Extracurricular activities, midterms, college apps…is your busy schedule making it hard to prep for the SAT or ACT? You’re not alone! Today’s high school students often struggle to incorporate test preparation into their already busy lives. But there are ways you can master the material with low stress using these test-smart strategies from Magoosh’s test-prep experts. Here they are—the best SAT and ACT strategies for super busy students.
Key Takeaways From Webinar: How to Balance Test Prep With a Busy Schedule
Erika’s set up the top four simple steps for test-takers who want to minimize stress while maximizing prep time here. Too busy to watch it all? Read on for a recap!
Tip 1. Set a Realistic Score Goal
The most important thing to do right away is to set a great score goal for you. This doesn’t mean that you need the best score out of everyone that you know or the highest score possible (1600 on the SAT, 36 on the ACT). In fact, setting a goal for a too-high score in too short a time will just end up being discouraging and keep you from appreciating the progress you actually make.
Instead, think about a variety of factors that would make a good ACT score or a good SAT score for you. What colleges do you want to apply to? What are the average scores at your target schools? Shooting for the 50th or even 75th percentile for these schools is a great way to set your target.
Then, get a baseline practice test score. Do this with a full-length diagnostic practice test, taken in test-like conditions. The results of the diagnostic test will help you set a realistic goal.
Very generally, here are some good timeline for score improvements:
ACT Schedule for a Busy Student
- 3 points: 1-2 months
- 5-6 points: 3-4 months
- 7-8 points: 6-12 months
SAT Schedule for a Busy Student
- 70-150 points: 1-2 months
- 150-250 points: 3-4 months
- 250-350 points: 6-12 months
This won’t be true for every student in every situation, but it is a good baseline to use to plan your study at about 10 hours of prep per week. Speaking of which….
Tip 2. Plan Weekly Study Schedules in Advance
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “study smart,” know that creating a customized study schedule—and marking it on your calendar—will help you divide extensive prep into manageable chunks. Planning out your study session in advance is the best way to make sure that you master the essentials of the ACT or the SAT in time for test day!
That’s why your #1 ideal ACT study tool (or SAT study tool) is a study schedule! Luckily, Magoosh has lots of options for students prepping at different rates, available for free: check out our ACT study schedules and our SAT study schedules!
As I mentioned above, 10 hours a week is ideal for test prep. But depending on what your schedule looks like, this may not be possible. Aim for a minimum of 5 hours per week to see real improvement in your score. And don’t push too hard, either—20 hours a week is the max you should be doing, and even then only during the summer!
Importantly, a slow, steady effort is better than one big cram session. Spread out your study sessions into shorter but more regular study periods, rather than trying to prep only on the weekends or during school breaks. And make sure that whenever you do study, you can do it primarily in a place where you can have uninterrupted focus (and take notes with a pencil and paper!).
Tip 3. Structure Study Sessions for Learning
Make sure that you study smart, not just hard! This means doing more than just running through a lot of SAT or ACT questions before test day and getting little familiarity with the concepts more generally. Sure, it’s important to know common question types before test day and practice problems should be a key part of your practice—but you also want to make sure you’re gaining complete knowledge of the material you’ll see on test day.
Standardized tests make you use your knowledge in a way that your regular high school curriculum doesn’t. So you should know the kinds of questions you’ll see on test day and spend most of your time on important ACT review concepts and SAT review concepts, notably the high-frequency concepts that show up a lot and the kinds of questions you personally get wrong consistently. And as you prep, focus on learning the material as much as—if not more than—you drill yourself on it.
For example, if math is a problem area for you, focus on test strategies you can review regarding basic math concepts and basic steps you can use to master this section, rather than just answering practice question after practice question.
Finally, keep in mind that while the ACT tests problem solving in various areas, sectional resting is in the pipeline, so this may be an option for you down the line.
Tip 4. Prioritize Practice Tests
Taking a full-length practice test uses a big chunk of your study time. But it’s so worth it. It’s incredibly difficult to walk into the test center on exam day and complete a three-hour exam (four hours with breaks, writing, etc.) without having done realistic practice beforehand. This is why regular practice tests should be a key part of your test prep—whether you’re studying for the SAT or ACT! Plan on taking one every 2-4 weeks, depending on the length of your study schedule.
Keep in mind that you should take these exams in test-like conditions, including following timing guidelines and doing the test all in one sitting if you can. If you’re taking the ACT writing test, make sure that you include this optional writing test as part of your practice as well. It’s tempting to skip it—but you need the full test-day experience to really benefit from.
Scheduling these tests in advance is also crucial, as you set up your schedule. Then, as you take them, this will help you track your progress, help you adjust your study schedule, and build your endurance for test day. I can’t overstate the importance of this—practice tests are key to score improvement!
Once you’ve taken the exam, set aside time the day after to review your answers. This is why getting a prep product/SAT or ACT guide with complete answer explanations (and detailed answer explanations!) is so important—it’ll help you understand how to avoid the same types of mistakes next time.
Additional SAT and ACT Strategies for Students with Busy Schedules
When you have a busy school schedule, the more tips for minimizing test prep stress, the better! With that in mind, here are a few extra ACT and SAT strategies for super busy students.
- Spend time familiarizing yourself with the test format. Each exam has a particular standardized test format, and the better you know these test specifications before the official exam, the better off you’ll be. Get to know the instructions well before test day—preferably during your practice exam—and you’ll save time when it counts!
- Keep stress under control. While that’s easier said than done, these proven stress-management tips can help you feel good about your studying and stay healthy while you do it! A busy student tends to be a stressed student–but they don’t have to be!
- Get a study buddy (or two). While the most important work you’ll do for test prep will be on your own, having a weekly (or, if you’re a super busy student, a monthly) small group can help keep you on track. Feeling accountable to others can keep you accountable to your schedule!
- Work on time management strategies. These include both strategies for study sprints in your downtime and mastering the timing you’ll need for the exam on test day. Not sure how to get faster? Check out our guide to ACT pacing and time management for some tips!
Takeaways: Incorporating Test Prep into a Busy Schedule
Prepping for the SAT or ACT exam can seem like just one more thing high school juniors have to get done. But the good news is that the test makers have created exams that reward patient, regular effort, even if you’re a busy student. By applying these SAT and ACT strategies for super busy students, you’ll give yourself the best chance at maximizing your time while minimizing stress—and work your way to a higher score. Good luck!