One of the most common requests I get from students and parents is, “What’s a good study plan?” It’s a question that I struggle to answer, simply because every student is in a different situation and I simply don’t have the time to help everyone work that out on a case-by-case basis. (Though I do offer my tutoring students customized study plans!)
What I’ve done instead is design a basic study plan that any student can use to begin crafting the perfect approach to getting that 1600 SAT or 36 ACT score. (This study plan can also help you score well on the PSAT.) With a few modifications, this study plan should work for any student in any situation, and it’s a study plan that will adapt with you as you learn, improve, and better understand how to prepare for the test.
The Study Cycle
The core of this study plan is the cycle. These are a set of study activities that you will repeat in a consistent pattern over the weeks and months you study. As you learn and understand your needs better, you can change this cycle to tailor it to your needs.
The great benefit of the study cycle is that you know exactly what your next task is. There’s no guessing or confusion. You know that the next time you sit down to study, your task is THIS or THAT. The study cycle helps you to work serially (in other words, step-by-step) rather than in parallel. Studying for the SAT and ACT can be difficult because there are so many different tasks and topics to review, and you might feel tempted to do it all at the same time. The study cycle tells you exactly what to do and in what order.
Another sweet feature of this system is that you don’t have to worry about what’s going on any different day. This system fits any schedule, though it works best if you can do a little bit each day rather than cramming. Just work when you can and the study cycle will be ready for you.
Here’s How to Get Your SAT/ACT Study Plan
Click the above image for free, instant access!
In this course you’ll get access to the study plan docs, resources, and other goodies that will help you design and perfect a study plan to help you reach your score goals.
Work through that course through your own pace – it should take less than 30 minutes to complete.
Make sure you also peruse the information below. I summarize the main points of the course and detail best practices for studying for the SAT or ACT efficiently and effectively.
How to Study for the SAT & ACT
In this section, I’m going to give you the “best practices” that will optimize your SAT or ACT study schedule and ensure that you’re getting the best results out of the time, energy, and money you invest in your prep program. Note that the above are guidelines, or suggestions, and can be modified according to your needs, schedule, abilities, etc. But take these ideas as starting points for designing your study plan.
Which Test (SAT or ACT) Should I Study For?
Pick one test and focus on it. Don’t try to study for both the SAT & ACT at the same time. Even though the tests have their similarities, they also have significant differences. It’s best to be come a master of one test than to be mediocre at both. You can learn more about how to choose between the SAT and ACT here.
Number of Days Per Week
The most important factor in your SAT and ACT studying success will be your consistency, i.e. the number of days per week you study. It’s much more effective (and pleasant!) to study for a little bit each day than to cram intermittently. For example, let’s say you could choose one of these study schedules:
A) Study 2 days/week, 5 hrs per day = 10 hrs studying per week
B) Study 6 days/week, 1.5 hrs per day = 9 hrs studying per week
Which do you think would be the better choice?
The answer is, of course, B), even though A) yields one more hour of studying. Why? Because your brain absorbs knowledge much better when it’s spread over time, allowing for your memory to consolidate more efficiently, than if you cram it all into a short period of time and follow up with a bunch of days of idleness. Better still, a consistent, calm schedule is much easier to follow because it’s less painful than doing all that cramming in a couple days. The choice here is a no brainer.
The number of days (4, 5, 6) depends on your schedule and how long you have until your next test, but 5 is usually a good number. For some rough guidelines, if you start studying…
- <1 months before your test: study 6 days per week.
- <3 months before your test: study 5 days per week.
- 4 months or more before your test: study 4 days per week.
Note that you can follow a smoother and less hectic schedule if you start studying early, so it’s never too early (or too late!) to start.
I also DO NOT RECOMMEND studying 7 days per week. It’s unsustainable and inefficient. Give yourself some time to relax, recuperate, and consolidate what you’ve learned. Your brain needs rest as much as it needs studying.
Number of Hours Per Day
The next question – what’s the best number of hours to study each day? The question is often phrased to me as, “How many hours of studying is ‘enough’ to get such and such a score?” Giving a good answer to this question is pretty much impossible, even in the best of conditions, but I can tell you the target number of hours you can study each day to get the most out of your study experience.
For regular practice sessions, a solid study session will max out at 1.5 hours. Studies have shown that humans have a “natural” inclination to 90 minute cycles of work, followed by periods of rest. So take advantage of your biology. Do your solid chunk of work, and then rest. If you want to study more than what’s recommended below, I do not recommend studying for longer than 4.5 hrs per day. You will be too tired after 4.5 hrs of studying to get much out of what your learning. You will make more mistakes, notice less, and think less clearly. Here are some (ideal) guidelines for the number of hours you should bank per day – if you start studying…
- <1 months before your test: 1.5 hrs/day
- <3 months before your test: 1 hr/day
- 4 months or more before your test: 30 minutes/day.
The above guidelines don’t cover days in which you do full practice tests, which may require you to go above your typical hour allotment. This is a necessary evil, anyway, since you have to get used to sitting in a chair and doing the entire test – every section – in a row under time pressure. Follow the above guidelines on typical, non-test study days.
