SAT/ACT Prep and College Counseling: Which Comes First?

Posted by Neal Schwartz on March 11, 2019

Neal and Zach at Union -1

Should students wait to start the college counseling process only after they lock-in their best SAT or ACT scores?

I get this question practically every day. What I find curious is that before I get a chance to answer the question, some parents answer it for me. Like many questions, the answer is, “It depends.”


 The Case for the Sequential Approach
The sequential approach page 1_Page_1Most high school juniors are overloaded with their academics, extracurricular activity, and test prep. If they are playing a demanding physical sport or have a lead part in a play, they can be fully absorbed with these activities. They are already overwhelmed/overloaded, and they need to focus on their test prep first. Introducing college discussions before they are ready is just going to bring down their success in these other important areas. So, this approach supports the premise that they should handle the college stuff AFTER they settle on their SAT/ACT scores.

The Case for the Parallel ApproachThe sequential approach page 1_Page_2If students wait until they have all of their test prep scores, they could be pressed into making some key decisions like college visits and college selection in a very tight timeframe. Also, getting them involved in seeing what colleges are looking for has the potential to motivate them to do even better on their SAT/ACT tests.

The Case for the Random Approach

The sequential approach page 1_Page_3

When there is no plan, the results will likely be random. The non-plan results in lots of starts and stops and mis-directions.

Key Considerations: 


In addition to deciding on the approach, is planning the timing for each of these:mature high school student

If they wait too long using the sequential approach, they will wind up in a parallel mode.

If they start too early with the parallel approach, the student may spend more time focusing on schools that are not good or reasonable fits. Also, too much time spent too early could cause them to lose interest in both test prep and college process work.


Depending on when a student starts the process, there is a good chance that the following areas might change:

  • Area of study
  • Type of college
  • College Location

College Selection/College Visits:Vassar Film

There is tight link between college selection and college visits:

1st – Visit Category Schools – typically HS Freshman and Sophomore years

2nd – Visit Schools from an agreed upon list – typically Junior year

Although I recommend that early in the student’s college process, usually sophomore year, a family should visit “category schools,” (city/country; big/small; liberal arts/technical), the junior year college visits are more deliberate. It becomes clear when you start going through the process, that if you don’t know what colleges are on your list, it is impossible to visit schools. One wasteful trend that I see lately is families who just randomly pick a list of schools and just treat the visits like a family vacation. So, utilizing at least a practice SAT or ACT score is helpful in seeing if a school is reasonable. There are so many tools for college selection that this effort can be overwhelming. Lots of research can point to a school that seems to be a perfect fit, but when the student actually visits, they may scratch the school off the list.



The answer to when to introduce the college process to your son or daughter really is a judgment call based on their individual schedules, maturity level, and other factors. Basically, it is a personal decision and it is probably best to not follow the path of neighbor, family or school friends, as they are also putting together plans based on their child’s unique factors.

To Do: Suggestions for the Spring:

HS Juniors –
SAT-ACT Prep, Actual SAT-ACT Testing and College Activities Plan

HS Sophs –
College Activities Plan, schedule SAT-ACT Prep for the summer

looking for the best college "Fit" ?:

Whether it is your first time or the 3rd time through the college process, avoiding some key mistakes can help increase the chances that you stay sane and that your son/daughter get their best college fit. 

If you have a high school student and want to get started on the right path, contact us at 914-273-2353, or visit us at: 


Topics: college admissions, admission advice, college prep, college advice, college process, college visits, college selection


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