Not on our watch.
To do well on the SAT/ACT, you need to commit to a certain amount of study hours. The higher the score you want, or the more points you need to improve, the more hours you need to put in. (Read more about how long exactly you need to study for the SAT or ACT here.)
If total hours is your main goal for studying, then procrastination is what you need to defeat to be successful. So we’ll talk a bit about why procrastination happens, and then give actionable advice for fighting it.
Read in to conquer procrastination once and for all!
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Before we can discuss how to fight procrastination, it's helpful to understand why we do it. You may be surprised what causes you to put off important work like studying for the ACT/SAT!
The common wisdom is that procrastination happens due to a lack of time management skills. According to this theory, students don’t realize how much time a task will take, so they don’t start it until it’s too late. This might explain some students who frantically cram for the SAT or ACT the week before the test.
Another theory is that procrastinators underestimate the importance of a task in the long term (say, a high SAT/ACT score) versus the importance of tasks in the short term (homework, extracurricular activities, friends, sleep, etc). This could explain why a well-meaning student keeps avoiding studying for the ACT/SAT, because other tasks, like homework and social events, keep distracting them.
But are these the only reasons we procrastinate? After all, most teenagers understand that the SAT/ACT is important – in fact, as colleges get more competitive each year, you could argue teenagers have never been more aware. So why procrastinate on SAT/ACT studying?
Another theory, as reported in The Atlantic, explains why even highly motivated students could procrastinate on their SAT/ACT studying: “Scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion… Instead, Ferrari and others think procrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we're in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future.”
Procrastination: more about your mood than your time management skills.
And that, in turn, leads to a vicious cycle:
“Putting off an important task makes us feel anxious, guilty, and even ashamed, Eric Jaffe wrote. Anxiety, guilt, and shame make us less likely to have the emotional and cognitive energy to be productive. That makes us even less likely to begin the task, in the first place. Which makes us feel guilty. Which makes us less productive. And around we go.”
It’s easy to see how that could happen to a student who needs to study for the SAT. Say she plans to start studying by taking a practice exam on a Saturday. But she doesn’t get around to it because she’s working on other homework assignments. This makes her feel anxious and guilty about skipping the practice test. So on Sunday, she doesn’t take the practice test since she’s still feeling quite stressed and anxious, and instead finds herself studying for AP LIterature and prepping for the next debate tournament. And then the school week starts, she gets a slew of new homework assignments, and she keeps putting on the practice test. Each day she skips it, the more guilty she feels, and the less likely she is to start studying.
Sound familiar? You can see how this creates a vicious cycle: you feel guilty for not studying, which puts you in a bad mood and thus makes you less likely to start studying the next time you think about it.
Especially given how stressful the SAT/ACT is, the emotions of anxiety and guilt that come with studying for it can be overwhelming. And, ironically, the students who may deal with the most guilt and stress are the ones who are aiming the highest: those who want a 2200 SAT or 33 ACT or higher.
So you need to break through the time management and emotion traps to make SAT/ACT studying a manageable, non-stressful part of your life!
Sound daunting? It is, but if you follow our advice, it doesn’t have to be. Read on for techniques to cut through the procrastination loop and study successfully for the ACT/SAT.
Part 1: Deadlines and Accountability
It may sound tedious, but the first way to cut through procrastination is to set deadlines and hold yourself accountable to them. Learn more about why deadline-setting is important and how to create effective deadlines here.
Every student's favorite word.
One factor that almost always defeats procrastination is a hard, unavoidable deadline. Why? A deadline forces you to take action before you face a bad consequence – whether that’s a bad grade or a failed test. The power of deadlines explains why so many students put off work until the night before something is due, and then stay up all night to complete an assignment.
Well, you may be thinking that the SAT/ACT has a deadline: the day of the test. However, if your only deadline is the test itself, that won’t help you study meaningfully! In fact, that could lead to last-minute cramming, which isn’t helpful at all.
A way to combat this temptation to cram is to set smaller deadlines well in advance of the test. Setting smaller deadlines along the way can help you be productive and hit key milestones in your SAT/ACT studying. For example:
- 8 weeks before test: take a full practice exam
- 7 weeks before test: identify major areas to improve and gather study resources
- 6 weeks before test: put in at least 6 hours of studying weak areas
You can probably see that setting smaller deadlines will take some planning and reflection on your part. You’ll have to figure out how long you want to study for the SAT/ACT to figure out your timeframe, first of all – will you be studying over four months or two? You'll also need to figure out how much you need to improve by, which we'll discuss more below when we talk about goal-setting.
But even though it sounds like extra work, setting smaller deadlines is key to avoiding the procrastination trap. By holding yourself accountable to a study task each week, you can make sure you actually study in the run-up to the SAT/ACT.
So your first task is this: after deciding how long you’re going to study for, set weekly deadlines. But how can you make sure you actually honor them? Keep reading.
