The Test Prep Calendar
Planning Your SAT & ACT Prep
Most people think that test prep is a stressful process. It certainly can be – if you leave it until the last minute.
Learning anything in a short period of time is stressful – especially when the stakes are this high. And because your brain prefers to learn new information in a long-term, consistent manner, short-term prep usually results in poor learning, which compounds the stress further.
When I advise people to start prepping for the SAT and ACT their freshman year of high school, they look at me like I’m some sort of crazy “tiger dad.” That’s because most people think of test prep in terms of the ballistic, high-intensity “crash courses” they’re used to being sold.
Prepping for three hours a day starting your freshman year? That would be crazy. But that’s not what I mean.
If you start early, you can put in a relatively insignificant amount of time per day and still end up with incredible results. Think about it this way: the average student needs about 100-120 hours of prep (including instruction, assignments, and practice tests) to revolutionize their scores. For most students, prepping more than this isn’t necessary to get elite scores. That’s why my entire online prep program is formally structured to take 120 hours (but gives you the opportunity to prep for longer if you need the extra time).
If you start in your senior fall, you do need to put in 90+ minutes a day to achieve massive score improvements by your testing deadlines. That’s horrendous.
But if you start your freshman year, you can put in 20 minutes a day to achieve the same (and often better) results. By the start of your sophomore year, you’ll have 120 hours of prep under your belt, and you can be finished with this process with YEARS left before you need to apply.
20 Minutes a day is an easy mark to hit. Find me a student who can’t carve out 10 minutes before school and 10 minutes in the evening and I’ll find you a goose that lays golden eggs.
If you start late, test prep will disrupt your schedule to a certain degree (if you want it to work). If you start early, you can keep a high GPA, tackle sports and extracurriculars, and manage to have a satisfying personal/social life, too!
Your SAT and ACT scores are valid for FIVE YEARS after you take them. You can knock them out your freshman year and they’ll still be valid by the time you apply, so why not get them out of the way?
Furthermore, your brain learns best through light, consistent repetition. It’s not just an issue of “spread volume” – it’s also an issue of consistency. Give me a student who spends 10 hours/day studying Spanish for 12 days straight, and another student who spends one hour/day studying for 120 days straight, and I’ll bet on the latter every. Single. Time.
Better scores. Less stress. Fewer disruptions. Why wouldn’t you start early if you could?
Of course, every student is a bit different. In general, you can expect the following from ~100-120 hours of practice (based on thousands of students who I’ve tutored personally and who’ve been through my online test prep system):
SAT Scores: +350 Points
ACT Scores: +5 Points
Do you need more points than that? You might need to put in a bit more time. If you need fewer points to hit the mark, it might take less time. It depends on the student, where he/she is starting, and his/her rate of progress. I’ve seen students improve by 600+ points with 50 hours of work, and I’ve seen students improve by only 250 points with 100 hours of work.
If you track your rate of progress using accurate, at-home diagnostic tests, you won’t have to wonder how long this process will take you. Yet another reason to start early. If you give yourself the time to take practice tests and track your progress, you don’t need to sweat it – just go in and take the test whenever you’re ready to do so (when your practice test scores hit your target schools’ score requirements).
OK, OK – I’ve made my point. Start early. But how much time do I recommend spending per day once you’ve begun? That’s what my handy-dandy prep calendar is for. I’ll show you exactly how much time I recommend prepping based on what year you’re in, when you should take your official tests, and when you know you’re done!
Let’s start with the “worst case scenario” – that you’re beginning your prep senior year – and work down from there.
Senior Year Prep Calendar:
Runway: 4 months (September through December)
If you begin in September, you’ll need to take the November or December tests in order to hit your application deadlines. If you begin later, you’re under a serious time crunch.
It is possible to take tests after you apply and then submit the scores late, but this isn’t recommended (it can’t hurt, but it rarely helps), and it’s usually only effective if you get deferred, in which case new information is both welcome and helpful.
