I gave my eight year-old daughter a practice problem from a critical reading practice section of an SAT out of morbid curiosity. It was a vocab in context question, which she promptly answered correctly in under a minute. I bring this up less to brag (okay, maybe a little), but more because it made me wonder: what is the right age to begin SAT preparation for your children? If we’re speaking strictly of performance, independent of the human being that is actually tasked with this academic decathlon, then I suppose the earlier the better.

There’s a reason beyond ‘natural gifts’ as to why Mozart wrote his first symphony at age eight. Namely, his father taught him to play the clavier at an expert level at the age of four. At age five he was composing minor pieces with his father’s assistance, and by age six he was on tour. ‘Sign me up,’ say all parents, until we consider that by age 35, he was broke, frail and then dead– buried in a communal, unmarked grave (much of his popularity arriving postmortem). While there is much mystery surrounding the causes of his death, scholars agree he was an ‘anxious, thin and pale,’ which likely contributed to his early demise, probably in part due to his upbringing. In other words, while starting young can dramatically expand skills and upside, it can also make for an anxious mess.

I was more on the opposite end of the Mozart scale: like a fool, I didn’t prepare at all for my SATs. My parents were entirely hands off, and I had the misfortune of being a young, 17 year-old boy at the time. I was also a bit cocky about it all. Needless to say, I have my regrets about the results.

The natural question to arise is where in the inbetween should we start encouraging preparation? It is a question of chemistry that has a different answer for every child. We would have to agree that different teens have different constitutions and tolerances for stress. We would also all have to agree that some relationships, due to their unique chemistry, have the power to push students further than others. I can bump some kids’ scores up by 500 points, but if hell depended on it, I can’t get my daughter to brush her teeth… So context matters to large degree.

But here are some guidelines I would posit. If you have a driven and relatively stable high school freshman or even rising high school freshman, it makes sense to have them prepare for the PSAT, which they take in 10th grade. It should be presented at that point as a fun challenge for the logically gifted, with zero pressure around it regarding their future. They’re just not ready for that psychologically. Once they hit the summer before junior year it is fine, but by no means necessary, to begin full preparation for the SAT (or ACT if you go that route). The summer leading to Senior year is more or less the last call on comfortably spacing prep work for SAT. Waiting till senior fall is too late with early application timing and an extremely busy senior fall cluttering the way.

In all cases, you should remind your young student that there is pretty much always another chance to take it, and that ‘super-scoring’ applies. The more you push them to excel, the more emotional support they will need to comfortably get there. Reassurance is critical when they realize that roughly 40% of their application depends on it! Best of luck to all.