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When Should I Start Studying for the SAT or ACT?

By an IvyWise Master Tutor

The spring semester is a popular testing time for college-bound students and is often the first time that high school juniors crack open an SAT or ACT prep book. What’s important for younger students to realize, however, is that starting test prep early — even in ninth or 10th grade — can help students have the best chance of reaching their goal scores and mitigate the stress caused by too much testing at once.

In reality, when to start test prep depends on a lot of factors. It varies from students to student, and is based on personal test goals, high school planning, college admissions goals, academic priorities and extracurricular commitments, to name a few. Every student is different, but it is good for students to get started on their test prep early — even if it’s just becoming more familiar with the tests through a diagnostic test. There are a lot of benefits to starting test prep early.

How Much Time Do I Need to Study for the SAT and ACT?

Generally speaking, the amount of time you’ll need to study for the exam will depend somewhat on your initial performance on a diagnostic test. It’s also helpful to factor in your study preferences, goal test scores, and the test prep resources that are available to you. Students who score below 1200 on the SAT or 25 on the ACT will have the most room to increase their scores, so it’s best to set aside at least three months to study, practicing at least 5-10 hours a week. Overall, studying somewhere between one and six months will probably be enough to produce significant results, but three months should give you ample time to try different study strategies and become comfortable with the content of the test.

Should You Start Studying for the SAT in Ninth Grade?

There’s a lot of planning that goes into preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT, but fortunately, there are also a lot of benefits of studying for tests. Starting early allows for ample time to determine your best-fit test, evaluate areas of improvement, choose a testing date, and to plan a prep schedule accordingly. But exactly how early should you begin your test preparation process? Typically, in ninth grade, you won’t need to actively prepare for these tests, but you can start to get familiar with the exams and the skills you will need to acquire to perform well on them.

When to Start Studying for the SAT and ACT: 4 Reasons to Start Early

Want to learn more about why beginning preparation early is one of many smart test-taking strategies? Check out the top reasons why studying well in advance is the best way to go.

You Can Get a Lot of Testing Out of the Way Before Junior Year

Typically, students plan to take the SAT or ACT during junior year of high school, as they will have most likely covered all or a majority of the concepts that are tested on the exams. However, junior year also happens to be the most challenging and academically rigorous school year for most students thus far. This is why it’s crucial to think about testing earlier when the demands of your regular academic schedule are fewer. For high school sophomores planning to take the ACT or SAT in the fall of junior year, you should begin prepping now by taking a diagnostic and determining which test is the best fit for you.

Starting Early Allows for Better Planning

The earlier you start your test preparation process, the better you will be able to plan. Students who get started early can set aside time to study that won’t conflict with extracurricular activities and other obligations. You’ll also be able to space out your test preparation over a longer time period, meaning you can avoid cramming months’ worth of lessons into the final days before your college entrance exam. With better planning, you can reduce the stress associated with test preparation and better retain the information and facts that you study. Students should maximize their study time by utilizing breaks in order to put their best foot forward while testing. Summer test prep, for example, is extremely beneficial for students.

You’ll Have Time to Test Multiple Times (If Needed)

It’s not uncommon for students to sit for the SAT or ACT two, or even three, times. The decision to take the SAT multiple times should not be seen as a negative, and in fact, is often the best strategy to achieve the best possible score in each section given that many colleges super-score the ACT or SAT. By planning ahead and not rushing to get your testing done in two or three months before your applications are due, you’re giving yourself plenty of time to retake the exams if needed (and get ample test prep in between sittings!) in order to reach your goal score. However, keep in mind that if a college doesn’t honor Score Choice, that school will still see all your scores from every sitting, so don’t sit the SAT or ACT unless you’re confident and prepared.

It is a good rule of thumb to sit for no more than three tests as scores tend to level off, especially after the third attempt. While this may be difficult for some to grasp, it is also important to keep in mind that SAT or ACT scores are not the be-all and end-all to getting into your desired college. Excessive test prep should not get in the way of regular coursework, activities, and other school commitments. If you’ve taken the SAT or ACT multiple times and find yourself not improving, it may be time to consider test-optional schools.

It Will Take Pressure off Your Other College Prep Tasks

The college prep process can be very stressful, especially when managing test prep with other tasks like researching and visiting schools, building a college list, making an impact in extracurricular activities, and, most importantly, doing well in regular coursework. The college prep process only becomes more intense as students move into junior and senior year of high school, so starting some of your test prep and testing earlier in your high school career can actually take a lot of the pressure off your other college prep priorities.

If students take their first SAT or ACT in the fall of junior year, they’re getting a lot of the intense prep out of the way early — leaving room for maybe one or two more retakes depending on their performance. Starting early and planning properly can go a long way toward helping students spend more time improving their applicant profile, and less time stressing about college entrance exams.

How to Start Studying for the SAT and ACT?

Students should start by taking a diagnostic of both the SAT and ACT. This is a good starting point to determine your personal strengths and weaknesses and to help forecast how much test prep time may be required. The key is to not lose focus and stick to a study schedule. Often starting with the sections that you are weak in or which will require the most practice is a good place to begin prep work. Reading comprehension is a good starting point given that the ability to read, understand, and analyze a written passage often comes with practice. If reading comprehension is easy for you, it may make more sense to start with basic math including arithmetic, algebra, and fractions to create a foundation for more complex mathematical concepts. A similar suggestion can also be made for the science section on the ACT if critical thinking is a weakness, in which it may make sense to start prepping for the science section first.

When to Take SAT Prep Courses?

The best time for SAT prep courses will vary from student to student, but generally, it’s best to take these classes several months before you plan on sitting for the exam. By starting test prep early, students put themselves in the best position to plan, prep, and retest. The tutoring demo below can give you a better understanding of the type of practice that goes into SAT or ACT prep.

IvyWise’s team of expert tutors can work with students to help them identify their areas of weakness, develop an action plan for further improvement, and provide the best SAT and ACT test prep. Learn how you can benefit from our IvyWise Test Prep programs.

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