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5 Questions to Find Your 'When to Start' Sweet Spot (In Test Prep and in Life)

05/16/2014 01:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

Knowing when to start a project isn't as intuitive as we might initially think -- especially when it comes to projects pertaining to long-term goals rather than short-term assignments. SAT/ACT test prep is a great example of this: students start test prep at various points in their academic careers, and there are exceptions to every "When to Start" rule.

Determining when to start is all about finding your sweet spot: not too early or too late to have the most positive test prep experience possible.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if you're at your sweet spot:

1) Do I have the basic knowledge I need to be successful?

This question comes with a major caveat: you don't need to know EVERYTHING. Part of preparation is discovering and filling your knowledge gaps.

2) Do I need extra preparation time to develop certain knowledge I don't have?

For example, when I taught SAT prep at The Lycee Francais in New York City, a French school where English isn't necessarily a student's first language, I began working with students in their sophomore year so that they could have additional time working with the English-based test.

I began working with another student in her sophomore year because she had learning differences and had missed a lot of basic math content from her earlier education, so we needed extra time to build her strong foundation.

3) What are the current demands on my time? Is there a current obligation that has a specific end point? What future projects do I see on the horizon?

Note: the question is not, "Do I have time?"
We all have busy lives and multiple proverbial "balls in the air."

Rather, you need to consider whether you have a good, objective reason to believe that your time will be freed up in the not-too-distant future or whether you will have new demands on your time down the line.

For example, students may want to start or intensify their prep during the summer months when they don't have the daily pressures of attending school.

Furthermore, for many students the ideal is to finish their testing by the end of junior year or the very beginning of senior year so that they can shift focus from college admissions tests to college applications. As busy as they are during their junior year, they know that come senior year there will be new demands on their time. They want to be able to give their attention to both test prep and college applications without compromising their performance on either test prep or applications (let alone school or activities).

Having to work on both simultaneously is certainly doable, but it can also feel overwhelming.

4) Am I allowing myself time to learn and grow?

We often want (and maybe even expect) things to come together sooner than they actually do. Allowing yourself time to learn and grow also gives you the freedom to fail without feeling like it's all or nothing.

If a student wants to finish testing by the spring of his or her junior year, starting prep in the summer before or fall of junior year affords plenty of time to build a foundation, refine skills, and optimize performance.

And, if a student happens to finish earlier than spring? No one ever complained about succeeding too soon.

5) Does my goal feel abstract or real?

You know those people who say, "The pressure is good for me?" The ones who leave studying to the night before the test or homework for 10 o'clock at night? (You might be one of them.) Part of the reason these people like working under pressure is that as the amount of time between their work and the deadline decreases, the "realness" of the deadline increases. They can feel it approaching. This is motivating for them -- it's a totally natural phenomenon. This urgency-breeds-motivation mindset is why so many of my students up their efforts in the fall of their senior year.

So, here's the thing. No, you don't want to start so far in advance that your goal feels completely abstract.

That said, you can connect to the "reality" of your goal with or without the pressure of time by focusing on the "why."

Focusing on your "why" for college admissions tests adds fuel to your fire. The "why" keeps you focused, motivated, and engaged with your goals and the steps that will help you achieve them.

If your answers to all of the other questions add up -- you have the basic knowledge; there are no extra, finite pressures on your time; you have a future obligation that will make demands on your time; you've allowed yourself time to learn and grow -- and you don't feel motivated because the goal doesn't feel real, you likely need to spend some time connecting to your "why."

Fear of failure can stop us from starting. Don't let it.

If you are a rising senior who, after reading this post, feels behind the eight-ball, don't! The goal is always to start where you are, and you have an entire summer ahead to get your test prep into gear. Make the most of it.

No matter where you're at, start there. It's really the only option.

Take this post and the lessons you've learned from your experience and file them away for the future.

By the time you reach college, you'll have to be largely self-directed about when to start essays, applications, or academic test prep. Asking these five questions will help you to gain perspective on your schedule and goals.

This post originally appeared on ErikaOppenheimer.com