Your real goal is to knock everything out by December. And ideally, you’ll want to take your first test in November to lower your risks and get some insurance (you can see our full SAT and ACT date calendar here).
Time is of the essence, so if you or your child is a senior, it’s time to start now.
Recommended study time/day: 60-90 minutes (more, if possible)
If your scores need real work, then you need to put in serious time between now and your test date. As I mentioned, 100-120 hours is the point at which most students see serious score improvements. You have that much time, but it’ll require a big daily commitment on your part.
Because you’re condensing your prep, your learning is going to be less efficient – this means that a larger daily requirement is preferable.
If you can put in 90 minutes a day from September 1st through December 1st, you’ll get 135 hours of prep.
Certainly doable! My best advice: break the prep up into chunks, and make sure to get a full-length practice test in AT LEAST 6 times. You have 12 weekends in this period – every other weekend should be devoted to a 4-hour practice test from one of the official exam booklets (College Board or ACT).
If you can knock out 6 exams plus 90 minutes/day on all your “off days,” you’re going to see serious improvements in this window.
But this means a serious commitment. NO off days allowed – even one will derail you.
-Waking up earlier than usual and doing 30 minutes in the morning.
-Working 15 minutes in at school (during study halls etc.).
-30 Minutes in the afternoon when you’re back from school or practice.
-Another 15-20 minutes before you go to bed.
As you can see, this is doable – but it’s going to be intense. You’ll either need a flexible online prep program like the Green Test Prep System, or a tutor who’s willing to work on an insanely flexible, ballistic schedule.
Focus: Only on your weaknesses.
In general, I recommend focusing on your weaknesses far more than your strengths. It’s much easier to raise an ACT math score from a 23 to a 28 than it is to raise it from a 33 to a 36. Your biggest weaknesses are also your biggest potential opportunities for extra points.
If you started earlier, you’d have the luxury of prepping for every section and mastering them all. But because of your time crunch, you want to spend most of your time on your worst areas.
You should still prep a bit for all your areas, but if you have a great English and reading score, a decent math score, and a horrible science score, the lion’s share of your prep should be focused on science, with most of the rest going to math. You can glance at reading and English a bit, and basically ignore the essay entirely.
The specific percentages depend on you, but if you’re a senior and you’re just starting your prep, you really want to leverage your time strongly toward your weakest areas, and only focus on your mediocre and strong areas if you’re progressing rapidly or find extra time in a day to prep.
Take the test: by the application deadline. Ideally, take two, even if you need to submit late.
There’s really no options here. You need to take your test by December. Ideally, you can take a November test as well. If you must, take a January/February exam as well.
The good news: you don’t have to put much thought into this. The bad news: you don’t have a choice in the matter.
Hopefully, your scores will hit the mark by the deadline. But you need to take your test(s) by the deadline no matter what.
Ideal study window: immediately, and as much as possible in the time you have left.
Again, your study window is “however much time is remaining between now and when your last test option is scheduled.”
Start prepping immediately, either by using my online system or finding an insanely reputable and effective tutor, and see what you can do!
You still have the chance to get amazing test scores, and I’ve helped countless seniors to do so under extremely tight deadlines. It won’t be fun, and it won’t be easy, but it’s possible – IF you start now!
Junior Year Prep Calendar:
Runway: 10-16 months
If you’re starting as a junior, you have more than enough time to get awesome SAT and ACT scores. From September of your junior year, you have a full 16 months before the absolute last-minute deadline to take these exams, which is December of your senior year. However, my absolute best advice is to get this thing knocked out by June. That way, you will have your scores in hand so that you can have a ludicrously straightforward college application selection process. You can also then devote your summer months to fine-tuning insanely impressive application packets.
If you follow my advice below, you won’t even need to worry about the senior year December deadline though – unless you’re starting with a very low score and have very high goals, or your rate of progress is slower than expected, you should be able to knock this test out by the end of your junior year without a problem. Even if you can’t, you’ll have a full summer to prepare so that you can knock it out when you’re a senior.
