It's a Process: Creating a Study Plan for the ACT

For most parents, the ACT was something that was taken once without much thought or prep. Times have changed dramatically.

For many reasons, College admissions today are more competitive than they ever have been.

Students at many elite boarding schools in the United States (the same students who are targeting selective institutions) begin to prepare and take the ACT as early as 8th grade and continue preparing and taking it throughout their high school career. These are your student’s competitors! Waiting until late Junior year and early Senior year to take the test for the first time leaves less time to tackle the pace issue and the right brain, left brain spread on the test. Those two items are very important. A 4.0 students who does not finish the four sections could score the national average score of 21. The GPA and ACT score do not always line up and starting early will alleviate the unknowns that cause issues.

The first thing to understand is that ACT prep is a process.

Students who take the ACT one time and receive their goal score are very, very rare. Reaching your highest possible score takes hours of preparation and multiple tests.

The ACT is most definitely a trainable test and, with hard work and an understanding of how the test is structured, your student can improve their score dramatically. Below, we will explain how to best create a study plan for the ACT.

Sophomore Year

The first step in the ACT prep process is to take a diagnostic test to set a baseline for your student.

If they would like to take a real ACT to do this, that is fine! However, a practice test under timed conditions will do the trick, as well.

We advise students to take a diagnostic test during spring of their sophomore year.

Believe it or not, by this time students have learned a majority of the material that is on the ACT. A common misconception is that sophomores haven’t yet learned the material that is on the ACT.

As an example, the math portion is a 60 question test and out of those 60 questions, 45-50 questions are of material covered in algebra I and geometry I (which most students take as freshman and sophomores).

At CPS, we offer a free diagnostic test that not only will calculate your student’s score and baseline, it goes into detail about exactly what types of questions your student is missing. Knowing your student’s strengths, weaknesses, and time management issues is invaluable information for the test prep process.

Another way to get this information is to take one of three ACT tests offered per year that give TIR (test information release). For an extra $20, the ACT will send you a copy of the test booklet with your student’s answers and the correct answers. The April, June, and December ACT tests offer this service. TIR is also a great way to analyze what your student needs to work on to improve their score.

After taking a diagnostic test, we advise students to prep for and take either the June or July ACT test after their sophomore year as their first real shot at the test. Both the June and July tests are traditionally higher scoring tests and summer is the perfect time to devote to studying for the ACT.

Junior Year

With a diagnostic and first sitting of the ACT out of the way, junior year can be focused on reaching your goal score.

During junior year, there are seven possible tests to take (September, October, December, February, April, June, July). This leaves plenty of flexibility to plan around your student’s sports, band, or academic schedule and focus on preparing when they have the most time to commit to it.

The most important factor in improving your student’s ACT score is the amount of quality time they can spend on prep. It takes time to learn strategies, practice implementing those strategies, understand the structure of the test, and to target your patterns of strengths/weaknesses.

How many hours of study you need to put in before the ACT depends on how large of a point improvement you want to make. You can determine this by figuring out the difference between the baseline score you got from your diagnostic test and your target score for the schools you want to get accepted to.

Below is a useful chart that quantifies the amount of hours needed to improve ACT scores for most students.

ACT Score Increase x Prep Hours.png

These hours might be shocking, but broken up over several sessions of preparation, they are achievable! This is the type of dedication that successful students put in to their prep.

We have found that our students who have a plan and put in the work, are able to improve their scores by 7-9 points.

Our advice is to plan for a score increase of 2-4 points per test and add in a “buffer test” in case you stub your toe on one section, get sick, inclement weather closes a testing site, or you have an annoying experience at your testing site. You may even plateau due to your numbers teeter tottering because you studied the low areas and your other scores fell when those rose. Build a timeline of the number of tests you want to prepare for and when you have the most time to study.

CPS offers five-week prep courses before each ACT test. Our classes are essentially unlimited tutoring, so take advantage of that! The flexibility we offer will make it easier for you to fit in the needed hours of preparation.

By building good study habits through breaking down your plan into five-week study sessions, you teach your student to build on success and take responsibility. The anxiety and stress surrounding the ACT turns into confidence.

By having a plan and putting in the work, your student can definitely achieve their goal score and open opportunities they may not have even dreamed of!

Senior Year

We will cover the senior year timeline in another post, but basically senior year should be reserved for researching colleges, going on visits, crafting applications and essays, and finding scholarships. If your student must take another ACT, it is important to study. Students who are just coming off of a Summer break and they tackle the September test tend to be foggy and scores stagnate when they have not studied. Use your Summer wisely - August is a great time to begin working on your college applications!

Preparing for college is a stressful time for families.

The ACT, visiting schools, writing applications: all of these cause stress and anxiety.

By starting early and creating a timeline, you and your student can eliminate the worry surrounding the college prep process and plan for success!

Just remember that it is a process!