Test Prep

How Much Test Prep Time Do Students Need?


It's the one question that no one seems to be able to answer for you: How much time should you allot to prepare for the SAT or ACT? One month sounds good, right? Before you get too excited however, most test prep experts agree that one month is probably not enough time.

That's because, as you've probably realized by now, the issue of how much test prep time you need is based on a host of factors, including your current grade level, your comfort level with standardized tests, your learning style and your academic strengths and weaknesses. Basically, everything that makes you the kind of student that you are today will determine the amount of effort and time you'll need to put into studying.

What Kind of Student Are You?

Anna Ivey, CEO of college application coaching firm Inline, says that the amount of time you spend preparing for your tests really depends on where you're starting. “Some people are naturally gifted at these kinds of tests, or have been groomed to take standardized tests from an early age. Other people are starting from scratch and will need to adjust their test prep calendar accordingly," she said.

This all might sound like a lot to consider, but it's actually not that difficult to figure out how long you'll need to prepare. Think about how you study for midterm exams or end of semester tests in your various classes at school. What's your process? How much time do you allocate per day or week to prepare for those tests? Do you use flashcards, do you work on practice questions? You can apply similar strategies to your test prep program.

Timing Is Everything

Another thing that will affect your test prep strategy is how much free time you have before the test. Ivey says that while some students will have a big chunk of “free time, like a month, to focus on prep in a concentrated way, others will need to spread out their prep time schedule over a longer period of time because of other obligations in their lives. In general, most people will need more than a month to see meaningful improvements."

Start With A Practice Test

So what are the specific steps you can take to figure out your study plan? Ivey recommends that you start by taking a timed practice test “as a diagnostic so that you have a baseline score to use as you track your progress. You'll also use that baseline score to compare against the target score you'll need for the kinds of colleges you're most interested in."

This means you'll need to do a little research to look up the median scores for your target schools. Once you know these numbers, you can see if your practice test score is on par with these median scores or if you still need to try again.

“When you're consistently overshooting your target score, then you can feel pretty confident that you've prepped enough," Ivey says.

Try Both Tests

When you schedule your practice testing, make time for two tests. Ivey says it's important to try out both the SAT and ACT to see if one plays more to your strengths before you get deep into any study strategy. If the scores from your practice tests show that you're naturally doing better at the SAT compared to the ACT, or vice versa, then plan to focus your test prep on that test and use it for your applications.

“Typically, colleges that require or recommend standardized tests as part of their application processes will accept either test, so there's no reason to prep for both tests or to register for both tests. But if you're equally good at both tests, for now I'd pick the ACT because it's been more stable than the SAT. The SAT has gone through a lot of changes, whereas with the ACT, you have a bigger archive of older tests you can use for practice that will still be relevant to the current ACT you'll end up taking," Ivey explains.

Don't forget that you're not alone in your study efforts -- ask your parents to be mindful of your study time and not to schedule big trips or vacations during periods when you need to be studying. “Sometimes the whole family has to prioritize and not just the student," Ivey says.