Getting your SAT/ACT dream score will likely take a considerable time investment. The vast majority of high school students have to spend many hours of studying before they're able to get their desired score. However, your time is limited. You have school, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities. How will you be able to put in the necessary test prep time on top of your other responsibilities?
In this article, I'll let you know how you can balance SAT/ACT test prep with school. If you follow my advice, you'll be able to effectively incorporate test prep into your schedule.
Before you embark on a path to successfully reaching your SAT/ACT goals, you need to have the right mindset. First, you need to believe that you're capable of succeeding. Confidence is crucial to complete any difficult task, including getting a wonderful SAT/ACT score. Most likely, you're not where you want to be right now, but it's essential that you have faith that you can get there. As an SAT teacher, I worked with hundreds of students of all different skill levels, and almost every student who was committed to improving saw significant results.
You may not be naturally gifted at math, but with enough practice and focused studying, you can probably get a good Math score. You may struggle with grammar, but if you master the grammar rules that are tested on the SAT/ACT, you should be able to correctly answer the grammar questions. Don't just accept that a weakness will stop you from getting your desired score. You need to believe that you can improve your weaknesses (because you can).
Also, you need to be motivated. If you're confident but aren't willing to put in the necessary study time, you won't see much improvement. I understand that many students find it difficult to care about studying for the SAT/ACT. They find the material dull and have so many other priorities and concerns.
However, regardless of your college goals, you should realize the importance of the SAT/ACT. Getting a better score will increase your college options and the likelihood that you'll qualify for merit scholarships. Furthermore, a good SAT/ACT score can positively impact your professional future. Some employers ask job applicants to report their standardized test scores. If you find your motivation waning, think of how getting a wonderful SAT/ACT score can benefit you.
Finally, if you're going to successfully balance your SAT/ACT studying with school, you need to have a plan. To reach any challenging goal, I think it's important to specifically figure out how you're going to achieve your desired goal. Having a plan will enable you to stay on task and use your time efficiently.
Making a Plan
Hopefully, you recognize that you can balance school with your test prep, and you realize that you're going to need an effective plan to make that happen. How do you go about making a plan, though? I'll provide you with the steps and detailed instructions to help you come up with a quality SAT/ACT study plan.
Determine Your Target Score
Before you go through any steps to balance school with your test prep, you should have a goal score for your SAT/ACT. Having a goal will motivate you to stick to your study plan, make you more likely to prioritize your test prep, and help you figure out how much time you need to study.
You can determine your target score by averaging the 75th percentile scores for the schools you’re interested in applying to. If you reach the 75th percentile score for a given school, your score will make you an extremely competitive applicant.
Find the 75th percentile scores by googling “(name of school) prepscholar average sat” or “(name of school) prepscholar average act.” For old SAT scores out of 2400, multiply the 75th percentile score by ⅔ to determine what the 75th percentile score would be on the current test with a maximum score of 1600.
Figure Out How Much Time You Need to Study
Once you have a target score, you can determine how much time you need to study before you take the SAT/ACT. Taking this step will allow you to come up with a plan that will help you balance your test prep with school.
In order to figure out how much you need to study, you need to know exactly how much you need to improve. Calculate the difference between your target score and your last SAT/ACT. If you've never taken the SAT/ACT, I recommend taking an official practice SAT/ACT simulating real testing conditions to determine where you’re at and how much you need to improve.
Once you know how much you need to improve, here’s an estimated breakdown of point improvement per number of study hours for the SAT:
- 0-50 SAT Total Point Improvement: 10 hours
- 50-100 Point Improvement: 20 hours
- 100-200 Point Improvement: 40 hours
- 200-300 Point Improvement: 80 hours
- 300-500 Point Improvement: 150 hours+
- 0-1 ACT Composite Point Improvement: 10 hours
- 1-2 ACT Point Improvement: 20 hours
- 2-4 ACT Point Improvement: 40 hours
- 4-6 ACT Point Improvement: 80 hours
- 6-9 ACT Point Improvement: 150 hours+
How many hours do you need to study?
Write Out Your Weekly Schedule
At this point, you should know when you’re planning on taking the test and how many total hours you need to study.
Then you can divide the total number of hours you need to study by the number of weeks you have until your test to determine how many hours per week you should be studying. For example, let's say you're planning on taking the ACT in 8 weeks and you want to raise your ACT score by 3 points. Because a 3 point improvement will take roughly 40 hours of studying and you have 8 weeks until the test, you'll have to average about 5 hours of studying per week to reach your target score.
Before you determine exactly when you’ll be studying, write out your weekly schedule with all of your responsibilities. Include all of your weekly tasks: school, homework, extracurriculars, job, etc. Write out your schedule for each day of the week. Perhaps your Tuesday may look something like this:
- 7:00 AM- wake up
- 8:00 AM-3:00 PM- school
- 4:00-6:00- cross country practice
- 7:30-9:30- homework and studying
Create a Plan
Now that you know how many hours per week you need to study, you can decide when you’re going to study based on the time that you currently have available.
Write your intended study hours into your typed out weekly schedule. Print out your plan. You can even print out multiple copies and place them where you'll regularly see them. Looking at your intended schedule will remind you of when you need to study, help you commit your schedule to memory, and motivate you to stay on task.
