One of the first questions parents and students ask is, “How long is it really going to take to raise my SAT or ACT score?” This question does not have one simple answer as there are a lot of factors. One universal truth is that the SAT and ACT are not tests that you can cram for and expect a marked improvement.

How much do you need to raise your score? In two to three months, a 100-point increase on the SAT or  2-3 point increase on the ACT is reasonable. Have we seen better gains? Yes, but that is not the norm. If you are trying to raise your score 200+ points on the SAT or 5+ points on the ACT, that will not be a quick process. You will likely need to dedicate the better part of a year to see that type of improvement. This is why prep often begins in the beginning to middle of junior year and may continue into fall or winter of senior year. Could you hit your goal sooner? Yes, but you should plan to have three test dates set aside in case you need three attempts to reach your goal. For example, March of junior year, June of junior year, and October of senior year (if needed) would be a good timeline for the SAT.

Why does it take so long? First, you have to remember how scores are determined for a standardized test. Scaled scores are determined based on how you did compared to a sample of other students. To get a 1500+, you have to be in the 99th percentile, meaning you did better than 99 of every 100 students. To get a 1400+, you have to be in the 97th percentile, meaning you did better than 97 out of every 100 students. Think of a sport you play. How many hours would it take for you to be in the top 1% of all soccer players or all gymnasts? Now apply that same idea to SAT or ACT prep.

Slow and steady is key. Studying a little bit each day over time is far more effective than attempting to cram several hours of study into a few weeks. Again, this means you should plan to start prep at least two to three months before the test date.

Another factor is the number of weak areas based on an initial practice SAT or ACT. For example, a student that can answer every question about systems of equations correctly but misses every problem on quadratic equations is an easier “fix” than a student that is missing some problems in each category. In the first scenario, less material needs to be covered since there are very targeted weak areas.

The final factor to consider is your learning style. Are you the type of student that can see a concept one time and  master it for a test or do you require repetition, repetition, repetition? If the latter is true, factor in more time to prepare for the SAT or ACT. Remember that these tests cover material from multiple classes spanning three years. Although it should all be review, it’s a lot of material to remember and master at one time.

In summary, at a minimum, you should plan to study two to three months before taking the test. If you want to improve your score by a very significant amount and/or if you tend to need more time to master concepts, factor in more time. Remember that the more you prepare, the more confident and less stressed you will feel when it’s time to take the test.