You're serious about studying for the SAT. You have a year or more to study, and you want to put a real effort into it. Is studying this much worth it? What are the payoffs? And most importantly, what's the best way to study for the SAT / ACT on the year-or-more level? This post answers those questions!
First, let's get a couple of important questions out of the way.
Is studying for a year or more worth it? Who ought to use this guide?
The short answer: yes, it's absolutely worth it. We know from recent studies that a 105-point increase on your SAT score (equivalently, 1.5 points on your ACT score) doubles your odds of getting into a given college. If you had a 10% chance of getting into Harvard before, it increases your chances to around 20%.
And a 105 point increase can be obtained in a few dozen hours. This means that even if you're studying 100 hours for the SAT / ACT, those 100 hours are doing much more to increase your chance of getting into college than, say, sports or clubs. A study schedule of a year or more is definitely worth it for students who care about getting into the best colleges.
How many hours do I need? How far ahead of time should I start?
For this level of study, plan to spend at least a hundred hours or more. As this ACT / SAT study schedule planner suggests, you don't want to study too few hours when you start far ahead.
I would also begin studying so that you aim to take the test junior year fall (I'll explain more below). So if you have a year to study, start during the spring of your sophomore year. If you're on a more aggressive schedule of a couple of years, you want to get started at the end of freshman year.
Why aim to take ACT / SAT in the fall of junior year?
Many students aim for junior spring or senior fall for the ACT / SAT -- but as an advanced student, you really care about the ACT / SAT. Therefore, your goal is to optimize everything. Optimizing the test date means taking it early.
Why? Because you want buffer space. In case you don't do well junior fall, you have two more chances junior spring (January, and again in March/May). This makes sure that you won't have to run into senior summer and fall for testing: this is a HUGE advantage because you'll have all that time to focus on applying to college. And trust me, from my personal experience, you'll need that time.
Think about it this way: what's the harm in taking the tests one month earlier than necessary? Okay, you stress one month earlier, and maybe you take the test with one less month of education. This is really not a large loss. What's the harm in taking it one month later than necessary? Last minute application scrambling, prep courses, and tons of stress. Take the safe bet: aim to take the tests junior fall.
The First Step
Okay, so you're aiming to test in junior fall, and you have around a year or more -- this puts you at sophomore year or younger (if not, follow my upcoming guide for more moderate studiers). If you're starting earlier, just stretch the dates in this guide out evenly -- like a rubber band.
September of Sophomore Year
The first thing you want to do is take two practice SAT / ACTs. Use real SATs or real ACTs.
The first SAT / ACT you take, do NOT time yourself. You can break it into multiple pieces. Focus on reading all the instructions and the fine print. Also, focus on understanding the question and not the time pressure. If you've already taken a few SAT / ACTs in the past, you can skip this first test.
Reflect on the main features of the test. Are there strategies you can already see without being told? What do you think are some tricks you can use to solve questions? (If you're using PrepScholar, we tell you this automatically). After this, take the test a second time, but following the timer strictly. Then reflect on how time pressure changes things, and what you must do to counter this.
With this second test, you also have a sense of what your mistakes are. For each mistake, write down two reasons you made it, like "carelessness" or "didn't know quadratic equation". Then tally up the reasons, and brainstorm ways to study for them. (If you're using PrepScholar, this tally analysis will be done for you automatically).
These two tests will also prepare you well for the PSAT, which happens in October of sophomore year (see the PSAT timeline here).
November of Sophomore Year
You now have a list of major errors and how to study for them. For example, you might find yourself short on vocabulary, and so you'll spend 10 hours memorizing 400 of the top words on the SAT. Or you might find that you don't know quadratic equations, and spend 10 hours reviewing them.
You'll want to prioritize your content issues first. Content issues are those with fundamental knowledge of math, reading, writing, science, and so forth. These are things like what subject verb agreement is, trapezoids and their properties, and so on.
These issues are the hardest to forget, so studying early has an advantage. These issues are also the most the scalable: even if you dump a lot of time into fundamental content, you'll continue to improve as you know more of it. In fact, if you are scoring under a 2000 on the SAT or a 30 on the ACT, most of your gap is simply due to missing fundamental content. So make sure your foundations are strong.
When exactly to take the next step depends on both your time budget and how much fundamental content is missing. If you're scoring, say, 1500 on the SAT or 18 on the ACT, and are budgeting over 200 hours, then the above steps should really be started earlier. The schedule here assumes you're studying 100 hours and already have a 2000 on your SAT / 30 on your ACT for the next step.
March of Sophomore Year
At this point, you want to shift towards strategy. Repeat the September analysis: do a timed test and see which questions are losing you points. Except this time, notice where you're going wrong with strategy and test tactics instead of content. Notice when you run out of time, or make a careless mistake. Notice if you've rushed too much in one section versus another.
Now come up with a few ideas to attack your strategic flaws (or if you're using PrepScholar, we come up with these strategies for you). Test out your plan by doing a few sections at a time. Do these new strategies you've thought up work? Iterate on these strategies, and repeat until you get your strategy down.
At this point, ask yourself, are you getting the score you want for your school? If so, you can take it a bit easier (but still continue on). Otherwise, consider budgeting more time for studying.
Summer before Junior Year
This is Round Two of your studying: repeat the September to March process: find more fundamental content weaknesses, and then look again for strategic weaknesses. Why split the process into two rounds?
First, it increases your creativity -- you may come up with strategies the second time around that you missed the first time around.
Also, the strategies you use in the end will depend highly on your final performance. If you're scoring in the 1200 range on the SAT, skipping questions is key. If you're scoring 1900, you can barely afford to skip any questions. By criss-crossing your studying this way, you get a better idea of your final score earlier on.
Fall of Junior Year
Sign up to take the first SAT or ACT of the year, usually October or September, respectively. Make sure you have a strong final week leading up to the test date.
Before you take the test, estimate your expected "interquartile range." Suppose you expect there's a 75% chance you'll do better than a 1400, and a 25% chance you'll do better than a 1500. Then your interquartile range is 1400-1500.
The Rest of Junior Year
Take the test, and then see what your score is. If, on your first test, you score lower than the top of your interquartile range, plan to take it again in 2 months (likely December), following a shortened version of the study plan from the summer before your junior year. If your second score is less than the middle of your interquartile range, try once more in another 2-3 months, likely March. Finally, if your third score is less than the bottom end of your expected interquartile range, try one last time, likely in June. Remember, taking the SAT / ACT more often is generally better for you, especially if you're scoring lower than you expected!
The above guide is a comprehensive way to study well for the ACT or SAT given 100 hours and 1 year or more of study time. The main theme is tallying up your mistakes and coming up with strategies to focus on them. If you want a system that automatically does this tracking and scheduling for you, check out our PrepScholar technology software. It comes with a free trial!Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.