When Should You Take the ACT?

Learn the Best Time to Take the ACT, and How Many Times You Should Take It

Multiple Choice Exam Answer Sheet
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When should you take the ACT exam for college admissions? Typically, college applicants attempting to get into selective colleges and universities take the exam twice: once in junior year, and again early in senior year. The following article discusses the best strategies for different situations.

When Should You Take the ACT?

As of 2017, the ACT is offered seven times in a year (see the ACT dates): September, October, December, February, April, June, and July.

My general advice to students applying to competitive colleges is to take the ACT once in the spring of junior year and once in the fall of senior year. For example, you might take the exam in June of your junior year. If your scores aren't ideal, you have the summer to beef up your test-taking skills and repeat the exam again in September or October of the fall.

However, the best time to take the ACT depends on a variety of factors: the schools to which you're applying, your application deadlines, your cash flow and your personality.

If you're a senior applying early action or early decision, you'll want the September exam. Scores from exams later in the fall may not reach colleges in time. If you're applying for regular admission, you still don't want to put off the exam for too long -- pushing the exam too close to the application deadline leaves you no room to try again should you fall ill on exam day or have some other problem.

Should You Take the Exam Twice?

To know if your scores are high enough so that you don't need to take the exam again, see how your ACT composite score measures up to matriculated students at your top choice colleges. These articles can help you figure out where you stand:

If your ACT scores are at the upper end of the typical range for your favorite colleges, there's not much to be gained by taking the exam a second time. If your composite score is near or below the 25th percentile number, you'd be wise to take some practice tests, improve your ACT skills, and retake the exam. Note that students who retake the exam without doing further preparation rarely improve their scores significantly.

If you're a junior you have several options. One is simply to wait until senior year -- there's no requirement to take the exam junior year, and taking the exam more than once doesn't always have a measurable benefit. If you're applying to one of the country's top universities or top colleges, it probably is a good idea to take the exam in the spring of junior year. Doing so allows you to get your scores, compare them to the score ranges in the college profiles, and see if taking the exam again in senior year makes sense. By testing junior year, you have the opportunity, if needed, to use the summer to take practice exams, work through an ACT preparation book or take an ACT prep course.

Is It a Bad Idea to Take the Exam More than Twice?

I've had many applicants ask me if it looks bad to colleges if applicants take the exam more than twice. The answer, as with many issues, is "it depends." When an applicant takes the ACT five times and the scores simply move up and down slightly without any measurable improvement, colleges will get the impression that the applicant is hoping to luck into a higher score and is not working hard to improve the score. A situation like this can send a negative signal to a college.

However, a college typically doesn't really care much if you choose to take the exam more than twice. Some applicants have a good reason for doing so, such as a selective summer program after sophomore year that uses the ACT or SAT as part of the application process. Also, most colleges want applicants to have the highest scores possible--when admitted students have strong ACT (or SAT) scores, the college looks more selective, a factor that often plays into national rankings.

The exam does cost money and take up a lot of weekend time, so be sure to plan your ACT strategy accordingly. In general, you may come off with more money in your pocket and higher scores if you take several full-length practice tests, evaluate your performance carefully, and then take the ACT just once or twice, rather than taking the ACT three or four times hoping the Fates improve your score.

With all the pressure and hype surrounding admission to highly selective colleges, some students are taking a trial run at the ACT sophomore or even freshman year. You'd do better putting your effort into taking challenging classes and earning good grades in school. If you're desperate to know early how you might perform on the ACT, grab a copy of an ACT study guide and take a practice exam under test-like conditions.

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Grove, Allen. "When Should You Take the ACT?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/when-should-you-take-the-act-788837. Grove, Allen. (2017, June 8). When Should You Take the ACT? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/when-should-you-take-the-act-788837 Grove, Allen. "When Should You Take the ACT?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/when-should-you-take-the-act-788837 (accessed March 18, 2018).