SAT and ACT Test Prep: Don’t Start Too Soon

There’s a lot of contradictory advice out there about test prep. Some high schools recommend waiting until the spring of junior year to take the tests. Vince Kotchian shares advice for parents wondering when to start preparing based on his 10 years of experience.

Sadly, a basement was the height of my music career.

I was 22, and like any 22-year old, I wanted to be in a band. (Never mind the fact that I didn’t play an instrument.)

So my friends Chris and Kevin and I decided we’d start practicing. Chris was learning guitar; Kevin – a natural and accomplished musician – had taught himself the bass.

I figured I’d play the drums for our fledgling trio. I didn’t actually own any drums, so I improvised with some plastic garbage cans while I saved up the money to buy a set. (If you’ve never banged on plastic garbage cans, the sound can best be described as a cornucopia of different “thuds”.)

Since I was the one who lived in a house with a basement, we congregated there, and, to the chagrin of my roommates, started playing what could only loosely be described as “music”.

Thankfully, for all involved, our band didn’t last long. In retrospect, it might have made more sense if I had actually taken lessons and learned the basics of drumming before attempting to play songs.

In my industry, I often meet parents who are unsure about when to begin preparing their kids for the SAT and ACT.

There’s a lot of contradictory advice out there. Some high schools recommend waiting until the spring of junior year to take the tests, while certain test prep companies encourage beginning prep freshman year and want students taking the test for the first time as early as the beginning of sophomore year.

I understand why starting early appeals to parents. They know the test is important, and they want to offer their kid every possible advantage.

However, I would offer that it’s counterproductive to start SAT and ACT prep any earlier than the summer before junior year.

In my experience (and I mostly work with high-achieving kids who attend competitive private schools), very few students have the foundation they need for test prep until they reach junior year.

Test prep is easy to explain. You have to know grammar rules, which are relatively quick and easy to learn. You have to be able to write an essay (a skill most kids are already pretty good at).

What’s NOT as easy is doing well in math and reading comprehension. For these subjects, a strong foundation is required.

The only way to do this for reading comp is to read – widely – for many years, so that background knowledge accumulates. Technique and tips help, but they only go so far, and in fact, DON’T usually work very well for people who haven’t read much over the years.

The same thing for math – conceptual knowledge from excelling in math classes is a prerequisite for test prep. Side note: excelling is not the same thing as getting an A. It’s mastering the subject matter to the point where it’s knowledge, not memorization.

But of course, most test prep companies want your money. They’ll attempt to scare you into starting early if you ask them if it’s okay to wait. And inevitably, you’ll talk to other parents who began test prep very early, and it will feel scary to be patient.

Here’s the thing: if most students begin SAT or ACT prep too early, it’s like decorating a house before the foundation is done. There’s an opportunity cost, too – time spent in SAT prep courses is time that can’t be used for things that build the foundation kids need for academic and test prep success.

The Bottom Line

Be patient and allow your kid to build his skills over time so test prep will work better when you do start it.

Vince Kotchian has been tutoring the SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT here in San Diego since 2008. He’s also published test prep books for Barron’s and created video courses for You can find him at