How to Find Study Time for the SAT and ACT

Recently, one of my favorite high school juniors—let’s call her Ann—came to me with a predicament during her weekly ACT tutoring session: how could she find time to study for the ACT when her demanding course load took up every waking moment of her week?

This was a new issue for Ann—she was totally fine before fall semester midterms started. In fact, she’d always been super prepared for all her sessions. This was an intelligent, high-performing student who would never even dream of going to school without her homework finished, and was probably a bit mortified that she hadn't been fully prepared for some of our sessions as of late. If she literally couldn’t piece chunks of time together to study for the ACT, how could she possibly get the score she wanted and was capable of achieving?

Perhaps you or someone you know is in a similar pickle. You are in the thick of junior spring, or senior fall, and you just don’t know how you’re going to get it all done—let alone done WELL. Here’s how I like to help students find the time they need.

1) Take a piece of paper and DRAW OUT your schedule.

The first thing Ann and I did was take a piece of paper, divide it into seven days (Sunday through Saturday), and block off all chunks of time that is occupied by known activities.

For example, block off a big chunk of time for school every Monday through Friday, but also note the time you wake up, and block off the time it takes you to shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and travel to school. What extracurricular activities do you have every week? Block those off, too. Do you eat your dinner as a family at a certain time each night? Draw that in. Is there a certain time you prefer to go to bed? Yep—block that off, too. Sleep is important!

What about your weekends? Do you go to synagogue or church, or see Grandma for lunch every week, or take DJ classes, or do weekly volunteer work? Block all of them off. You get the idea.

  Start here...see? A column for every day, and the skeleton gets built around your school schedule.

Start here...see? A column for every day, and the skeleton gets built around your school schedule.

2) Know thyself, and be honest about how much time you need for schoolwork (homework AND studying for tests).

Ann did an average of 2 hours of homework each school night, and needed about 3 hours of prep time a week to study for each test. She generally had 2 tests per week, so we needed to fit in an extra ~6 hours of study time somewhere. (I know, it's starting to sound like a math problem. That's why we drew it out! Seeing it on paper makes this way easier.)

Being honest with yourself about how much time you really need to ace that AP Art History exam or get the grade you need in Bio will mean that you're not freaking out and having to rearrange the schedule every day—it'll keep you calm and focused. So think realistically, and make your best guesses.

Studying for tests is flexible—you could do it in many different time slots—so find where they fit best based on your work habits and daily responsibilities, and block these off, too.

  Now we've filled in extracurricular commitments, recurring appointments, the needs of a daily routine, and even family time.

Now we've filled in extracurricular commitments, recurring appointments, the needs of a daily routine, and even family time.

3) Look at what’s left over…and hey, you found your ACT or SAT study time!

In Ann’s case, if she really did her homework after school but before dinner (instead of vaguely planning to and ending up perusing Facebook with her sister), she would have the time slot after dinner but before bed to either study for a test in school or study for the ACT. Bingo! We had found her time! (And ACT prep wouldn’t even need that much time: 30 minutes to an hour, sure, but not 2.5 hours! There was still some Facebook time left after all. Phew!)

As a lucky bonus, we also found leeway in her schedule for those weeks when she had extra tests or projects due: all Saturday afternoon and basically all of Sunday after lunch. This time could be used to do homework, work on a school project, do ACT prep, study for a test...OR, she could make the choice to use that time to have some fun with family or friends. And because she wasn't feeling anxious about all the stuff that was hanging over her head anymore, "fun" was suddenly a lot more fun.

Here's the bottom line: Ann now knows that the way she spends her time is her choice, and she can make it an informed choice. She knows when those time slots are that she can do work or study. If she has less on her plate one week, she can Facebook or Snapchat away! But if she has a particularly stressful week, she knows where to focus in her schedule, so she doesn’t waste her opportunities to accomplish what she wants. It made her feel calmer and get more done—a winning combination. 

  Now we've dropped in the blocks of time necessary to get homework done and blocked off time necessary to study for tests. Take a look at this schedule—it's a busy one, but it still has room to add a few compact blocks of ACT/SAT prep time. And taking social time into account and putting it on the schedule means that time can be guilt- and worry-free!

Now we've dropped in the blocks of time necessary to get homework done and blocked off time necessary to study for tests. Take a look at this schedule—it's a busy one, but it still has room to add a few compact blocks of ACT/SAT prep time. And taking social time into account and putting it on the schedule means that time can be guilt- and worry-free!

4) Realize that this schedule is not forever and ever

When I have a ton of work or projects to do, I sometimes freak out a little about what that “means”—like, if I have to schedule when I’m taking my shower for a few weeks so I can fit something else in, that means I’m never going to have free time again. EVER.

Thankfully, this “logic” just isn’t true. There are contained, finite periods of time when I have to make every minute count and can’t squander a second. But those periods of high stress always end eventually.

It’s the same with junior and senior years, luckily. Studying for the SAT or ACT, writing college applications—these things will take up a bunch of your time. This is true. However, in the grand scheme of things, you probably have 3-4 months at most during both junior and senior years of such high-intensity stress. Then it lets up! So just decide that you’re going to give it your all—because the stress eventually ends. I promise. Learning to handle it now enables you to go on to bigger and better things—and isn’t that the whole point of the college process?