Starting as a junior ups the ante slightly in terms of time commitment versus starting earlier, but not by much. You can follow a relatively light schedule and still see enormous score improvements – and because you’ll have so many opportunities for backup tests and continued improvement, the stress that is usually present should never rear its ugly head!
Recommended study time/day: 40-60 minutes
If you want to hit your ~100-120 hours of prep, you can spend as little as 40 minutes a day and still get there in 5-6 months! Plenty of time to knock these exams out before the summer.
How should you break up your study time throughout the day?
-10 Minutes in the morning before you head off to school
-30 Minutes in the afternoon or evening
-20 Minutes in the morning before you head off to school
-20-30 Minutes in the afternoon or evening
The only other thing you need to consider is practice tests. Ideally, you’ll take a practice test every 3-4 weeks. Set aside a four-hour chunk of time on the weekend, plan ahead, and make sure to take the tests under realistic conditions (a good night’s sleep, a proper breakfast, no external distractions, wearing a digital watch, etc.).
If you start your junior year, prep using the above schedule, and make sure to figure out where you stand via monthly diagnostic tests, you’ll be able to complete your test prep well before the end of the year.
Focus: A bit more on your weaknesses.
If you begin at the start of your junior year, you’re really not under much of a time crunch. 40-60 minutes/day is far from negligible, but you can work it into most schedules.
Nevertheless, because the clock is ticking, it’s wise to make sure you patch up your weaknesses before taking a more holistic focus.
If you’re great at reading and writing+language, but weak at math, then you should spend about 60-70% of your time on math, and then split the other 30-40% of your time between reading and writing+language.
By taking monthly practice tests, you’ll get a good idea of where you stand on an updated, realistic basis. When your weakest scores start to approach your strongest scores, you can start to spread your focus a bit more.
Take the test: By April/May, if possible. This leaves time for a backup test in June.
The SAT and ACT both offer June exams. The problem with taking your first official test in June? If you don’t hit the mark, you’ll have to keep prepping all summer if you want to stay fresh for your exam in the fall.
If you aim for your first practice test to be no later than April (for the ACT) or May (for the SAT), you’ll be able to lock in a backup test in June in case you want to boost your scores a bit more to meet your colleges’ targeted ranges.
However, you should take the test as soon as your practice test scores hit the mark. If you’re shooting for a 31 on the ACT, and you get a 31 on two straight practice tests, register for the next available test and the one scheduled after that (your primary test and a backup) and knock them out as soon as possible.
If you want to exceed your goals, you’ll have more time. But if you’ve set a goal for your target SAT/ACT scores, and you hit that goal, you should get the test out of the way. Ambition is amazing, and there’s no reason not to reach higher (so long as you don’t have a million other things on your plate), but make sure to get this process done as soon as you can!
Be sure to take a look at my SAT and ACT date and registration calendar so that you can plan ahead!
Ideal study window: 5-8 months
This should be more than enough time. If you’re looking for an enormous improvement (in the 500+ range on the SAT, or in the 9+ range on the ACT), you might be looking at the 8+ month mark if you keep to the light, daily practice schedule that I recommend, but for most students, this will be more than enough time to truly conquer these tests.
Sophomore Year Prep Calendar:
Runway: 6-28 months
If you’re starting your sophomore year, congratulations!
There’s basically zero time pressure. You still want to finish this process as soon as you can (it’ll make the rest of your high school experience that much simpler), but because your daily commitment is going to be so small, and because you have so little time pressure, you’ll be prepping in a totally stress-free way that utilizes your brain’s preference for consistent, long-term study.
Recommended study time/day: 30-40 minutes
You could study for even less time, but you do want to get this process over with, don’t you?
