5 Tips for Designing a Test Prep Timeline

Commit to an early test date and plan to take the SAT or ACT more than once to set a study timeline.

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Create an SAT or ACT study schedule that allows you to pace yourself to avoid burnout.

For many students entering their junior year of high school, one of the most stressful parts of preparing to apply to college is taking the SAT or ACT, one of which is suggested for application to the vast majority of four-year colleges and universities. At this point, students are inundated with so many different test-taking tips, strategies and services that it can be quite challenging to sift through them all.

One of the most important things for students to do in preparing to take the SAT or ACT is to map out exactly when they will take the test and how they will study for it. The following are five tips for designing such a timeline. 

1. Sign up for a test date far in advance: The SAT is offered seven times per year nationally; the ACT is offered six. Once you determine which test you will be taking, the first thing you need to do is look at the upcoming test schedule and decide on a date to take it. 

Once you pick a date, make sure that you avoid all possible conflicts in the time immediately preceding it. Don't let things that you can control interfere with your preparation during that time. 

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2. Plan to take the test more than once: While it would be great if you could reach your target score the very first time you take the test, you will most likely have to take it once or twice more in order to attain the score you want

Improvement comes naturally through repetition. No matter how many practice tests you take, it is difficult to simulate test day conditions before actually experiencing what it's like to be sitting in that test-taking room. 

Planning your timeline around the assumption that you will need to take the test multiple times also allows you the flexibility to slip up slightly while still having the fallback option of later test dates. 

3. Take the test early: On a similar note, it will be impossible to take the SAT or ACT multiple times prior to applying to colleges if the first time you take it is late in the fall of your senior year. 

Even if you look at the upcoming test dates and are not sure you will be 100 percent prepared by the midpoint of your junior year, you can still take that first crack at it if you feel you have a reasonable amount of time to prepare. 

With plenty of time left in your junior year, you leave yourself ample time to take the exam once or twice more. As an added bonus, you'll find yourself completely done with your test-taking early if you end up scoring better than you expected the first time. 

4. Pace yourself: Once you have committed to a test date and specific studying schedule, be careful not to burn out too early in your preparation. While you may be tempted to dive headfirst into your prep book at full bore from the start, too much preparation too early can be counterproductive. 

Take it easy those first few weeks, perhaps just by simply reviewing concepts or trying handfuls of practice problems at a time. This way, you can gradually get the hang of things before breaking out the big guns – e.g., sample test sections and full-length sample tests – much later, ideally during the week or two before you take the test. 

Blocking out a schedule beforehand will greatly alleviate stress by ensuring that you always know your next step. 

[Don't fall for these SAT and ACT myths.] 

5. Simulate testing conditions: Reserve the last week in your studying schedule for taking a full sample exam, and make sure to simulate test day conditions as much as possible. 

Stick to the allotted time for each test section and take short breaks between sections as you will be instructed to do on test day. You should even carry a small bag of snacks to eat during breaks, as you will be allowed when you take the exam. 

The closer you can get to feeling exactly what it is like to take the test, the less stressful the real experience will be. 

Bradford Holmes is a professional SAT and Latin tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his B.A. from Harvard University and his master's degree from the University of Southern California.