Notice, again, that if you start early in the process, you don’t have to study as hard each day, so start ASAP!
What should I study?
Obviously the specific answer to this question depends on a) whether you’re focusing on the SAT or ACT, 2) your current score level, and 3) your score goal. But generally speaking, your time studying should be spent learning
- Content. Math concepts and formulas, grammar rules, vocabulary, science terms – whatever content you don’t know or need to refresh.
- Test strategies and tactics. It’s not enough to know “stuff” – you need to be able to apply it successfully on the SAT or ACT. You should learn the ins and outs of your chosen test, the best strategies for approaching the sections, and the specific tactics for optimizing your approach and maximizing your score.
- Improving weaknesses. This is achieved primarily by reviewing wrong answers on practice sections and tests. Getting a question wrong in practice is a gift – it’s telling you what you need to focus on to improve, so pay attention to and seek to fix your errors!
- Enhancing strengths. Many students stop their test review at only wrong answers. This is incomplete – you also want to study the questions you get right. You can get a question right for the wrong reason – you got lucky, you guessed, you didn’t quite get the question but worked it out anyway, etc. You also can improve your speed and efficiency on questions and concepts you already understand, leaving you with more time to work through the hard stuff elsewhere in the test. So when you’re reviewing your sections and tests, don’t ignore the stuff you got right – there could be some hidden gems to unearth to further enhance your test performance.
The basic study plan I’ve built for you takes into account all of these domains.
How often should I do full, timed practice tests?
Most students do way too many full timed practice tests. Doing practice test after practice test without spending the time to a) review wrong answers, b) review and improve on what you did right, and c) learn new concepts, strategies, and tactics to improve your test performance is worse than a waste of time. If you just do practice test after practice test without learning from your mistakes, all you’re doing is practicing and reinforcing your errors! Bad times!
Instead, most of your work will be focused on timed practice sections, concept & strategy review, and analysis of your errors and strengths. You still need to do full practice tests to get good score estimates and to get used to test conditions. You just don’t need to do them super frequently. The basic study plan I’ve designed for you takes all of this into account to properly balance learning and practice time. Generally speaking, my study plan has you completing a full practice test every two weeks or so.
When you do take practice tests, make sure you do them in test-like conditions. This will ensure the most accurate scores possible. Try to do as many (if not all) of the following:
- Do the test at 8:00 am (or so)
- Do the test in an “uncomfortable” place. Not on your bed or your favorite chair. Try to do it in a library or some (quiet) public place that’s not your home, but otherwise, pick a spot in your home that’s more “uncomfortable.”
- Do the tests on paper, not off your computer or mobile screen. (Required!!)
- Follow time limits strictly. This is not optional, by the way. If possible, have someone else time you. Otherwise, keep a stopwatch nearby so that you can estimate your time to the second.
- Use pencil & bubble sheet.
- Use real tests produced by the College Board or ACT Inc. (This is also not optional for reasons discussed in this guide.)
What study books, courses, etc. should I use?
As I explain in my discussion of the S.M.A.R.T. principles for SAT/ACT success, the tools – books, courses, study aids, etc. – aren’t as important as other factors, even though we often spend much of our time worrying about finding the “best” book, class, or whatever. So assuming you’ve got the other principles in place (Start, Mindset, Allies, Routine), let me give you a few recommendations for materials to use:
The only books that I recommend without reservations are the official books by the test makers simply because they contain real practice tests, the most important ingredient of our study regimen.
Official SAT Study Guide by the College Board: Technically you don’t even need this book since you can find all the practice tests in this book here. Having this book might be handy, though, if you don’t want to print out the tests at home.
ACT Red Book: Here’s the new version, and here’s the old version. You could buy both, but if you could only get one, the new one is probably the better option. It has two fewer tests, but they are “updated” with some of the subtle changes the ACT has undergone over the last few years. Note that they unfortunately reused material from the old book in the new one, so if you choose to buy both, do remember that there’s some overlap.
As for third party books, like those by Princeton Review, Barron’s, or whoever, I don’t recommend one over any other simply because the questions aren’t “real,” i.e. weren’t written by the College Board or ACT, Inc. The book writers try their best to make the questions accurate, and some do a better job than others, but they’ll never be able to perfectly replicate real test questions, especially for passage based questions (SAT & ACT Reading, ACT Science). You can use these books for extra practice material, but never use them for full practice tests, and don’t trust any “scores” they give you. They are simply too inaccurate. So go ahead and purchase whatever book you like, but they aren’t necessary.
More Practice Tests and Worksheets
You can find a bunch of practice tests on my site:
And here’s a link to my custom worksheets & packets:
Conflict-of-interest alert! I’m going to recommend my courses here, of course. I have full video courses on all sections of the SAT & ACT, some paid, some free. Here are my free courses you can integrate into your study plan:
PSAT & SAT
I also have a bunch of paid courses – I recommend checking out my course bundles which combine my courses into convenient and discounted packages:
Platinum Membership (access to ALL Reason Prep courses, including SAT & ACT)
Got any more questions?
If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for improvement, or if you used the study plan to good effect, feel free to leave a comment below!