What a great question. I know some students who have been preparing for college admissions tests since sixth grade. I also know students who don’t think about them until their mom flashes the lights on and off to force them out of bed the morning of the test. (You’ll thank her later.)
But if you are reading this post, you probably fall somewhere in the middle. And there are a few important questions you should consider to determine how long you need to study for the ACT.
Here are the biggies:
1. How far are you from your goal score?
2. How much time do you realistically have to study?
3. What are the average scores of admitted students at your target/dream schools?
One of your first steps should be to take a diagnostic test (or analyze your PLAN or Aspire results) to figure out your baseline score. Then, research the scores of admitted students at the colleges you are most interested in. If you don’t know yet, look at a sampling of colleges you might be interested in, whether that means a highly selective private liberal arts college, your state university system, or international schools. Finally, consider how much time you have to devote to studying on a daily and weekly basis–taking into account your school, work, extracurricular, and general life schedules. If your schedule is chock full of things to do, you may need a more extended study timeline to achieve the score increases your heart desires.
Everyone is different, and it takes some students more or less time than others to see the gains they want to see on the ACT. But the categories below should give you some indication of approximately how long you need to hit the books to achieve your goal.
3 Point Composite Score Increase = 1 to 2 Months
A 3-point increase (say from a composite score of 26 to 29) is reasonable to achieve within a month or two if you can devote yourself to study three days a week for a couple hours, with at least 2-3 full-length practice tests on weekends. The ACT is a very predictable test, and with good study materials and/or a good teacher or tutor, you can quickly learn the strategies that can help you achieve this goal. (Our One Month ACT Study Schedule might be able to help.)
5-6 Point Composite Score Increase = 3 to 4 Months
This is a more lofty goal, although it is certainly an achievable one for many students. You’ll need to take practice tests at least every other week and go through your results with a good teacher/tutor who can help you target your weaknesses and build on your strengths. You can also achieve this gain through disciplined self-study with quality resources and answer explanations. But you can’t slack. The ACT should be built into your life like any other school subject, and you should be doing your homework every week.
7-10 Point Composite Score Increase = 6 Months to 1 Year
Once you start talking about this kind of score increase, you need a much longer-term prep plan. You should start your prep by the summer after your sophomore year (some students even start in spring) and block out two to three official test weekends for the winter and spring of your junior year with a back-up test in the fall of your senior year if necessary. If you find yourself hitting a score plateau, you may need to devote extra time to conquering other issues that may have an effect on your performance such as test anxiety, time management, or attention span. You’ll need a good structured test prep program with a teacher or tutor you can rely on–in person or online. And if you qualify, you’ll need to apply for testing accommodations such as extra time as early as you can and allow time for an appeal if necessary.
It’s also important to remember that the higher your baseline score, the harder it is to make this kind of a jump. It is impossible to make a 10-point increase if you are starting at a 29, of course, but even a 7-point increase from 29 to 36 may not be possible. Getting a 36 on the ACT is extraordinarily difficult to do. Last year, only about 1,400 students got a perfect score out of 1.85 million test-takers! It’s more realistic to move from a 22 to a 29, but even that is incredibly impressive. My suggestion is that you start with baby steps. Begin by aiming for a 3-point increase, then a 5-point increase, and only then a 7-point increase if you are still chugging along. Three points may not sound like a lot, but on the ACT scale, it is a solid improvement (the equivalent of 100-120 points on the SAT).
For the 32+ Club…
Let’s say you are starting at a 32, which already puts you in the 98th percentile and you want to claw your way a little higher in the ranks to a 33, a 34, maybe even a 35. At this level, there’s almost no room for error. You may need anywhere from six weeks to six months to make these jumps, and I would suggest practice tests every single weekend if you are are at the shorter end of this range. I also suggest personalized prep if possible (rather than a structured class) where you can control what you study. This could be with an in-person tutor or online. At this level, you just need to figure out what your personal weaknesses are and target them.
Remember that ACT prep always works best when it is comfortably built into your life like any other class or activity. Cramming is a terrible idea and so is starting your prep in preschool. Figure out your target score, determine how long you need to prep to make the Varsity squad, achieve a black belt, or insert-other-high-school-life-metaphor-here, and start accomplishing your goals :).