Recently, I gave a talk in the local community about how to get through standardized testing with a smile. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is when students email me, telling me that they improved and got the score (or above what) they were aiming for.  If you’re a parent, you may be overwhelmed by the ACT, SAT, AP, SAT subject tests, and all the other acronyms that go along with the college admissions process. But, take a deep breath, and actually try to smile. You will get through this process, so why not make the most of it! Here’s our advice on what to consider when it comes to testing for each year of high school. Please note that we are commenting on SATs and ACTs, not subject tests or IB/AP exams. Also, note that fairtest.org shares a list of the growing number of test-optional schools.

Freshman students/parents: Welcome to high school! Work hard this year and establish a solid GPA. If you are experiencing difficulties in your classes or with time management in general, seek out help. Your teacher might have office hours, there may be a writing center at your school, or you could come to a professional tutor to help you get organized and develop your study skills. Join fun activities and engage in community service.

Sophomore students/parents: Take the sophomore PSATs-no need to prep for these. Only start test prep if your sophomore PSAT scores (which you’ll get in December) are really high, especially for those of our students in New Jersey. For the great Garden State, we think scores of 700 and above in each section may warrant some preparation for National Merit testing which is given in fall of the junior year. The only other reason that a student might want to start prepping in sophomore year is if she or he is a recruited athlete. Sometimes coaches would like to see scores sooner rather than later. Continue to focus on your academics–read good books, engage in your community and school–and just be a teenager! Spend time with your friends, family, and the passions that are meaningful to you.

Junior students/parents: Here’s where most students begin test prep or at least begin to take it seriously. During the summer between sophomore and junior year, you may want to take a practice ACT and compare it with your PSAT results. See which test you performed better on, and stick with that test (ACT or SAT) for two official administrations. Look at the calendar of testing and make a plan in which you will likely test a total of three times. If you’re still having difficulties in choosing which test to take, arrange a complimentary PSAT Evaluation appointment with Ivy Ed. We’ll sit with you, ask questions, and determine a timeline of testing and preparation.

If you’re in Algebra II as a junior, please wait to take the first official ACT or SAT until at least February or March. But you can start preparing before then! Choose a time of year when you can dedicate two to three hours each week to test practice. Even if you start testing in the spring of your junior year, you have through October of senior year for Early Action/Early Decision Deadlines and through December for Regular Decision deadlines.

And, for those of you who are able to dedicate more time to prep in the summer, there are now summer administrations of each test! There’s a July ACT and an August SAT.

Senior students/parents: There is still time to test! Check in directly with your colleges and their deadlines. Maintain your GPA throughout your senior year since schools will get an update. Focus on AP tests at the end of the year if you are in these classes. And then celebrate! You’re done with high school!

We at Ivy Ed are here for you throughout this process and we hope to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it. We do not believe in “testing early and testing often.” We think that you should take the official test when you’re ready, after investing time in significant practice. And who wants to spend 5 hours on a bunch of Saturdays or Sundays sitting in classroom, filling out bubbles anyways? While these tests are important, you should not become a career test-taker. (Unless you want to work for Ivy Ed. In that case, test on.)