How to create a better game plan for the ACT, SAT

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

With a new school year under way, the last thing student-athletes want to be thinking about is standardized tests. Yet, it would be a mistake not to consider the necessary steps to become eligible and get accepted into college. After all, the goal is to become a college athlete. And, at least for now, you can’t do that without taking standardized tests. Scoring high on the SAT or ACT can put you on the radar of programs you might not otherwise be qualified for and get you more scholarship money. But when is the right time to take these tests? What score do you need to get? How do you study? We’ll answer these questions and more.

SAT vs. ACT: Which one? Or both?

Most colleges and universities accept both the SAT and ACT, but you check the schools on your target list to see if they have a preference. The tests are fairly similar in the types of questions, although the SAT is slightly longer and doesn’t include a science section. Other differences between the tests include:

  • The SAT focuses more on vocabulary and general reasoning.
  • The math section of the ACT is more advanced than the SAT.

A good way to determine which test you should choose is to take the PSAT and PreACT, which are the respective practice tests for the SAT and ACT. If you do much better on the PSAT than the PreACT, for example, you should consider the SAT over the ACT.

Insider Tip: The best time for your student-athlete to take these practice tests is the summer before junior year. You will discover what sections they are lacking in and can prepare for those sections before taking the actual test for the first time.

A timeline for when to take the SAT and/or ACT

It is preferred that student-athletes take the SAT or ACT at the beginning of their junior year. Student-athletes who are able to give coaches concrete test scores early on give themselves a leg up in the recruiting process, as it makes it easier for coaches to make decisions on which recruits to follow.

Another reason it’s important to take standardized tests during junior year is that many colleges have application deadlines of early November of your senior year; that doesn’t leave much time to get test scores up as a senior.

Once your student-athlete has the first round of test scores from their junior year, they have an even better baseline for what they need to work on. It is recommended that you take the SAT or ACT again during your junior year if you’re looking to improve your score.

When summer hits, if you’re still dissatisfied with your test scores, this is your chance to do final study prep for the beginning of your senior year. The last ACT for early action/decision is held in October; for the SAT, it’s October or November (depending on the college’s deadline). For regular-decision applicants, December of your senior year is the last time you can take the SAT or ACT.

Remaining SAT and ACT test dates for 2017-2018:

SAT Test Date Normal Deadline Late Registration
October 7, 2017 September 8, 2017 September 27, 2017
November 4, 2017 October 5, 2017 October 25, 2017
December 2, 2017 November 2, 2017 November 21, 2017
March 10, 2018 February 9, 2018 February 28, 2018
May 5, 2018 April 6, 2018 April 25, 2018
June 2, 2018 May 3, 2018 May 23, 2018


ACT Test Date Normal Deadline Late Registration
October 28, 2017 September 22, 2017 September 23 – October 6, 2017
December 9, 2017 November 3, 2017 November 4-17, 2017
February 10, 2018 January 12, 2018 January 13-19, 2018
April 14, 2018 March 9, 2018 March 10-23, 2018
June 9, 2018 May 4, 2018 May 5-9, 2018
July 14, 2018 June 15, 2018 June 16-22, 2018

Insider Tip: You can take the SAT as many times as you want and the ACT up to 12 times. However, taking it more than three times is not likely to help you.

What scores do you need?

A big part of taking and retaking the SAT/ACT is understanding what scores you need to be both eligible and accepted into your school of choice. The NCAA uses a combined SAT test score to determine eligibility. This is the sum of your math plus reading scores. For the ACT, your English, math, reading and science scores are added together to create the “ACT Sum Score.” This is different than the composite score that is an average of the four sections.

Insider Tip: When you are registering for the SAT or ACT, enter the code 9999 to send your scores directly to the NCAA Eligibility Center. If you send your scores after you’ve taken the test, there is a different process and a small fee involved.

The NCAA uses the best scores from each section of the ACT and/or SAT to create your final score, so taking the tests multiple times is to your advantage. So, for example, if your child scores high on math and reading the first time they take the test, they know to focus studying on English and science so they can bring up their sum/combined score. According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, more than half of students take the SAT more than once and see an increase in their score. The ACT reports similar findings.

NCAA Division I schools use a sliding scale to determine eligibility. What this means is, the higher your GPA, the lower your test scores can be, and vice versa. For example, if you have a 3.5 core course GPA, you need a 420 on the SAT or a combined 39 on the ACT. If you have a slightly lower GPA of 3.45, the scale for what you need on the SAT and ACT moves up to 440 and 41, respectively. See the full sliding scale.

Beginning with the Class of 2018, there is a full qualifier sliding scale for DII schools. Eligibility in the NAIA requires an 18 on the ACT and 860 on the SAT. Learn more about NAIA eligibility.

For DII, there is no sliding scale; you will need a minimum SAT score of 820 or an ACT Sum Score of 68. Eligibility in the NAIA requires an 18 on the ACT and 860 on the SAT. Learn more about NAIA eligibility.

3 final tips for getting high scores

  1. Get help with studying. Many high schools offer in-school or afterschool classes and guidance on SAT or ACT testing. It’s been recommended to spend at least 40 total hours studying for either test. Some student-athletes are able to hire tutors; if that is an option for you, it could be worth it. The Princeton review offers free SAT and ACT practice tests.
  2. Choose your test date wisely. Student-athlete schedules are busy, but try to pick test dates that don’t fall in the busy season of your sport or life. The more stress you have on your plate, the less focus you’ll have on testing.
  3. Get proper rest. Staying up too late the night before you take the SAT or ACT can affect your outcome. Take care of yourself so you can be in the mindset to excel.
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