Two possible ways to set up your daily schedule that’ll work wonders:
-10 Minutes in the morning
-20 or 30 Minutes in the afternoon/evening
-20 Minutes when you get back from school/practice
-10-20 Minutes before you go to bed
This is a very light, very doable routine. The real key is to keep it up every single day. Your brain is a “use it or lose it mechanism” – every day that you do something, you get better at it. Every day that you don’t do something, you get worse at it.
If you can make your daily study a routine (getting home from practice means that you automatically get out of the shower, dress, grab a snack, and study for 20 minutes before you do your homework), you’re going to build this in with zero disruption to your schedule, and you’ll get your 100-120 hours of prep within 7-8 months.
The only other thing you need to consider is your practice test schedule. Ideally, you’d take a full-length, timed, graded diagnostic every 5 weeks or so. You’ll have six tests under your belt by the time you take your SAT or ACT, which will allow you to build your test-taking skills, reduce anxiety, isolate weaknesses, and focus your prep.
Combining 30-40 minutes of daily prep with a practice test every 5 to 6 weeks will result in huge improvements by the end of sophomore year. And if you need to study over the summer and take it in the fall of your Junior year? So what! You have all the time in the world, and no pressure whatsoever. You’ll have the luxury of conquering this test on your terms with no stress and a light daily commitment.
Focus: Holistic, with a slight lean toward weaknesses.
You’ll always want to spend the most time on your weakest areas, but because you have so much time, you can invest in every section of the SAT/ACT, including the essay, with no consequences.
You’ll always scoop more points on your lower-scoring section(s), but you have enough runway to get high scores across the board. Whether you use my online prep system, a reputable tutor, or another method of prep, you’ll be able to span the entire spectrum of lessons and strategies for all the sections, and you might as well do just that!
Take the test: as soon as diagnostic scores match target scores. Take your first test any time other than June (to allow for a backup test).
Because you have so much time, you can and should plan on taking two exams – a primary exam and a backup exam.
There is zero pressure to take the exam under any sort of arbitrary timeline. Just do the following:
- Set your target scores and figure out what you’ll need to get into your dream schools.
- Take a practice test every 5-6 weeks.
- When you get the scores you’re looking for twice in a row, find a test date and register for an official test and a backup exam.
- If you get the scores you want on your first try, you can cancel your backup date and you’re good to go!
- If you don’t, you can keep prepping lightly and take as many tests as you need in order to get the scores you want.
- If you’re feeling ambitious, you can always keep prepping – but the need to do so will be entirely eliminated once you hit the mark.
Don’t take an official test for the sake of it – just take a test when you know you’ll be able to get the scores you want.
The only other piece of advice here: if possible, avoid taking the June exams as your first official test. If you don’t hit the mark, you’ll need to wait until the fall to take your backup test (no SATs or ACTs are offered during the summer), so you’ll need to keep prepping over the summer months. Not a big deal considering the light time requirement, but most kids would rather knock this out and spend their summer enjoying their lives to the fullest!
Ideal study window: 6-10 months, but longer is totally fine.
If you spend 30 minutes a day prepping, you’ll get to your 120 hours in 8 months. Some students might need more time, others might need significantly less. Just keep going until you get the scores you want and then take your official test(s). The pressure is off, so this window is just suggested for personal lifestyle. It’s more fun to not prep for the SAT/ACT than it is to prep for the SAT/ACT – but it’s not a big deal if you have to keep going for a little while longer!
Freshmen Year Prep Calendar:
Runway: 40 months
Honestly, the idea of even putting a “runway” here is a bit silly. You have all the time in the world.
The real question isn’t one of time pressure – you have none. There’s no stress involved, no big daily time requirement, and you can take the test whenever you’re good and ready.
All it really boils down to is this: how quickly do you want to get this over with? If you study a bit more each day, you could easily finish halfway through your freshman year. Remember – your scores are good for five full years! So it is totally possible to put this part of your journey to college behind you. But if you want to do the absolute minimum on a daily basis, you can get incredible scores by the start of your sophomore year.
