When Do You Take The ACT: The Ideal Test-Prep Schedule

Matt Larriva
Jul 28, 2023
Home » When Do You Take The ACT: The Ideal Test-Prep Schedule

So, when do you take the ACT and when do you start ACT prep? If you’re looking for the easiest test date, I have some bad news; there’s technically no one test date that’s easier than the others.


There is a way to determine the most optimal time for you to take the ACT based on your test prep and overall readiness. (Naturally, the more prepared you are to take the ACT test, the easier it will be. )

In other words…

Figuring out when to take the ACT test ultimately comes down to identifying the prep schedule that works best for you.

Now here’s the good news:

It’s not that difficult to figure out the best time to take the ACT. In fact, we can figure it out right now.

student studying for act

When To Take the ACT: How To Map Your Optimal Timeline

One of the most common questions students have is when to take the ACT. 

This is an important question, and there are many factors that influence the answer. But because most parents and students do not have a framework for evaluating this, they too often make this decision based on their peers’ actions or unfounded perceptions.

It is true that most students take the ACT test in their Junior years, but should you?

The average prep course runs for 12 weeks, but is that enough?

Many students and parents make the mistake of thinking about timelines in terms of deadlines…

I’d like to finish by June so I should start in March,” or “Early decision applications are due in October, so I should start a few months before.

A better way to approach this question is to think of it as a road trip and to find the answer in a similar way.

  • Where is your starting point?
  • Where is your destination?
  • How fast are you traveling?

So, let’s unpack those questions together and get to the bottom of your burning question: when do you take the ACT?

Follow along as I present a framework for calculating your best timeline to take the ACT. And don’t worry, we’ll even offer some sample timelines for different types of students.

By the end of this article, you will know exactly when to take the ACT.

Should you take the ACT or the SAT?

Use this infographic to decide between the SAT and the ACT based on which test you are most likely to score well on.

1. Where is your starting point?

Your starting point is your baseline score—your score on a proctored practice ACT.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to take a proctored test just to get your baseline. I’ll explain why that’s a terrible idea in just a moment.

Here’s a better way:

How to determine the most accurate baseline ACT score:

It should come as no surprise that the best way to see how you’d do on a real, official proctored ACT test, is to simulate a real, official, proctored test.

The two biggest components to remember are: 

Now, that aside, getting an accurate baseline is deceptively hard.

Be Careful To Avoid These Common Mistakes:

Tip #1: Don’t use an official proctored ACT for your baseline

These tests go on your permanent record.

There’s no reason to log an official ACT score that is sub-optimal!

Many parents register their students for an official test sitting “just to see where they are starting.” In my opinion, this is like lighting a fire just to see if people know what their building’s evacuation policy is.

When something has permanent consequences, it’s better to do the practice in a non-permanent setting—pilots learn in simulators before taking out real airplanes; skydivers do tandem jumps before solo ones. W

hen to take the ACT

Tip #2: Take the test in test-like conditions

Test stress is real. Students’ scores in test-like versus non-test-like conditions can be night and day.

When you go to take your practice test, take it When to take the ACT

  • At 8AM
  • All at once
  • Outside the home

Consider a student who tests inside the comfort and quiet of her home, at 10AM, taking long snack and cell phone breaks between each section.


Compare the outcome of that experience to the real test which takes place in an unfamiliar testing room, surrounded by strangers who are flipping pages constantly, with minimal break times, and unfamiliar bathroom locations.

The scores could be very different. So to get an accurate baseline, take the practice ACT test in test-like conditions.

RELATED: 8 Hacks To Improve Your ACT Scores & Conquer Test Stress

Tip #3: Don’t use the PSAT or PreACT to figure out when to take the ACT

It’s surprising that a test made by The CollegeBoard and called the ‘Pre-SAT’ would produce such un-SAT-like results.

From the scoring system (out of 1520 vs the SAT’s 1600) to the timing (2:45 vs the SAT’s 3:50), the scores produced on the PSAT or PSAT/NMSQT just do not line up with scores produced on the SAT.

