Many colleges require applicants to submit results from one of the two college entrance exams — the SAT and the ACT. But it’s important to note that many colleges have changed their policies to make these tests optional. Keep in mind, too, that college applications will include many other pieces of information that will help colleges get to know your child. If your teen takes these tests and submits their scores, then their scores will be one part of their college application. These tests are difficult and taking them requires advance planning and preparation. Here’s what you need to know to help your teen get prepared, registered, and through these important exams.

10th grade

  • Take time this year to get familiar with these exams. The SAT and ACT cover similar content and are accepted equally by all schools, but they require different strategies for preparation. The ACT gives test takers less time per question but is more straightforward; the SAT requires more reading and demands more critical thinking and data analysis. The ACT allows a calculator for all math problems; the SAT only allows a calculator for some math problems. The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not. Your child should take a practice test for each and see how their scores on the two compare; whichever test they score higher on and/or feel better about taking is the one they should prepare for and take.
  • Sign your teen up to take the PSAT. There’s a chance your child’s school has a policy that all tenth graders take the PSAT. Or maybe your child’s school offers the PSAT to tenth graders. If so, sign your child up. If not, you may need to proactively find another local high school that’s offering the PSAT and sign your child up to take it there. The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT. Taking it sophomore year is an excellent, no-risk way for your teen to get some practice for the SAT and experience what it’s like to take these tests. The scores won’t count for college admissions, but research shows that taking practice tests and being familiar with testing conditions helps.

11th grade

  • Sign your student up to take the PSAT. Yes, your teen can take this test even if she took it last year. If your school offers the PSAT, great, sign your teen up! If not, you may need to see about signing your child up to take the PSAT at another local high school. Teens who take the PSAT in October of their junior year and do well can qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program, a great way to earn free money for college while gaining familiarity and practice for the SAT.
  • Decide which test — SAT or ACT? The two cover similar content and are accepted equally by colleges. But they have some differences that will likely make one a better choice for your child. He should take a free online practice test for each and see how his scores on the two compare; whichever test he scores higher on is the one he should plan to take.
  • Find out about fee waivers. If they qualify, juniors and seniors can get fee waivers for both the SAT (which costs $68 with the essay) and the ACT (which costs $70 with the writing section). With a waiver, your child can take the exam for free.
  • Make a test calendar. Help your child figure out which standardized tests (SAT vs. ACT, any AP exams, etc.) they will take and when they will take them. Look up when these tests are offered and put the registration and test dates on the calendar.
  • Make a test prep plan together, working backward from the date when your child will take the SAT or ACT. There are free, high-quality test prep resources available online. Khan Academy offers free personalized SAT test prep online that includes video lessons, practice questions, and full-length SAT practice tests. ACT offers free resources including a study guide and sample questions, which students can access by creating an ACT Profile. More free online practice — including full ACT and SAT practice tests — is available through Kaplan Test Prep. Read more about how you can help your child prepare for these tests.
  • Register. It’s a good idea for teens to take the SAT and/or the ACT in the spring of junior year. They will have a chance to retake the test(s) in the fall of senior year. Taking them more than once is highly recommended.

12th grade

  • Prepare to retake the SAT or ACT. Your teen may have already taken the SAT or the ACT junior year, but most students should take these tests twice and try to improve their score. Encourage your teen to retake the SAT or ACT early in senior year so their scores are available for college applications. A bonus for ACT takers: a new policy allows students to retake just the sections of the ACT that they want to improve on, saving students study time and test-taking stress. Learn about the best strategies for raising SAT and ACT scores.
  • Register now for a test date in the fall so that scores are in before applications are due. Don’t wait: The last chance to take the SAT for early applications is in October. For regular applications, it’s early December.