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.
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