In Powerful Prep’s experience, SAT scores are generally 50-100 points lower than those achieved on the PSAT.ke the ACT

The PreACT is slightly better as it is scored out of 36 points, but it is still a sub-optimal predictor, as the timing is far different. The PreACT clocks in at 1 hour and 55 minutes while the ACT is 3 hours and 35 minutes..

Tip #4: Be careful taking a custom or private provider’s test

While any respectable test prep company (ours included) offers regular proctored practice tests, some use custom tests while others use actual historical ACTs.

Some have accused private providers of artificially deflating practice tests scores to incite demand for their product. Whether there’s any truth to this is dubious, but there is always a risk of tracking error when taking a custom ACT.

The best baseline is an ACT Corporation released ACT which I’ve linked above.

Okay, so now that you know what your current baseline ACT score is, let’s move to the second step of mapping out the best time to take ACT.

2. What college are you applying to?

The answer to this should be dictated by the school or level of school you want to get into. It will make a difference if you want to get into an Ivy League school such as Harvard, UPenn, or a school that’s not considered an Ivy, such as MIT.

To give you an idea:

If you don’t know what your target school is at this stage—that’s perfectly fine. Just use your current GPA to benchmark where you’re likely to end up.

For example, if you’re a sophomore who hasn’t had the opportunity to take any AP courses yet, but who is taking the most rigorous coursework available and has a 4.0 GPA, then look toward the Most Selective row in the table below to tell you what ACT score you should target.

As another example, if you’re taking standard high school curriculum, without honors or AP courses, and your GPA is about 3.4, then look toward the Less Selective row to find what ACT you should target.

when do you take the act test quiz

Determine Your Target ACT Score

If you need additional data to determine your target ACT score, just refer to the columns below:

Most Selective (Brown, Harvard)

Admissions Rate: Less than 10%

GPA (weighted): 4.5 – 5.0

GPA (unweighted): 3.9 – 4.0

Avg. SAT Score: 1490 – 1600

Avg. ACT Score: 32 – 36

Very Selective (Cornell, UCLA)

Admissions Rate: 10% – 20%

GPA (weighted): 3.6 – 4.3

GPA (unweighted): 3.2 – 4.0

Avg. SAT Score: 1430 – 1590

Avg. ACT Score: 31 – 35

Selective (Carnegie Mellon, Boston College)

Admissions Rate: 21% – 35%

GPA (weighted): 3.2 – 4.0

GPA (unweighted): 3.1 – 4.0

Avg. SAT Score: 1350 – 1520

Avg. ACT Score: 27 – 31

Less Selective (UT Austin, Cal Poly)

Admissions Rate: 35% – 50%

GPA (weighted): 3.0 – 4.0

GPA (unweighted): 2.5 – 4.0

Avg. SAT Score: 1200 – 1380

Avg. ACT Score: 27

Not Selective (U San Diego, Chapman)

Admissions Rate: Greater than 50%

GPA (weighted): 1.0 – 3.7

GPA (unweighted): 1.0 – 3.5

Avg. SAT Score: 1180 – 1370

Avg. ACT Score: 27


Once you know which level of selectivity your dream school is, refer to the Average ACT column to see what your target ACT score should be. Once you have that, it’s time to move on to the next step.

3. How fast will you travel?

Now that you have a baseline ACT score and a target ACT score, you know the distance you’ll have to travel.

To calculate the time it will take to gain those points there are a few factors to consider.

How will you prep?

The method of ACT prep you choose will be the largest determinant of how quickly you gain points. Let’s take a look at and see which prep type you will be using.


Now, it is certainly possible to prep for the tests on your own, but then again, it’s also possible to serve as your own attorney.

  • Who is this good for?
    • Students starting with very high scores (1550 or 35) who need only a few points to get to their target scores
    • Students who cannot afford test prep
    • Students who have time to gain points slowly
  • How to do this effectively
    • If you’re just starting, work through one of the free online courses. These courses will teach you the basics
    • Work through practice tests, identify your errors, and then find and teach yourself the material you need so that you do not miss these types of questions anymore


These courses have 5-10 people per class, and usually run for about a month or a month-and-a half.