So you’ve set your deadlines and you have a good idea of what you need to do between now and test day. Unfortunately, one thing researchers have discovered is that deadlines are actually more effective if someone else sets them:
“The group with external deadlines performed the best. "People strategically try to curb [procrastination] by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, "and [they] are not always as effective as some external deadlines."”
We’re not saying you should ask your Mom to create a study calendar for you and force you to study each day. In this case, you will still be setting your own deadlines. But if you set deadlines like the ones above, let others know so they can hold you accountable.
Involve your friends and family, including parents and/or guardians, in your SAT/ACT study schedule. Put your study deadlines on the family calendar if you have one, and tell your friends about your plans so they can hold you to them. Make your SAT/ACT studying a very public part of your life, so your friends and family can call you out and make sure you're actually sticking to your promises to study.
Even though it may seem awkward or embarassing to go on about your SAT/ACT study plan with friends and family, if they can support you and make sure you stick to your deadliens, you're much less likely to procrastinate.
A final piece about deadlines is to set reminders so you don’t forget about your weekly study goals. The deadlines won’t do you any good if you forget about them!
So ask your friends, family, or parents to remind you to study – this builds on the accountability piece above. You can also set phone or email alarms reminding you to study if you have a planned study block. You can even put reminders, like post-its or signs, around your house if that’s your thing!
Find a reminder system that works for you and put it in place to make sure you actually reach your weekly study deadlines.
Part 2: Don’t Think of It as Work
Even though studying for the ACT/SAT is probably not your idea of a super fun time, if you can manage to think of it as a game rather than a chore, you're more likely to study for it.
From The Atlantic: “procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded that it’s not actually work. In one study reviewed by Jaffe, students were asked to complete a puzzle, but first they were given a few minutes to play Tetris. 'Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation,' he wrote. When scientists described the puzzle as a game, they were just as likely to practice as anybody else.”
So if you can find a way to trick yourself into thinking that studying for the SAT/ACT isn’t work, you may procrastinate less.
I admit that you’re probably never going to be able to treat the SAT/ACT just like it’s a game or hobby – it’s a test, after all, and a test that carries a lot of importance for college and scholarships.
But still, if you can get into the mindset of treating your SAT/ACT studying like a game or hobby, your day-to-day studying may be easier to tackle. In the short term, the SAT/ACT won’t affect your grades, and only you have to know how well you do. So try and treat it like a game you’re trying to be the best at, and don't worry about what anyone else thinks.
Depending on your personality, you may be able to try the following tactics:
- Beat your high score: if you're competitive and/or a perfectionist, treat the SAT/ACT like a game you're trying to master. Take lots of practice tests and push yourself to improve on your latest score until you reach your desired high score.
- Play with a friend: another great strategy for competitive people is to rope in an opponent. If you have a friend also studying for the SAT/ACT, consider studying together and seeing who can get the highest score on an individual section or an entire practice test.
- Race against time: especially if you're trying to improve your speed on math or reading sections, time yourself carefully when you practice and see if you can improve your efficiency each day.
- Five-minute headstart: if you really don't feel like studying, just get yourself to practice for five minutes. Often once you've started, it's easy to keep going for another ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes .
- Get feedback: focus on parts of studying, like practice sections or sets of problems, that allow you to get instant feedback on your progress. Work to improve your score each day.
- Focus on the more game like aspects of studying: If you’re facing a real block, plan a "game day." Use flashcards, do multiple-choice practice, or time yourself, rather than trying to teach yourself a math concept or grammar rule. If you can get through a study block today, even if it's just reviewing some flashards, you can cut through the procrastination loop and be more likely to study hard the next day.
Reframing your thinking around studying, and making it a game rather than a chore, can definitely help you put the time in, especially on days where you really do not feel like studying. Even though it sounds cheesy, this technique can be surprisingly effective.
When I took the ACT last June, I studied a lot with the goal of beating my high school score. (I’m competitive like that, I guess!) It honestly began to feel kind of like a game to me, which made taking practice multiple choice sections fun, because I was always aiming to beat my old “high score.”
Part 3: Make It a Daily Habit If Possible
Just like you improve faster if you practice piano every day, making SAT/ACT studying a daily routine can do wonders for your score, and your ability to reduce procrastination.
If you can make SAT/ACT studying a daily (or every-other-day) habit for a few weeks, you’ll study more effectively and it will hopefully feel less like a chore. A daily habit will also cut through the procrastination loop and reset the feelings of anxiety and guilt you get from putting off studying. Even if you can just put in 5 or 10 minutes on a day you don't feel like studying, that could be enough to get you in the right mood to study more effectively the next day.
Furthermore, remember that a 15-minute daily study session can feel much less intimidating than a 2-hour weekend study session. If you avoid studying for days on end, the “procrastination doom loop” will kick in and each day you don’t study will make it even harder to study the next time. Especially if you struggle with procrastination, don’t try to force yourself through a gigantic study block once a week.
Daily practice will also help make you a more consistent, fast test-taker. It also gives you more opportunities to practice tricky concepts and let new information sink in.
So what's the best way to make daily practice a reality? We suggest breaking your weekly study deadline into daily actionables. Check out the example below.
