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

Matt Larriva
Jan 14, 2021
Home » Blog » When Do You Take The ACT: The Ideal Test-Prep Schedule

So, when do you take the ACT? If you’re looking for the easiest test date, I have some bad news; there’s technically not one test date that’s easier than the others.

However…

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 test 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 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 like 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?

Our infographic: How to decide between the SAT and the ACT will help you figure out which test you’re likely to do best 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. So, 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!


matt larriva powerful prep act test prep founder

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.

Matthew Larriva, founder, Powerful Prep

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. When 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.

Now...

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.

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

I cover why these tests aren't entirely useful in depth on an article I recently wrote demystifying PSAT scores (and why the PSATs don't really matter), you'll definitely want to give that read.

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 a 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. Where is your destination?

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.

To give you an idea:

  • Princeton (US News and World rankings number 1 US University) has an average-accepted SAT score of SAT: 1500 and ACT: 34. when to take the ACT
  • UCLA (US News and World rankings number 19 US University) has an average-accepted SAT score of SAT: 1370 and ACT: 29.when to take the ACT

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 (Princeton, 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 in how quickly you gain points. Let's take a look at and see which prep type you will be using.

Solo

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

Small-Group

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

Large-Group

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.

One-On-One

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.

TestStarting RangePoint Gains Per WeekIn 3 Months
SAT<130015180
SAT>1300672
ACT<300.33.6
ACT>300.22.4

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.

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:

When Should You Start Prepping For the ACT?

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 prep, and for which test date.

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 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.

But...

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.

student taking the ACT test

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 sacrificing 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 ask the act faq

Still have questions about when to take the ACT?

Have a general questions about the ACT or SAT test? We've answered some frequently asked questions about when to take the ACT below, but please, feel free to reach out to us directly with any additional questions about your student's path to point gains on the ACT.

At Powerful Prep, we pride ourselves on the quality and expertise of our teachers by hiring instructors who are:

  • Ivy League Graduates
  • Mensa Members
  • Top Scorers: 99.9 Percentile On Their SAT and ACT Exams
  • Experienced Teachers
  • National Merit Scholarship Recipients

Every instructor is specially trained to help students achieve the highest point increases possible, and their results are constantly monitored for consistency and excellence.

When Do You Take The ACT: Frequently Asked Questions

What are the ACTs?

The ACT test is an exam that's administered by ACT, inc, that many universities and colleges use to determine whether or not a student will be a good fit for their educational programs. Much like many of the tests you took in high school, the ACT is done on paper and pencil and follows a multiple choice format.

Essentially, the ACT measures how prepared a student is to attend college, while also giving the college tangible data they can use to compare with competing applicants.

When is the ACT?

The ACT test can be taken on the following dates:

Test Date: February 6, 2021
Registration Deadline: January 15
Late Registration (Fee Required): No late fees

Test Date: April 17, 2021
Registration Deadline: March 12, 2021
Late Registration (Fee Required): March 13 - March 26, 2021

Test Date: June 12, 2021
Registration Deadline: May 7, 2021
Late Registration (Fee Required): May 8 - May 21, 2021

Test Date: July 17, 2021*
Registration Deadline: June 18, 2021
Late Registration (Fee Required): June 19 - June 25, 2021
*No test centers are scheduled in New York for the July test date.

How long are the ACTs?

The ACT is about 3 hours and 35 minutes including breaks.

How many times can you take the ACT?

According to ACT.org, there is no limit on the number of times a student can take a retest. However, as we outlined in the article above, this may not be ideal for most students.

What is the maximum ACT score?

The maximum ACT score is a 36.

What time does the ACT start?

Students need to report to the proctor at 8:00 AM on test day. Once all students have been checked in (typically 30 minutes), the test will begin.

Where can I take the ACT?

ACT tests are commonly taken at local high schools. Use the test locator tool on the ACT website to find the testing location nearest you.

Can you take the ACT after high school?

Yes, students can take the ACT after they have finished high school

Does the ACT have an age limit?

There is no age limit to take the ACT. But it should be noted that examees under the age of 12 are still required to bring acceptable identification to be seated for the test as per the ACT terms and conditions.

Can sophomores take the ACT?

Absolutely. There is no age limit on taking the ACT and sophomores are welcome to test, although most students take it in their Junior year. I strongly advice you read through the steps I've outlined in this article to help you determine when the best time for you to take the ACT is.

Can I Submit the ACT without the Writing Section?

Will test-optional colleges take my ACT score into consideration if I don’t have the ACT writing portion this year?

The first part of your question asks: can I submit an ACT without the writing portion. This depends on the school. Many require the writing portion, but many do not. You will need to check with the specific schools to which you’re applying.

The second part of your question asks: can I submit an ACT score to a test-optional school. Of course! Test-optional does not mean test-blind. In fact, if you are a student from a reasonably privileged background, you will be expected to submit a strong test score.

Why should Juniors take the ACT?

The SAT changed from the current format to a new format in March 2016. You can read all about the changes here, but what that means is if you're going to be a Junior next year, and you wanted to take the SAT in Fall 2015, you'd be taking the Current SAT, but then if you needed to retake the test in the Spring, you'd have to take the New SAT, requiring you to start your prep from scratch.

Why should Sophomores and Freshmen take the ACT?

Because the New SAT is going to be a complete wildcard for the first few years.

First, the College Board will struggle as it tries to create standardization and normalization tables for the new exam, which it can't have done already, because no one has taken the entire test.

Second, prep companies will struggle to put out quality material because they've had to rush to do so.

Third, much of what we knew and held firmly true about the SAT will be called into question. What will its new point-return curve look like? What kind of student will outperform on the SAT relative to the ACT? What will the timing feel like when applied in a test-setting? We don't know, and we won't know for a couple of years until data starts coming out.

To avoid having our clients become Guinea pigs for a changing regime, we're strong supporters of the ACT for the next 2-3 years.