What To Expect When You’re Expecting a Junior: A Cheat Sheet for Parents of Sophomores

Spring has finally sprung, and it won’t be long before a young sophomore’s thoughts turn to junior year and all of the standardized tests that that year will bring.

For parents of sophomores, the prospect can be daunting. The array of standardized tests is overwhelming, even for those parents who’ve been through the process already. This brief overview should help identify the what and when on the testing horizon.


Many states, districts, or schools purchase practice tests from ACT and from College Board, the writer of the SAT. Schools administer the practice tests during a school day and scores are available 4-8 weeks later. These tests are not used for admission, but they are useful benchmarks for a starting score and can help students decide whether to focus on the ACT or SAT.

The Pre-ACT is practice for the ACT, and the PSAT is practice for the SAT. Actually, College Board promotes three different PSATs to states and school districts: the PSAT 8/9 for middle schoolers and freshmen, the PSAT 10 for sophomores, and the PSAT NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) for juniors.

SAT Subject Tests

The SAT Subject Tests are one-hour exams in specific content areas. Many selective colleges require scores from 2-3 Subject Tests in addition to the ACT or SAT. The subjects offered are Math, Literature, US History, World History, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and several world languages. If juniors take an AP class (Advanced Placement) in any of those subjects, they should plan to take the Subject Test in that same area. AP exams are given in May, so take the Subject Test in May or June: two test scores, one studying period. Students can take up to three tests in one sitting, but they cannot take SAT Subjects Tests and the SAT on the same day.

Sophomores in an honors Science or advanced math track should consider taking a Subject Test in those areas this June. Next year, they can always repeat the tests or choose different subjects to take. They can select only their best Subject Test scores to send to colleges.

For more on these tests, their content, and how best to prepare for them, follow Nick Bacarella’s excellent series on the SAT Subject Tests here.  

National Merit Scholarship Program

Scores from the PSAT NMSQT in October of junior year determine the National Merit Scholarship Index, the measure of entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program.

The connection to National Merit has, historically, disproportionately elevated the perceived importance of the PSAT: you can’t use the score for admission, and for the vast majority of students, it’s truly just practice for the SAT. Out of roughly 1.6 million test-takers, fewer than 35,000 will score high enough to be considered a Commended Student, and only about 16,000 will qualify for Semi-Finalist. Certainly, both are impressive honors, and students with very high prior scores should strive for their best possible score. Check with your school about whether registration is automatic or optional.

Note: the connection to National Merit has possibly prompted some schools to offer the PSAT to sophomores or even freshmen to give them extra practice. However, only junior year scores can be used for the National Merit Selection Index. Read more about the program at National Merit Scholarship.


Both the ACT and SAT are given several times each year. (See below for the 2019-2020 calendar.) These are the national test dates that students must register for on their own. Note, however, that many states, districts, and schools offer an additional SAT or ACT in school during the year. Check your school calendar for details on those potential test dates.

Since no college requires both the ACT and SAT for admissions, students should pick and focus on one. They should take the test they will score better on and, frankly, dislike less. Which one do they want to spend time and effort preparing for? Most well-prepared students take their chosen test two to four times in order to earn their best scores. Why multiply those Saturday mornings by two and divide the preparation in half?

Look at sports, extra-curricular activities, spring break, and family events to determine which test dates below align best with a busy junior year.

To create an account and register, visit these respective websites.

SAT: College Board Registration

ACT: ACT Registration

Structure and Scores

The ACT and SAT are similar . . . but different. Much of the content tested is similar, but each test features its distinctive style and scoring.


ACT Writing and SAT Essay

Both the ACT and the SAT offer an optional written component at the end of each exam. ACT Writing is one essay, 40 minutes, scored 2-12. SAT Essay is one essay, 50 minutes, scored 8-24. Neither score affects the Composite or Total Score. Few colleges require the Writing/Essay, but students should research potential schools to determine if any on their list do.

In a blink of an eye, your sophomore will be a senior. Junior year can be stressful, but with smart planning, a healthy balance of school and home, and lots of sleep, your teen will survive this coming year, and so will you.

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