Let's add some study time into the hypothetical Tuesday schedule I made:
- 7:00 AM- wake up
- 8:00 AM-3:00 PM- school
- 4:00 PM-6:00 PM- cross country practice
- 7:30-9:30 PM- homework
- 10:00-11:30 PM- SAT studying
This is a pretty challenging schedule. You'll be busy with only limited breaks from 7:00 AM-11:30 PM. However, if you're disciplined and motivated, it's feasible to stick to this itinerary. If you're more of a morning person, you can wake up at 5:30 AM to do your SAT studying.
Also, if you have to do 5 hours of studying per week, you may only have to schedule SAT/ACT studying for a couple of days. Furthermore, if you have more free time on the weekends, you can save the majority or all your studying for Saturdays and Sundays.
Time for test prep! Hooray!
Make Your Plan Doable
When you create your study plan, be realistic and honest with yourself about what you're capable of doing.
If your schedule includes studying for 12 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, you probably should make some adjustments. Even though you may have enough free time to study for 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday, you’re probably not going to have the energy or concentration to study for 24 hours every weekend.
Similarly, if you have trouble waking up in the morning, you shouldn't schedule your SAT/ACT prep for 4:00 AM.
You really want to create a schedule that you’re likely to stick to and will allow you to put in enough prep time to reach your target score. Unfortunately, it's possible that if you don't have much free time, you'll have to create a schedule that's less than ideal. However, you still want to create the most realistic possible schedule.
Share Your Plan
For accountability, I recommend sharing your plan with those who are willing to help you stick to it. If your parents, siblings, or close friends know your intended schedule, they can encourage and push you when they know it’s time for you to do your SAT/ACT prep.
If you try to deviate from your schedule, you’ll have other people to remind you of your goals and what you should be doing. Keep in mind, though, that you'll be most likely to achieve your goals if you're primarily self-motivated.
Evaluate and Adjust Your Plan Regularly
During the first week or two of your study plan, keep track of how well you’re doing and how well your plan is working for you.
If the plan you created seems too difficult for you to maintain, then you may need to adjust it so that it’s easier for you. If you have to make adjustments, do your best not to sacrifice study time you need to reach your target score. Ideally, you'll be able to move your studying to times that work better for you.
If your extracurricular activity or work schedule changes after you start your study plan, you may have to alter your prep time accordingly.
Also, make sure that your SAT/ACT prep isn't getting in the way of your schoolwork. If your current prep plan is preventing you from finishing your homework or studying for school, then you'll have to make changes. You don't want to sacrifice your grades to reach your target score. In fact, generally, your grades are more important to colleges than your test scores.
If your plan isn't working, change it.
How to Stay Motivated
Perhaps the biggest challenge to successfully balancing school with your test prep is maintaining your motivation up until test day. Many students are able to stick to their plan for a week or two, but they start to slip and neglect their test prep over time.
Your study plan will only be effective if you stick to it up until test day. Trust me that I understand the challenges of maintaining your plan. I wasn't a perfect student, and I realize that you'll be tempted to stray from your plan when you'd rather be doing anything other than test prep.
I've already mentioned a few tips like printing out your plan and sharing it to help stay on track. Here are some more strategies for you to make the best use of your study time and stay engaged throughout the study process.
Set Smaller Goals for Motivation
Remember that the number of hours you’re studying is only one part of the equation to reaching your target score.
You need to make sure that you’re focused when you’re studying and studying efficiently. Set goals for yourself for each study session and on a weekly basis. For example, if during one of your study sessions, you’re trying to improve on transition questions on SAT Writing, you can set a goal of reviewing my article on transitions and then getting at least 9/10 transition questions right from SAT practice tests.
Similarly, you could also set a goal for the week of raising your ACT Science score by two points from your last practice test. Then, you can focus your studying for the week on improving your content weaknesses and doing practice problems. At the end of the week, you can do a complete ACT Science section under test conditions, and hopefully, you’ll be able to achieve your goal.
Leave Time for Fun
In trying to balance school with your test prep, realize that outside of school, test prep, and your extracurricular activities, you should be having some fun and leisure time.
All work and no play is sad, and you’re going to have a difficult time maintaining motivation if you’re not emotionally healthy. Furthermore, you should be enjoying your youth, spending time with your friends and family, and creating memories that you’ll probably look back on more fondly than your SAT/ACT prep.
When you create your prep schedule, try not to have every minute of your day devoted to your studies or other obligations. It’s not terrible to spend a few hours per week engaged in fun activities that may not directly help you get into the college of your dreams.
It might be time for a bouncy castle break. (Catrin Austin/Flickr)
Following all of the tips in this article (other than having fun) isn’t easy. Just reading this article is indicative of your determination and willingness to make sacrifices to achieve your goals.
I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement. If you meet one of your daily or weekly goals, feel free to reward yourself for your hard work. You deserve it, and you can use your rewards as further motivation to reach your goals.If you reach your goal of improving your SAT Math section score by 50 points from the previous week, maybe you can reward yourself by going to see a movie you’ve been wanting to check out or spending an hour posting stories on Snapchat (isn’t that what the kids do these days?).
Balancing school with your test prep isn’t easy, but it’s possible if you’re diligent, organized, and plan effectively. If you need help with motivation, organization, or holding yourself accountable, you may greatly benefit from a test prep program like PrepScholar.
PrepScholar will help you identify your content weaknesses, inform you (and your parents) how much time you spend studying on a weekly basis, and it will organize your practice so that you’re able to reach your target score efficiently.
Are you getting ready for the SAT? Figure out the best way to study.
Are you planning to take the ACT? Learn how to study.
Are you plagued by test anxiety? Find out how to overcome test anxiety to get your target score.
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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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.