The easy answer to how long test prep should take is basically, “As long as needed to reach your goals.” That glib response may capture the best strategy as well, at least for highly motivated students with abundant time and resources. However, in a world of competing commitments and diminishing returns, expectations of endless preparation are neither practical nor prudent.
At the same time, complex standardized exams like the SAT and ACT differ dramatically from the quizzes and tests students encounter in the classroom. Cramming simply does not work. Instead, look for preparation for these exams like you would training for a sport or skill. Learning new content and mastering specific skills takes time, coaching, and practice, particularly for those who seek significant improvement and elite performance.
A lifetime of learning cannot be crammed into a short period, but the knowledge and skills gained over an academic career already provides the foundation for a teen’s SAT or ACT success. For that reason, we can look to the time allotted to most high school sports or performances. Usually, these activities entail a season of two to three months.
Think about your average high school sports coach. He or she may want athletes to train all year long (and some do mandate conditioning in the off-season) but that just isn’t realistic. Teens have lots of other academic, extracurricular, and social obligations to manage. In addition, not even professional athletes can maintain the competitive edge 24/7.
Instead, every high school sports season starts slow, with tryouts and initial practices focusing on fundamentals and conditioning. Once actual games begin, coaches introduce more sophisticated and tailored strategies to promote performance on game day. Then, the successful teams start to focus on playoffs and, with home, championships. Thus, the typical season, at least for the athletes that win, steadily increases in intensity so that competitors can perform at their peak when it counts.
Test prep, at its best, works just like that.
And the good news is that, unlike in most sports, those who fail to do their best on test day don’t have to wait a year to try again!