  • Who is this good for?
    • Students with average scores who are looking for slightly above-average point-gains
    • Students who have very predictable schedules (as there are no make-up classes) and classes are held at the same time.
    • Students who have time to gain points at a moderate pace
  • How to do this effectively
    • Research different courses near you and pick one that has a history of large point-gains


These courses have 15-30 people, and usually run for one to two months.

  • Who is this good for?
    • Students with average scores who are looking for average point-gains
    • Students who have very predictable schedules (as there are no make-up classes) and classes are held at the same time.
  • How to do this effectively
    • Research different courses near you and pick one that has a history of large point-gains
student working with act test prep tutor
One-on-one ACT test prep provides students with customized tutoring and often earn students the highest points gains. Just be sure to hire a trusted test prep company.


These courses leverage the interactivity of classroom settings with the efficacy of customized curriculum

  • Who is this good for?
    • Students who are targeting above-average point-gains
    • Students who have time-constraints and need scheduling flexibility
    • Students who would like to gain points more quickly than group or solo prep
  • How to do this effectively
    • Find tutors who publish their point-gains (i.e., our average student improves by X points)
    • Find tutors who are well-reviewed by a variety of sources
    • Be cautious of tutors who are inexperienced or who have done well on the test but are not experienced in teaching the test

Other Factors Affecting Point-Gain Speed

Although the method of prep you will use will be the biggest factor in how quickly you gain points, there are other factors that affect this rate.

  • First, a student’s commitment to his or her prep makes a large difference in outcomes.
    • Students who engage in any form of prep but only spend time on the material when in class will advance far more slowly than those who make test-prep a part of their daily habits.
  • Next, a student’s starting score affects how quickly he or she will gain points.
    • Those starting at lower scores tend to gain points more quickly than those starting with higher scores. It will be much quicker to move from a 1100 to a 1200 than from a 1500 to a 1600 though there are only 100 points between each.
  • Finally, a student’s individual academic profile will impact point-gain speed.
    • Those who have done well in their high school curriculum can expect to have more rapid, linear gains than those who have difficulty with math foundations or critical reading.

Estimates of Speed

Using our records of our students’ point gains we estimate the following pace of improvement with one-on-one ACT test prep.

Test Starting Range Point Gains Per Week In 3 Months
SAT <1300 15180
SAT>1300 672

Using this estimate, a student starting at a score of 30 on the ACT who wanted to improve to 34 should budget about 5 months of test prep.

These numbers can be decreased or increased due to any of the stated factors above.

Once you know how long you need to prep for ACT, you can look at the scheduled ACT tests and find a test date that aligns with the amount of prep you will need to do.

When Should You Start Prepping For the ACT?

However, there are a few more considerations I want to share with you to get you set up for success when you decide to take ACT.

Let’s take a look at those:

Now that you know how long you will need to prep, you need to decide when to start prepping to take the ACT.

There are 6-8 test-dates for each the SAT and ACT, so you need to consider what year you should ACT prep.

Everything You Need To Know About The SAT and ACT Tests:

SAT Test Dates and SAT Scores animation
act test dates and act score faq animation

In What Grade Should You Start Prepping For The ACT?

student asking when do you take the act

First, you need to decide what year you want to begin prep. 

Many resources suggest that students take the test multiple times during their junior years. If you can, then, this is the best route to go as it leaves the most options for retakes and for applying early action/decision. 

However, junior year is the most impactful year for grades. 

The GPA you achieve in your Junior year matters more than any other. 

Adding test prep to this might dilute your GPA, depending on how much you can take on.

What Time of Year Should You Prep?

Next, you need to decide during what time of year you want to prep. 

If you prep during the summer, you avoid having to do school work and prep work simultaneously.


If you prep during the school year, you have far more test dates to work with, and you leave your summers open for traveling and extracurricular activities.

Three months is usually sufficient to improve your score by about 2-4 points on the ACT and 150-250 points on the SAT, assuming you’ve chosen a strong test prep provider. If you need more points, then plan to add an additional month for every 1 point on the ACT, or 40 points on the SAT.