Weekly Deadline: Master Plane Geometry on the SAT
Monday: Review plane geometry concepts in SAT prep book
Tuesday: Continue to review plane geometry
Wednesday: Complete plane geometry practice questions in prep book
Thursday: Correct and review practice questions, note mistakes
Friday: Analyze mistakes in journal
Saturday: Study the areas I still don’t get
Sunday: Complete entire SAT math practice section
This plan works because we start with one specific goal: learning and practicing plane geometry on the SAT. Each day, we take a small step to learn it, planning on no more than 30 minutes of time, except on Sunday when we take a full practice Math section. These daily goals should be easy and manageable to complete, and will build to a larger achievement by the end of the week.
Will creating these daily steps in addition to weekly deadlines take work? Yes. But taking the time to make daily goals will make your study plan much more effective and resistant to procrastination.
Also, designate a specific time of day for studying, if that’s helpful – like right when you get home from school or after dinner – to make it part of your routine.
And finally, to build on the accountability section from before, mention to your family and/or friends that you have a daily study block and ask them to hold you to it.
Part 4: Remember Why You're Studying
Having a feeling of urgency around SAT/ACT studying, and a strong sense of how important it is, can also push you to study when you really don’t feel like it. If you remember every day why you're studying and why a high score is important to you, you're more likely to stick to your study plan.
Why is urgency important? Other aspects of your life that compete for your time in high school have built-in markers of urgency. Homework has immediate deadlines that affect your grades, practicing for a sports team at school affects the game on Saturday, and hanging out with friends maintains your social circle.
Since the SAT/ACT only happens on one day, and its importance is a few months (or years) down the line – on your college application – it can be hard to have a sense of urgency about it, even if you know instinctively that it’s important.
Especially if you’re taking the SAT/ACT as a high school junior, you won’t be submitting it on applications for another year. Plus you have time to retake it. So it’s easy to let yourself think it’s not that important and focus on more pressing tasks.
So to build urgency around studying, gather the evidence as to why your SAT/ACT score is important. Finally, set goals to help you achieve your desired SAT/ACT score. This will give you the motivation you need to get through the procrastination loop and start studying, even if you're stressed or anxious.
So how do you gather the evience around why your SAT/ACT score is important? First, figure out the target score (ACT/SAT) you need for your top schools! Keep that number in mind as you study – you can even hang it up in your room to remind yourself daily of your goal. You can also find pennants or print out pictures of your top schools to hang up to connect that number to a more concrete goal!
Also take a look at the kinds of scholarships you can get for high SAT/ACT scores – a high enough score could make college free. That’s an excellent motivator.
Finally, read in-depth about why your SAT/ACT score is the more effective way to improve your college admissions chances.
By keeping all this in mind, you can hopefully make SAT/ACT studying a daily reality. Keep your dream school or scholarship in mind, and use that goal to motivate you to open your prep book, even on days where you would rather be going to the football game or working on AP Calculus homework.
Earlier, we talked about setting deadlines. Another key component of creating good deadlines is knowing your starting place so you can decide what to work on each week. So first up: take a full practice exam ASAP (here are free SAT/ACT practice tests) so you know your starting score.
It’s much more manageable to be thinking “I need to go from an ACT 26 to 32” rather than “I need to be studying for a 32.” With that six-point increase in mind, you can begin creating weekly study deadlines and daily study goals.
Next, set smaller midway goals, like being able to get a 28 after your first three weeks of studying. By including smaller check-ins during your study plan, you can reevaluate your study deadlines and change things around if you need to.
We also recommend you take a look at SAT/ACT scoring so you can set concrete raw point goals for each section. For example, approaching SAT Math is easier if you know you’re trying to get 45 raw points rather than a more nebulous 670 composite score.
By setting clear goals, like “this week I want to be able to get 40 out of 60 correct on ACT math,” you can make SAT/ACT studying feel less like a nebulous, scary task. The more concrete your goals, the more manageable studying will be and the less likely you'll be to put it off.
PrepScholar Can Help!
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by this, or want another layer of accountability, our PrepScholar study program has a bunch of these techniques built right in. We involve your parents, give regular feedback, set goals for you, and analyze your weak points as you study. So rather than worry about implementation, you can focus on the studying itself!
Is an online prep course necessary for all students? Nope. Many students can successfully create a study plan and achieve their target score on the SAT/ACT. But if you want extra help or think you would benefit from an additional resource, I encourage you to look into it.
Recognizing that procrastination is a result of not just poor time management but a difficult emotional feedback loop can help you fight it. Set deadlines, involve others, make studying a game, make it a daily habit, and remember your long-term goals. Studying for the ACT/SAT is not an easy task. But if you give yourself enough time, bring in family and friend support, and remember your goals, you can cut through the negative emotions that cause procrastination and find the motivation you need to get the score you want.
Check out our guide to a perfect SAT score by our top-scorer. This article discusses ways to build motivation and commitment to help you reach your score goal, whether you're aiming for a perfect score or just a personal best (ACT version here).
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.