Once your student has decided whether to take the ACT or SAT, it’s time to make a study plan. While there are many good approaches to studying, most boil down to: make a plan and stick to it.
We recommend students commit about two to five hours a week to studying, which works out to between a couple of test sections and a full test per week (including time spent going through the answers). We generally recommend prepping for at least two to three months (though we often find that optimal results take six months or more).
Pick test dates with your student well in advance so they have something concrete to work toward. Consider potential conflicts or distractions, like final exams or, in senior year, college applications. Plan to give your student the option of at least a second testing date and preferably a third as well. Scores rarely increase or decrease dramatically based on chance, so your student should use the time between test sittings to study specific weak points and become better prepared. For many students, taking the test for the first time in early spring of junior year works out well, with the summer offering a chance to study for a possible retest in the fall of senior year.
Always prioritize official practice materials over those from third-party companies. Third-party materials can be useful for some things, especially if your student has exhausted (or plans to exhaust) official materials, but they should not be the primary source for practice materials. If your student is making a solid study plan, it is possible they might run out of official materials (there are currently only four practice SAT tests from the CollegeBoard, for example), so be sure to think ahead and sandwich unofficial materials between official tests (i.e., plan to use one test for a diagnostic at the beginning and save at least one for final practice at the end).
Both before and after taking practice sections or a full test, your student should always plan to spend time thinking about and analyzing their goals and results. In fact, 50-100% of the time they spend answering questions should be spent setting goals, analyzing results, and reviewing content and strategies (e.g., if they take a 60 minute section, they should plan to spend 30-60 minutes planning for it and going through it after).
Before they start a section they should ask, “Which sections or question types am I struggling with? What do I need to work on?” They should use these questions to make specific study goals. For instance, if they notice they’ve been making careless mistakes on easy math questions, they can practice ways of minimizing those (show work, annotate questions, use process of elimination more, etc.) and not worry as much about the harder questions. If they are working on strategies for specific question types, they may want to time themselves in a different way (for example, time themselves for an individual reading passage before going through the questions).
When they finish a section, they should go through the answers and see what they got wrong. Did they make mistakes on questions they realized were hard, or did they also miss questions they thought were easy? Were there any particularly shaky content areas they could review? Were there questions that made them lose a lot of time, even if they got them right? How well did they address their specific goal for this practice? For questions they get wrong, no matter the reason, they should ask themselves how they might avoid that mistake in the future, perhaps by reviewing content, approaching the question differently, or finding an important clue in the question.
Follow a study routine as much as possible, and try not to miss a week: “This week I’ll spend 2-3 hours on X on Saturday”; “Next week I’ll have a debate tournament, so I’ll only have an hour on Thursday, so I’ll focus on Y.” Consistency is key.
A concrete, written plan helps tremendously in keeping up with study goals, both because it means your student won’t be cramming at the last minute when it’s harder to retain information, and because knowing they’re following a plan will increase your student’s confidence, making it easier to learn.