When to take the ACT: The Ideal Test-Prep Schedule

Matt Larriva
May 05, 2019

The Ideal Test-Prep Schedule: When to take the ACT.

Identifying the test prep schedule that works best for you when to take the ACT

Mapping your optimal timeline: when to take the ACT

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 test their Junior years, but should you? The average prep course runs for 12 weeks. 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?

In this article, we will present a framework for calculating your best timeline. We will then offer some sample timelines for different types of students. By the end you will know exactly when to take the ACT.

Where is your starting point?When to take the ACT

To calculate your starting point, you need to know which test you’re prepping for. If you don’t know which test you would like to focus on, then take a look at our article and infographic to figure out which test you’re likely to do best on. Once you know which test is best for you, then calculate your starting point.

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

Getting an accurate baseline is deceptively hard; be careful to avoid these common mistakes:

Don’t use an official CollegeBoard-proctored SAT or an official proctored ACT for your baseline

These tests go on your permanent record, and there’s no reason to log a 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. When to take the ACT

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 test in test-like conditions.

Don’t use the PSAT10 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 PSAT10 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.when to take 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.when to take the ACT

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 SATs and 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 SAT or ACT. The best baseline is a CollegeBoard or ACT Corporation released SAT or ACT. Both companies have many on their site.

The most accurate baseline score

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

The biggest components to remember are: When to take the ACT

  • Use an official, released test from The CollegeBoard or the ACT
  • Take the test at 8AM, all at once, outside the home.

Where is your destination?

The answer to this should be dictated by the school or level of school you want to get into. 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—and that’s perfectly fine—then use your current GPA to benchmark where you’re likely to end up.when to take the ACT

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, then look toward the Most Selective row to tell you what the SAT or 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 SAT/ACT you should target.when to take the ACT

When to take the ACT

When to take the ACT based on selectivity of school

How fast will you travel?

Now that you have a baseline score and a target 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? One-on-one; small-group; large-group; solo

The method of perp you choose will be the largest determinant in how quickly you gain points.

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.

  • WhoM 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

 

One-On-One

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

  • Whom 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 prep.

Average Point Gains: when to take the ACT

When to take the ACT based on point gains

Using this estimate, a student starting with an 1100 who wanted to improve to 1400 should expect to prep for about 8 months.

A student starting at a 30 on the ACT who wanted to improve to 34 should budget about 5 months.

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

When should you start prepping for the ACT?

Once you know how long you will need to prep, you need to decide when to start prepping. 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.

9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th Grade Prep?

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: 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.  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 CollegeBoard reports that 55% of juniors who retake the SAT as seniors improve their score.  35% of students’ scores stay the same and the remaining ten percent decline. These figures are similar for the ACT, with 57% of students improving after a retake. 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

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

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.

Ambitious

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

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

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:

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.