A testing guide and college mail. (Nick Anderson/TWP)

While fewer teens each year are taking the driver’s license test, another rite-of-passage exam’s popularity is climbing. This week more than 3.5 million high school sophomores and juniors will take the PSAT/NMSQT — the College Board’s onramp to the college admission testing highway that stretches to the fall of senior year for most. That’s about three times the number of 16-year-olds estimated to be getting behind the wheel this year. Along the way, students will encounter more test date options and corresponding decisions than ever, as the College Board and its competitor, ACT, vie for market share with exams now offered almost year-round.

For sophomores, the PSAT (the shorthand name for the test) is like an early test-drive, a low-stress chance to see how the full-sized SAT will look and feel. And for its part, ACT now offers a PreACT which high schools can opt to administer at any point during 10th grade. Sophomore year can be when students gauge how well-equipped they are to handle the college admission testing terrain ahead.

As juniors approach the PSAT, however, they should be planning their next turn. The exam plays no role in college admissions, but it’ll be the last official standardized test for which that can be said. And with PSAT results not due back until mid-December, juniors should start charting their course now. After the 11th grade PSAT, students tend to follow individual paths, for good reason.

The January option is out

In prior years, about 100,000 juniors embarked on their first official SAT in January. Sufficiently satisfied with PSAT results, they chose to test as early as possible in what would be a busy second semester. That option is now gone. When College Board added an August date to respond to summer demand, it also junked the January test. Juniors this year will either hurry up (and take the SAT in November or December) or wait (and take it in March, May or June.) The former would require testing before PSAT results are known, though, which is perhaps unwise unless one’s sophomore PSAT score was high enough to green-light testing earlier than most.

Spring dates, meanwhile, will allow students to proceed with caution — and perhaps with some much-needed preparation — but those dates may cause traffic on the calendars for some. Students targeting colleges that ask for SAT Subject Tests should reserve at least one of the late spring test dates for those. Subject Tests are not offered in March and are typically best scheduled toward the end of an academic year anyway. For such students, March is perhaps the most viable option for the SAT. Subject Tests are playing less of an overall role in college admissions but they remain relevant in highly selective conditions, particularly for applicants with ambitions related to science, technology, engineering and math.

ACT students should also be plotting their test dates. Students who are confident they can reach their potential soon have the option of testing in October or December, but most will be safer steering toward either February, April or June.

The end of 11th grade will be a good time for students to take inventory of where they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re headed as college application season approaches. With three years of grades and a first round of testing in the rearview mirror, it’ll be time to refine college lists and plan any necessary re-testing. After College Board added the August SAT option, ACT followed suit and will debut a summer exam this July. If summer testing is unappealing, the annual fall tests will welcome nascent seniors back to school as always.

How’s my driving?

College admission test scores are a means to an end, but how do you know if scores are strong enough to assist you to your destination?

Students and colleges alike have had to recalibrate this past year to a landscape of higher scores. Most notably, PSAT and SAT scores are up due to recent underlying changes to the tests. The 2016 redesign pushed the average SAT score in one year from 1002 (reading + math) to 1060, and scores are likely to inch even higher with this year’s seniors. Speaking of this year’s seniors, National Merit Semifinalist winners were recently announced and the cutoff scores were up from last year in 46 states — another side effect of changes to the test.

ACT scores have risen too, but for different reasons. There has been no major redesign of the test but there has been a gradual change in the testing pool. In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT as the more popular exam and since then it has grown by 22 percent. In those five years, growth in high-end ACT scores has been remarkably strong. Scores at or above 30 have climbed 58 percent, and perfect 36 scores are up 253 percent. In 2001, when about half of this year’s juniors were born, there were 900 students in the country with a 35 or higher. Last year there were over 15,000.

So as College Board and ACT continue competing for test takers and colleges keep jostling to admit students with seemingly higher scores, students are left to draw their own testing roadmaps. Some may move up the dates on which to start testing, while others will prudently wait. Some will undoubtedly favor and focus on one test or the other while the rest will take both. And concepts like “superscoring” (combining subscores from different dates to derive an even higher SAT or ACT score, as some colleges do) and “score choice” (picking only which scores to submit, as some colleges allow) will factor into re-testing decisions as students drive —  figuratively, if not literally — toward college.

Bruce Reed is co-founder and executive director of Compass Education Group, a test-preparation company in California.

Read more:

2016: SAT scores fall modestly in a year of transition for college admission test

2017: ‘We didn’t know it was this bad’: New ACT scores show huge achievement gaps