When to test? Evaluating testing options for second semester of junior year.

16 Nov 2017
Ron Michalak

This is the second part of our two-part article on understanding when to take the ACT.  Our last article concluded by recommending that high school juniors plan to take both an ACT and the PSAT during first semester.  In doing so, your student would have test results from both the ACT and the PSAT by January.  This would give you and your student the opportunity to compare performances on the tests and determine if your student has a scoring advantage on one of the tests and/or a preference for one of the tests.

With test scores in hand, you and your student would then be able to compare results using a concordance table found either online or in our previous newsletter.  While most students will score similarly on the ACT and the SAT, in the event there is a scoring discrepancy between the two, the student should, of course, consider focusing on the test on which he or she has the scoring advantage.   If the student’s PSAT score is considerably higher than his or her ACT score, I would recommend that the student first take a practice SAT to get a good sense of the that test, as the PSAT is designed to be a bit easier and a bit shorter.  Percentile scores on the PSAT have also seemed to be relatively high, so I would exercise caution before jumping to the conclusion that the SAT is the more appropriate test.  If after taking a practice SAT the student continues to score considerably higher on his or her SAT, then, by all means, the student should prepare for an upcoming administration of the SAT.  Breakaway can help prepare students for either the ACT or the SAT.

If the students’ scores on the two tests are similar, however, and the student is indifferent between the two tests, Breakaway recommends that the student focus on the ACT.  Unlike the SAT, which was redesigned in the past couple of years, the ACT has remained largely unchanged over the past ten years.  As a result, the practice set of materials we have for the ACT is deeper and because the ACT has always been the favored test in Minnesota, Breakaway knows the ACT quite well.  While our experience with the ACT is more extensive that with the SAT, and our students have gotten great results on both, Breakaway can help your student prepare for either or both tests.

Put Your Scores into a National Context

Having taken both tests, your student can now identify into which scoring band he or she would fall.  The following is a breakdown of test scores and the numbers of students nationwide who fall into each category:

ACT < 16
SAT < 870

One in four students
1st quartile

ACT 17-20
SAT 910-1030

One in four students
2nd quartile

ACT 21-25
SAT 1070-1220

One in four students
3rd quartile

ACT 26+
SAT 1260+

One in four students
4th quartile

As you can see, one quarter of all students nationwide score less than a 16 on the ACT, while half of all students score a 20 or less on the ACT.  Another 25% score between 21-25 on the ACT, while just one quarter score a 26 or better on the ACT.  Breaking the upper quartile (top 25%) down further, just 6% of students score better than a 30 on the ACT (1400+ on the SAT) and less than 10% get a 29 or better.   I think this is helpful context because so many of our students go to competitive or highly competitive high schools where average ACT scores can be in the range of 26-30.  Students in such schools can mistakenly believe that everyone scores a 30 or better on the ACT which is clearly not the case on a national level.  For students at such schools, it is important to recognize that a 26 on the ACT is at the 82nd percentile nationally, and that four out of five of the nation’s high school juniors will not reach a 26.

The scoring bands, or quartiles, noted above are helpful not only to provide some context for students’ scores, but also to provide improvement targets.  Through a frequent, intensive program of test prep, our goal would be to a student move from one scoring band to the next.  For example, we believe that a student who starts prep with us scoring at the 21-22 level should have a good shot of getting to the 25-26 level after doing a round of prep with us.  A typical round of prep includes 12-14 lessons, 2-3 practice tests, and 20-30 hours or practice (homework).  Similarly, for a student who starts at a 17-18, we believe that with a robust program of prep and practice, the student should be in a good position to “jump” to the next scoring category in the 21-22 range.  And finally, for those students coming to us scoring in the 26-28 range, we believe that with a solid practice and prep effort, the student should be able to move to the 30-32 scoring range.

Can a student jump two scoring bands (two quartiles)?

One of the most common situations we see is where a student scores a 21 or a 22 on an initial test, and the parent or student believes that he or she “needs” a 30 to get into the colleges he or she is targeting.  The question, of course, is “Can my student get to a 30 starting from a 21?”  My answer would be that it is possible, but that it would have to happen over the course of at least a couple of tests.  Starting with a 21, I would recommend a 2- to 3-month period of weekly prep, the goal of which would be to help the student move to a score of 25 on his or her next real ACT. I would consider anything better than a 25 to be “icing on the cake”.  I think that a four-point improvement in 2-3 months is both reasonable and achievable goal, so when the student hits that goal, we can celebrate his or her success.  Once the student has demonstrated that he or she can respond to the instruction and drive a four-composite point improvement, we can then recalibrate and determine what additional prep the student might need to continue making progress toward the 30.

When to test (again)?

Having completed an ACT and the PSAT during the first semester, your student can now target the test dates for which he or she would like to sit during the rest of junior year and into early senior year.  During the first six months of 2018, your student will have 3-4 opportunities to take an ACT and three options to take an SAT.  Here are the test dates for both the ACT and the SAT through June 2018:


  • February 10, 2018
  • April 14, 2018
  • June 9, 2018


  • March 10, 2018
  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018

In addition to these test dates, students who attend a Minnesota public high school will sit for a mandatory ACT administration sometime between the end of February and the end of April 2018.  Please check with your school’s college counseling team to understand when testing will take place at your school.  The test will be administered during the school day, and the state will pick up the tab for the testing.  Based on a quick survey of various school districts’ testing calendars, here are dates I identified:

February 27
Minneapolis, Mound-Westonka, St. Paul, Wayzata

April 3

April 24
Eden Prairie, Edina

During the second semester of junior year, we strongly recommend that ALL juniors take at least one administration of the ACT.  Public high school students can plan to do two administrations as they will receive a free, in-school administration as noted above. Because of the vast array of test dates, students can choose a test date or two that comfortably aligns with their schedules.  Parents and students should identify the targeted test date(s) and then backup 8-10 weeks in advance of the test date to begin preparations for the test.  Weekly instruction combined with at least a couple of hours of homework and a full-length practice test every three to four weeks would provide the student with a robust prep program and put the student in the best position possible to record an improvement.

We also recommend that when students can take a free in-school test, they should also consider taking the national ACT offered that same month.  By doing so, the student can “double-down” and take double advantage of the prep he or she does, while parents can get “twice the bang for their test prep buck”.

The goal of testing during junior year is to wind up with a score by June that can help the student get into the schools he or she is targeting.  If the student is still short of his or her goal at the end of the school year, he or she can take advantage of the summer before senior year to try to secure a few more points on the test.  In 2018, both the ACT and the SAT offer two testing options for seniors:


  • July 14, 2018
  • September 8, 2018


  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018

Breakaway can help prepare your student for any of these tests and, during the summer, offer you and your student more choices by which to prepare for the ACT or SAT. 
While the above article provides some general information about the test and when to test, my team and I would be delighted to talk to you about your student and work with you to put together a customized test prep and testing plan.  Please feel free to get in touch with us anytime.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Ron Michalak
[email protected]

John Kingsbury
St. Paul
[email protected]

Matt McManus
Eden Prairie
[email protected]

Lori Wormald
[email protected]

Thank you for reading our newsletter! Please fee free to contact Ron Michalak, Breakaway’s president, at [email protected] or 612-216-5133.

Ron Michalak

Breakaway Test Prep