Or, maybe you’re just starting to think about the SAT and ACT and want to know just how long this whole process will take.
Regardless of why you ask how long to study for the SAT or ACT, the answer is exactly what you would expect: it depends on how much you need to improve your score and how much effort you’re willing to put in.
- The effort put in = How quickly SAT/ACT scores improve
- Your starting score influences how quickly your scores improve
- Plan for the amount of study time you need—not more, and definitely not less.
- Take extra time to study for the SAT if…
- Pick your test date first, then start studying for the SAT
- If something happens, you still have options.
- Don’t take the SAT or ACT test more than 3 times
- At the end of your rope? Ask yourself these difficult questions
- Takeaway: There's no one "right" duration to study for the SAT or ACT
The effort put in = How quickly SAT/ACT scores improve
I have had students who put in an insane amount of effort into their ACT test prep and gained 10 ACT points in a single month.
On the other hand, I’ve had students who only had enough time to practice once a week (and not-at-all or very little outside of then). They only gained a handful of points on their test over the course of multiple months.
More often than not, my students gain 50 – 100 points on the SAT or 1 – 2 points on the ACT per month when they practice for about an hour a day every day.
So, on average, a student working alone could expect to gain about 50 points per month on the SAT. Or, 1 point per month on the ACT if they worked consistently for an hour a day every day.
If you have the time—or if you can find the time—to seriously prepare, your score will likely improve faster than this. If not, you should expect a longer preparation period needed to study for the SAT or ACT test.
Your starting score influences how quickly your scores improve
This “50 SAT points or 1 ACT point” metric will also vary depending on what your initial test score is.
The closer your SAT/ACT score is to perfect, the harder it will be to pick up even a single point.
How long should you study if your starting SAT/ACT score is already close to perfect?
On the SAT, these are generally scores above 1300, and on the ACT, these are scores above 30. If you are starting here, you will likely need to increase the amount of time you practice per day.
You will need to increase the expected duration of your prep.
This similarly applies to students who may not have started in this high score range but who worked their way there and are still trying to grow their score even further.
And the difficulty grows exponentially.
Getting from 1500 to 1600 hundred on the SAT is much more difficult than getting from 1300 to 1400. Similarly, getting from a 35 to a 36 on the ACT is much harder than getting from a 30 to a 31.
How long should you study if your starting SAT/ACT score is on the middle to lower side?
Inversely, if your starting score is relatively low or on the lower end of a middling score, then your score may improve more quickly than the “50 point/1 point” estimate above.
Please note, however, that this will only be the case if your low score was due to lack of familiarity with the test or to needing a refresher on the material.
This applies to you if:
- you took all the necessary classes in school
- understood the material at the time
- and are simply rusty or have forgotten the material since
However, this will not be the case if you fully do not understand the material. For example, if you have never been taught the material in school. In fact, if you find the subject matter particularly difficult, then you can expect prep in that area to take longer to study for than the estimate, rather than shorter.
If you did poorly in Algebra 2 in school, then you will find the Math portions of both the SAT and ACT particularly difficult. You will likely need to allocate more time to study in those areas.
Or, if you have not yet taken Geometry, you will similarly have a difficult time, especially on the ACT.
That said, it is not the best time to start learning new material when you’re also studying for the SAT/ACT.
If this applies to you, I would highly recommend that you first seek additional classes or subject tutoring first. Then begin studying for the SAT or ACT afterward.
Plan for the amount of study time you need—not more, and definitely not less.
However long you think it will take you to study for your SAT’s or ACT’s, be sure that you give yourself enough time to do so.
If you’re trying to gain 400 points on the SAT, you should not start prepping a month before your test. This is true even if you do decide to seek professional help through a tutor or test prep professional.
Tutors are not magicians.
The more time you can give your tutor to work with you, the better your results will be. Some people can earn 400 points in a single month, but don’t plan on that being you.
Find the Goldilocks Zone for SAT test prep
On the other hand, it isn’t necessarily helpful to start studying for the SAT or ACT too early before your test either. By doing so, you may reach your target score with many months left before your test.
Suddenly, you feel as though you are left to twiddle your mental thumbs for that entire time. Then, when test day rolls around all the material feels too familiar, your approach is more relaxed than it would have been otherwise, and you find that your score has decreased because you made too many simple mistakes.
Or perhaps, instead, you took a months-long break after reaching your target score. When you start brushing up your skills you suddenly realize that your score has backslid more than you can make up for in the amount of review time you have given yourself.
It is best to try to find that perfect Goldilocks zone. The zone where you’re taking the test almost immediately after you are finished with test prep.
That said, not giving yourself enough time to prepare for the SAT or ACT is far more detrimental than giving yourself too much time.
Take extra time to study for the SAT if…
If you are worried that you may not gain points very quickly or that your estimate for the amount of time you need to study is inaccurate, then add one extra month to your preparation schedule.
Within the first two months of prep, you should be able to figure out whether or not you are on track to earn your target score in time. That will give you enough time to make adjustments to your test prep plan and reschedule your test if needed.
If your initial plan was accurate or if you end up ready before you expected, then you can use the extra month to work on any areas you are worried about or to work on your testing stamina by taking full, single-sitting practice tests.
If you are especially anxious, you can add an extra two months to your prep. But, I don’t recommend going over that as you may encounter the “too much time to prep” problem we discussed earlier.
Pick your test date first, then start studying for the SAT
Let your test date determine your prep rather than your prep determine your test date.
Decide on your test date at the beginning of prep, even if you do not schedule the test right then.
There are two main reasons for this:
Availability to test is somewhat limited.