How Many Times Should You Take the ACT?

Finally, you’ll want to have an idea of how many times you want to take the test. 

Some schools will allow you to submit your best score in each section out of all the times you have taken the test, which is called super-scoring

Want to learn more about super scoring?

We’ve got you covered, check out blog post now:


But even if your school only takes the best single test date’s score, taking the test multiple times can help get you more comfortable with the test and relieve the stress of having a single test day be the only one.  This is one of the reasons a good test prep provider will give their students multiple opportunities to take proctored practice tests.

If you cannot logistically afford to test more than once during your junior year or any year, fear not.

The SAT reports that 57% of students who retake the ACT improve their scores.  The ACT (and the SAT) both align more with the Common Core than they used to, so the increases in scores makes sense: the longer students spend in high school, the higher their mastery of the Common Core, and the better their test scores become.

Things To Avoid When Prepping For the ACT

While deciding when to start prepping, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for.

First, the earlier you begin prepping, the more certain you need to be about what school you want to get into.  Starting earlier may give you more total prep time, but not having a clear target score in mind could lead to inadvertently spending more time than you actually need on prepping for the test – time which could be spent improving other areas of your college resume, such as GPA or extra curriculars.  You may also find that you are more motivated if you have a clearer goal in mind.

Second, try not to wait until the last minute to start prepping.  Not even the best test prep provider can effectively help a student achieve his goals if there is only a week to work.

Sample Timelines To Help Students Determine When To Take The ACT

Using and keeping in mind all the things discussed here, your timeline should be what works best for you.  Here are a few sample timelines that you can use as a springboard to develop your own and determine when to take the ACT.

student asking when should i take the act
“When should I take the ACT?” Use your test prep timeline to find the answer.

Ambitious Students

Prep 3 times, Test 3 times
  • Start prepping during Sophomore year
  • Test at the end of sophomore year
  • Re-prep the summer before junior year
  • Test in the fall of Junior year
  • Re-prep during the summer before Senior year
  • Re-test in the fall of senior year

This timeline offers the most flexibility in terms of possible test dates.  It also ensures that you are as prepared as possible for the test, and, therefore, ensures your highest possible score.

Standard Students

Prep 2 times, Test 2 times
  • Start prepping the summer before junior year
  • Test in the fall of Junior year
  • Re-prep during the summer before Senior year
  • Re-test in the fall of senior year

This timeline is more cost-effective but doesn’t sacrifice too much preparedness or flexibility.

Late Stage Students

Prep 1 time, Test 2 times
  • Prep during the summer before senior year through the fall of senior year
  • Test twice, back-to-back, on the first two tests of the fall/summer

This timeline saves the most time and money but sacrifices a lot of flexibility and potential preparedness.

To Recap: How To Determine The Optimal Time To Take The ACT

Calculate your starting score and target score. From that, you can calculate how long it will take to close the gap. Once you know how long you will need to prep you can then choose which test date you would like to sit for based on our sample timelines.

You can find your starting score by taking a proctored practice test. Avoid the common pitfalls of assuming your baseline is your PSAT score–usually, that test is inflated, relative to SAT scores.

Calculate your target score based on your GPA and the selectivity level of your target school.

Estimate the time it will take to close the gap between your starting and target-end score by deciding between one-on-one, small-group, or large-group test prep.

Now that you know how long it will take you to prep, you can decide when you’d like to start prepping, and which dates you’d like to sit for. Consider which year you’d like to start studying and if you’re able to prep during the year, or only during the summer. Based on that, consult our sample timelines to decide exactly when to start prep and which tests to take.

When Do You Take The ACT: Frequently Asked Questions

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Marc Gray, Client Success Manager

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Learn how our expertise can help your student get into their dream school using a customized test prep program.

Schedule a consultation using the calendar to the right.

Need answers now? Call us at 805-876-4687 now to discuss.

Schedule a FREE Consultation

Learn how our expertise can help your student get into their dream school using a customized test prep program.

Schedule a consultation using the calendar below. Need answers now? Call us at 805-876-4687 now to discuss.