“When should I start ACT/SAT prep?” is a common question on the minds of rising Juniors and Seniors, as they think about their upcoming school year.
Ideally, you should start preparing for the ACT or SAT about 3 months (13 weeks) before the test date. For example, if you were planning on taking the ACT on Saturday, July 18, 2020, then you would work backwards 13 weeks on the calendar.
This gives you a start date of Saturday, April 18, 2020 for your test prep period. Remember that you need to take your first timed practice test on this date, so don’t think you will have a lazy start to your prep!
Let’s start with a detailed timeline to start ACT/SAT prep. This plan breaks out the work we suggest you do to prepare over a 13 week period.
Suggested Timeline for Starting ACT/SAT Prep
First, we’ll start off with a suggested schedule for 3 months (13 weeks) of prep. If you have less time, you can condense the schedule accordingly. If you have more time, you can take more practice tests, or give yourself more study time between tests.
Test 1: Take your first timed practice test (Test 1) on day 1 of your study period. After you finish, grade the test to get your results. Look over the test to find your areas of weakness (for example, did you keep missing questions on systems of linear equations in the math section?)
First 4 weeks: Spend 30 minutes per day working on conceptual weaknesses from Test 1. For instance, you should review math topics you struggled with and grammar mistakes you missed on the Writing/Language section. If you had trouble with reading comprehension, check out our strategy for SAT Reading Comprehension.
Test 2: Take your second timed practice test (Test 2) after the first 4 weeks of your study period. After you finish, grade the test to get your results. Look for any remaining areas of weakness on concepts.
Next 4 weeks: You learned a good deal of content during your first four weeks of study. As a result, you may find that the problems you missed on your 2nd practice test were due to rushing your work or misreading questions.
You may also find yourself making “mental errors” (basic arithmetic or algebra mistakes) in the math section, even though you understand the concepts well. Spend some of this time working on your pacing – for example, finding shortcuts on math problems that you already know how to do.
Test 3: Take your third timed practice test (Test 3) after the next 4 weeks of your study period. After you finish, grade the test to get your results. There should be very few content weaknesses remaining. Most of the missed questions will be due to either careless mistakes or missing the toughest concepts on the test.
Next 4 weeks: Study any concepts that still need work, and put in extra effort to eliminate the careless mistakes you are making on the practice tests. Continue to work on your pacing – now that you have learned most of the material, you need to make it automatic to speed up your pace.
Test 4: Take your fourth timed practice test (Test 4) after the next 4 weeks of your study period. After you finish, grade the test to get your results. This test has two purposes: first, to get you into the habit of taking a test early on Saturday morning, so that you are ready for it the following weekend. Second, this fourth practice test will tell you what you need to look over during your last week of prep.
Final prep week: This is where you polish your performance and get ready for prime time! Look over any notes you took during the last 12 weeks. That way, you can refresh your memory on equations, concepts, grammar rules, and anything else you need at your fingertips for the test.
Do some practice problems during this last week to keep you sharp. However, do not cram the night before the test!
Most of your preparation was done during the last 13 weeks (and if we’re being honest, throughout your high school career). A few more hours of studying on Friday night is not going to do much for you (besides making you tired!)
You are much better off getting a good sleep on Friday night (and in the week leading up to the test). That way, you will be sharp and at your best on test day.
Also, make sure to eat a good breakfast on Saturday to give you energy to maintain focus during the whole test. Finally, plan to arrive at the test center early to eliminate any anxiety about being late.
For more information, check out our article on what you need to know before taking your SAT.
Specifics for Your ACT/SAT Prep Plan
Of course, if you only have 1 month to prepare, you may need to triple down on your study time to achieve the score you want. This could mean 1.5 prep hours per day, or putting in a full day on Saturday or Sunday each weekend.
You can also consider pushing back your schedule to a later test date, to give you enough time to prepare to start ACT/SAT prep. AP and Honors classes, sports, and clubs can make it difficult to devote enough time to prep to be ready in a month.
Remember that spending too much time studying in one day will lead to a lack of focus. This will lead to a lack of results from the time you put into studying. To make your ACT/SAT prep as effective as possible, you will need to spend more time on the topics you struggle with the most.
After each practice test you take, look at the results and see which areas you need to work on. For example, if you didn’t do as well on the math section, consider devoting two out of the next three weeks to studying math (spending the third week on the remaining subjects).
After you figure out how you are going to spend your weeks, figure out how you will spend your days. For example, let’s say you are going to spend two weeks on math, and you find that you struggled most on quadratics, circles, and probability.
In that case, you might use your study time as follows:
- 5 days for quadratics
- 5 days for lines
- 4 days for probability
Within each of these categories, you can drill even deeper to decide how to use your study time. For example, you might use this schedule for studying quadratics over the course of five days:
- Day 1: factoring quadratics
- Day 2: quadratic formula
- Day 3: graphing parabolas from quadratics
- Day 4: zeros/roots of quadratics
- Day 5: do an overall review of quadratics (everything from Day 1 to Day 4)
How to Get the Most Out of Your ACT/SAT Prep
Just as with sports, music, hobbies, or any other pursuit, you get out of your test prep what you put into it. It’s not just about the hours you spend – it’s about the quality of those hours.
To get more out of those hours, you need to really engage with the material. Avoid studying when you are already completely drained! Start ACT/SAT prep when you are sharp and ready to spend the time to dive deep into the questions.
Here is one great exercise to get even more out of any Reading or English Language practice questions. Whether you got the question right or wrong, go through and look at each incorrect answer.
Then, come up with a reason that explains why each incorrect answer doesn’t work. For example, one answer might have a punctuation mistake (such as improper use of a semicolon). Another answer might have a verb that does not agree with the subject.
On Reading passages, you might see the following types of common “trap” answers:
- Part of the answer is true, but part of it is false
- The answer is true, but it does not answer the question (or is not the best answer)
- The answer quotes the passage, but is not related to the question
The more you work on identifying incorrect and trap answers, the faster you will see them when they come up. By the time test day comes around, it will be automatic for you to quickly see these mistakes and eliminate those answers.
The amount of time you devote to ACT or SAT prep will depend on where your score is now and where you want it to be. It will also depend on how much study time you can fit into your schedule each week. However, the 13 week schedule outlined above should put you in a great position to improve your score quite a bit before test day. The best time to start ACT/SAT prep is when you have time, energy, motivation, and a 13-week schedule.
If you need some guidance with the test prep process, the best thing to do is schedule a free consultation call with one of Testive’s Student Success Advisors!