Considering SAT Prep? Experts Say Start Early

Students typically take this test in spring of their junior year. Learn why the summer before is the ideal time to begin SAT prep, from an expert at Academic Approach.

For college-bound high school students, the pandemic caused disruption and uncertainty, especially with regard to standardized testing. When students weren’t even able to take the SAT or ACT, many colleges and universities adopted a test-optional policy. But it’s too soon to know the effect of test-optional policies on college admissions, says Andrew Ferguson, Director of Client Services at Academic Approach, the Chicago-based tutoring and ACT and SAT prep company.

While Academic Approach continues to gather data in order to provide students with the most accurate information about what admissions metrics colleges are using, applicants should recognize the value of taking the ACT or SAT to include in their college applications, even if the colleges on their list indicate that test scores are optional.

“Our colleagues in college counseling confirm that test scores help,” Ferguson says. “Strong test scores included in a college application provide evidence of a student’s academic ability. Schools can look to standardized test scores as a means to determine a student’s ability to think analytically, work under pressure and problem solve with challenging material.”

In Illinois, all public high school juniors take the SAT in the spring, giving students the chance to assess their own scores, whether or not they have prepared for the test. “This is still a priority in Chicago Public Schools and Illinois public schools as a means to measure performance and, for students, this is an opportunity to have an SAT test score they don’t have to pay for,” says Ferguson.

For ACT and SAT prep, start early

Students who want to get the highest possible score on the SAT or ACT have options for achieving this success, says Ferguson, and the most important thing is to start early.

“Our data shows that students who prepare in the spring or summer after their sophomore year see nearly double the growth than if they waited until their junior year to begin preparing,” he says.

In other words, SAT prep isn’t necessarily something that should be put off. Your brain needs time to prepare for the types of questions on the SAT or ACT, and the flow and timing of the test. “I compare preparing for these tests to a marathon. In your marathon training, you don’t run 26.2 miles on the first day and hope it goes OK. You build up to it and prepare in stages,” Ferguson explains.

In terms of rigor, a student’s high school career isn’t linear, and the time and space a student anticipates dedicating to SAT prep might not be available during their junior year. “In junior year, the academic expectations, amount of homework and level of testing, everything changes. Students do see a lot more homework and a lot more is expected of them on a daily basis. Trying to add a rigorous test preparation schedule on top of these commitments can lead to exhaustion or burnout. Establishing a tutoring schedule before the rigors of junior year set in allows students to maintain a steady and reasonable test preparation schedule leading up to test day,” Ferguson says.

By starting early, students can have the luxury of dedicating headspace only to ACT and SAT prep, and the payoff can be remarkable. “I understand that the idea of doing test prep in June, July and August isn’t what a student might be hoping for, but we’ve seen this early start nearly doubles the growth of our students,” says Ferguson.

Keeping the brain primed

Time devoted to test prep can even have a positive impact on a student’s engagement and grades during their junior year. Just one hour dedicated to academics each week can help keep a student’s brain engaged.

“It’s good for so many reasons,” Ferguson adds. “Academically, it’s keeping your brain in motion and can help you deal with rigorous curriculum, in English and, of course, math. Your brain can be like an old car. When you allow it to shut down for an entire summer, it can be very hard to get it started again quickly in September.”

Whatever the choice, ACT and SAT prep begins with a plan. “When families meet with us, we sit down and create a plan. If that means starting in May of sophomore year, great. We put together a plan and commit to it. Or, if you go to camp for the summer and the best plan for you is August, we design something that works for your child and commit to it,” Ferguson says.

“One of the best things we do for students is put together that plan. Every calendar is different and every life is different, so we create an individualized and realistic plan for each student. Kids can sniff out when there is no structure. Our job is to provide that structure.”

Families should carefully consider what is most appropriate for their student — which may mean starting in mid-July or August rather than in June.

“Families know what is best for their children. If they need to take the summer to reboot, we get that as well. But what our numbers show for most students is that when they use the spring and summer months wisely, it pays off in the end,” Ferguson says.

Learn more about the many advantages of Academic Approach at or by calling (773) 348-8914.

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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