Many people hold to the theory that freshmen and sophomores are not ready to tackle this material yet. I have good news for you on that front! I have plenty of students that absolutely kill this task and get incredible scores as 14 and 15 year olds. If they follow my recommendation of daily, consistent practice, there is zero reason in the world for them not to be super successful on these tests. Hear me – this is completely doable!
It’s totally up to you. If you’re starting as a freshman, you’re officially in the “world is your oyster zone.” Congrats! This is going to be a total walk in the park. And because your scores are valid for five years, the second you’re finished with your test, you can focus on everything else without giving the SAT/ACT another thought, which means that your entire application is going to be improved (and easier to put together)!
Recommended study time/day: 20-30 minutes
Even if you put in 20 minutes a day, you can knock out your 120 hours of prep in a year.
Here’s how that might look:
-10 Minutes in the morning
-10/20 Minutes in the afternoon/evening
-20/30 Minutes in the afternoon/evening
–Whatever works best for you.
Freshman year is your easiest year of high school. You need to keep a high GPA (every year matters just as much), and you’ll be adjusting to the new social scene, but you don’t have too much else going on (none of the other elements of the college application have really come into play yet).
Working this small daily commitment in is going to be a total breeze. You can’t find me a student who can’t find two 10-minute windows a day in which to study!
The only other issue is practice tests. Ideally, you’ll take at least 6 before you go into the real thing – they’ll build your test-taking abilities and help you to figure out where you stand. They take 4 hours a piece to take, and you’ll want to take them on the weekend, on a full night’s sleep, after a good breakfast, in a realistic setting.
Try taking a practice test every 6-8 weeks at a minimum. You can take them more frequently if you’d like, but you don’t need to.
That’s all it boils down to. A practice test every ~2 months and a 20-30 minute daily commitment will get you incredible scores by the start of your sophomore year at the latest.
Get better at everything. Learn every math and grammar fact/rule/formula you need to know.
Practice the essay until you can write it in your sleep.
Figure out your ideal reading speed, and practice enough that you always finish on time with high accuracy.
If you’re taking the ACT, repeat the proven science strategies and approaches until they’re second nature.
While “focus on your weaknesses” is always the best advice for any student, you have enough time to prep that you shouldn’t have any weaknesses by the time you take your SAT/ACT. If your ACT science and math scores are both 34+, but your English and reading scores are at a 28-29, just keep prepping until they get up to 34s, too. You can always put a bit more time into the areas where you need the most improvement, but you have the absolute luxury of fixing all your weaknesses and going into your test with expert-level proficiency in every single section.
Welcome to the glorious world of “all the time in the world,” where you can easily, lightly master every single section with zero stress or pressure.
Take the test: As soon as diagnostic scores match target scores. Take any time other than June (to allow for a backup test).
You can take the test at the end of your freshman year, the start of your sophomore year, the middle of your sophomore year – whenever. The clock is NOT ticking, so just take the test when you’re getting the best scores possible.
Here’s the process:
- Start prepping.
- Set your goals and figure out what scores you need to get into your dream schools.
- Take a diagnostic test every ~6 weeks to figure out where you’re scoring.
- When your scores are consistently higher than your target, register for a primary and backup test and then keep taking official tests (with consistent prep in between) until you get the official scores you need.
You can figure out precisely where you’re scoring by using realistic, at-home diagnostics. Once you set your goals, you have all the time in the world to reach them. Once you do, find available test dates and register for a primary and a backup test. If you get the scores you want on the first round, you’re done. If not, just keep cracking until you get there.
You can use my SAT and ACT dates and registration calendar to figure out when tests are offered and register.
The only thing I’d recommend is that you avoid June exams as your primary exams – if you don’t hit the mark, you’ll need to wait until the fall to take them again, and that means summer prep. Honestly, at 20-30 minutes a day, summer prep isn’t too big a deal, but most students like to rip off the bandaid.
If you feel that you’re only ready by June, take the June test. It’s just not perfect, but if your scores are hitting the mark and June is your last chance to knock things out until the fall, definitely take the June test! Just try to see if you can take the April ACT or May SAT if possible.