First, if you wait to choose a test date and/or only sign up the moment you feel prepared, you may encounter problems with test availability. The regular registration deadlines may be only one month before their respective test, but if the demand for that particular test date is high, you might have difficulty finding a seat, if you sign up too close to then.
I’ve had students who waited to schedule be forced to drive four hours to their testing site because it was the only one that had seats available. I have even had students go to an entirely different state to take their test.
Granted, those incidents were during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but I’d still argue that it’s better to register ahead of time and avoid this unpredictable problem altogether.
Test dates in the late spring and especially in the fall tend to be some of the busiest.
Negative impacts on focus.
Second, failing to specify a test date at the beginning of your preparation period could negatively impact the efficiency of your preparation. The brain works its hardest and most efficiently when it has concrete deadlines and goals to motivate it.
How often have you said you would do something at “some point in the future” only to have it never get done—or to get done but over a much longer period of time than if someone was keeping you accountable?
By giving yourself a deadline, you can trick your brain into maintaining focus throughout your time studying and preparing to take the SAT or ACT test.
If something happens, you still have options.
Even after taking all of this into consideration, you may still think that you don’t have enough time to gain the score you want.
In that case…
Maybe you’ve given yourself the extra one to two months to study for the SAT or ACT. Then after some time into your preparations, you hit a wall. You decide that, even with the extra time, it’s not enough.
Or maybe everything was going fine at first and you were on track to gain your target score in time. Then suddenly began to plateau.
Regardless of the reason, if the amount of time you planned for prep is not enough, you do not need to freak out. Instead, take some time to carefully consider your options.
Don’t be afraid to test a second time. In fact, try to!
The easiest and most common situation is this: your growth is just a little slower than you thought it would be. You know you can reach your target score. You just need more time to reach it, and you are unable to do so before your upcoming test date.
In this case, the best option is to take the test as planned, then continue prepping and take the test again at a later date.
This is especially true if your upcoming test date is only your first attempt.
Scores generally improve on a second attempt. Many (though not all) colleges will Super Score your results (combining your best section scores across multiple test dates into a larger “super” composite score which represents the best you can possibly do on the test).
In fact, unless you are 100% satisfied with your first test result, I always recommend taking the test more than once if you can.
You also have the option of rescheduling your exam. But doing so incurs a fee, and there are few benefits to doing so.
You could argue that it prevents a low score from being on your record, but colleges don’t necessarily see a low score as a bad thing. Especially if it’s only a first attempt and if followed up by a more impressive score. Colleges may instead be impressed by the amount of growth you demonstrate between tests.
Since there are few benefits and even some downsides to rescheduling, I recommend avoiding this option unless you have some very specific and personal reason.
Don’t take the SAT or ACT test more than 3 times
That said, I do not recommend taking the test more than three times.
Unfortunately, your score is only likely to naturally improve on your second attempt. If after a second attempt, you still are not happy with your score, then it means you need some serious preparation and study time in the areas where you are weak to improve your score.
If you assume that on average you would be studying for a few months in between test dates, then by your third attempt, you have likely reached a very difficult plateau to surpass. At this point, taking the test again and again will not help your score.
Furthermore, any additional prep and studying, unless extremely intense and time-consuming, will likely only improve your SAT or ACT score by a little.
At the end of your rope? Ask yourself these difficult questions
If you are considering taking the test a fourth time because you still are not happy with your results, take a pause to consider why. Are in some other situation that severely limits your ability to prepare for a further test? For example, you’re a high school senior about to take the last possible SAT/ACT before applications are due and are still not confident in yourself.
Then you need to pause and take a moment to seriously consider why you are taking the test. Additionally, question why you specifically need this certain score.
So, before you dig in and begin studying for the SAT once again, ask yourself:
- Is it absolutely necessary to get into your dream school, or would it just be a nice boost?
- Has your school reinstated its testing requirement, or are they still test-optional?
- Just how much weight does your dream college place on standardized test results? Schools like MIT may place a lot of emphasis on them, but not all schools care as much. And some schools, like the UC Schools, don’t even look at them.
- Would more time dedicated to preparing for the SAT or ACT take time away from other activities or parts of your application? Are those parts more compelling than an average or slightly above average test score?
- Would focusing further on preparing for the tests even weaken those other parts of your application?
- Would your time instead be better spent on making those other parts of your application even more robust and impressive?
The correct answer to these questions for you may mean that it is better to cut your losses and focus on other parts of your application.
Additional resources to help you decide if you need to take the SAT
If you want more help determining the answers to these questions on your own, we go more in-depth and provide further examples in our article: Do I Need to Take the SAT or ACT Tests? Use the infographic in the article to determine if you actually need to take the SAT based on your goals.
Still need help deciding if you need to take an SAT/ACT test?
If you need help answering these questions for your specific situation, PowerfulPrep can help you do so with a free consultation. Just use the online scheduling tool below.
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We’ll help determine if you need to take an SAT/ACT test or not based on your specific situation. If you don’t need to test, we’ll connect you with the right resources to strengthen the other parts of your application.
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Takeaway: There’s no one “right” duration to study for the SAT or ACT
There is not any one “right” duration for test prep. How long you should study for the SAT or ACT depends on you, your test prep needs, and what else you have going on in your life that contributes to your college applications.
Take what you know about yourself and your schedule into account when planning out your test prep schedule. Give yourself some extra time to study for the SAT or ACT if you are uncertain how long prep will take you, but try not to give yourself too much extra time.
Unless you are absolutely unable to take the SAT or ACT test more than once, don’t be afraid to take the test a second time after preparing further. (Your SAT score will likely thank you for it.)
If you have already taken an SAT or ACT test multiple times and your score is no longer improving, ask yourself if you truly need to test or if it would be better to focus on other, more competitive parts of your application.