The big rule: do not take any official tests until you have the scores you want! There’s no reason to do so. Just prep until you have awesome scores in each section and can hit them consistently, then stroll in and do what you’ve already been doing.
Ideal study window: However long it takes to hit your ambitious goals.
No one likes studying for the SAT and ACT, but because your daily schedule is so light, it’s not as if you’re really “feeling” your prep. It’s the same amount of time you spend showering and brushing your teeth every day.
You have no pressure here. Some students start their freshman year and are finished by their freshman winter. Others keep working through the middle of their sophomore year.
I had one student who prepped like this from freshman fall through the start of junior year, and went from a 24 to a 35 on her ACT. That’s extremely atypical, but it shows what types of ludicrous improvements are possible when you prep lightly with a big window. Her daily prep was so incredibly light that it was never an issue, and she never worried that she wouldn’t hit the mark – her initial goal was to get a 30, but after seeing her improvements and re-evaluating, she decided to keep prepping until she was at the “these scores could get me into any school in the world” mark. Why the heck not?
Just begin prep as soon as possible using a flexible program. This sort of schedule will be tough to arrange with a tutor, and impossible to find with any sort of classroom course of “set time” program. Whether you use my online prep system or another option, the sooner you begin this light prep, the better you’ll do and the sooner you’ll be done with it all!
What if you start BEFORE your freshman year?
Hmmm. I’m all about starting early, but this should only happen if your child is actively requesting to prep early.
If you want to start prepping for the ACT or SAT while you’re in 8th grade, there’s nothing stopping you. You could sign up for a flexible prep program, put in 20 minutes a day, and easily finish your test prep before the end of your freshman year of high school.
It comes down to this: does your child WANT to do this?
If your kid is a freshman in high school, he or she should start studying. Before high school, it’s really just a matter of preference.
If your child wants to start prepping – if he or she understands the benefits of killing these tests early on, is motivated, and is interested in beginning, why not?
If that’s the case, just follow my freshman SAT and ACT prep calendar and aim for 20 minutes a day.
The only real difference: your child doesn’t need to take practice tests nearly as frequently. One timed diagnostic every three or four months will be more than enough. You’ll still have six under your belt by the middle of freshman year, and you can plan on these exams whenever your child wants to take them.
Again, “wants to take them” is the operative idea. If your kid really wants to begin – if he/she is that driven and that focused on the college process, go for it!
If not, I don’t recommend it. When your kid is in high school, the “college game” really begins. But before then, it’s not something you need to worry about. You might run the risk of burning your kid out or “starting the race before the finish line is in sight.”
One more time, at the risk of being a broken record: this is not a decision that the parent gets to make. If your 7th or 8th grader has expressed interest in crushing the SAT or ACT, then have at it. If your child doesn’t express interest, or presents any hesitation at the thought of practicing or taking practice tests, this will be counterproductive, so avoid it. But the good news is, even 8th graders are capable of learning this material and mastering these exams! So if they want to dive in early, they are off to the races!
Now that you know precisely when to prep, and for how long, the next two things you need to figure out:
Picking the right test (New SAT or ACT) is an important decision, and you’ll get the best results if you invest the time in choosing the right test before you begin prepping.
You want something that’s:
-Flexible, so that you can work on your timeline and your schedule without interfering with school, extracurriculars, travel, etc.
-Adaptable, so that your child can always focus on his or her biggest areas for improvement, and learn in a way that matches his or her unique strengths, weaknesses, and learning style
-Proven, so that you can rest assured that your child’s daily commitments will result in significant score improvements
-Long-term, so that you can keep your child prepping without making new purchases, dealing with new schedules, switching programs, etc. If it doesn’t allow you to prep indefinitely until your child has the scores that he or she wants, it’s not worth spending your money.
That’s all there is to it! Good luck with your prep, and congrats on thinking this far ahead!