Every student, parent, and school administrator always asks us, “how long does it take to improve an ACT or SAT score?” Asked to anyone else, the generic response that you’ll usually get for this admittedly broad question is “experts say about 10-20 hours.”

But who are these experts and what does that mean? Can every child in America simply log into Piqosity, browse for 10-20 hours, and magically score higher than the 99% of the population that didn’t know this statistic? Absolutely not. The time it takes for you to improve your SAT or ACT score is going to vary depending on a few key factors:

  • What score do you want to get?
  • What is your current score?
  • How big is the gap between your goal score and current score?

The easiest way to think about how much time you will need to study is to simply look at how many more questions you need to answer correctly after taking a diagnostic practice test. However, based off our 20 years of experience and analysis of aggregate student data, we estimate—

An average student can generally expect a 1 point improvement in ACT score for every 7 hours of quality studying.

The quality of your studying is important. You cannot spend those 7 hours passively watching a talking head on the screen. Instead, you need to also apply what you learned by continuously working realistic practice questions under timed conditions. The ACT is a timed test—not only do you need to know how to answer the question, you need to be able to do it quickly.

Furthermore, timing is also key with regards to your calendar. The less time you spend preparing for the ACT, the closer to the test you should be doing it. If you’re only going to spend 7 hours to get a 1 point improvement, make sure you do that cramming all in the 1 or 2 weeks before you take the ACT. If you have more time to prepare, like 20 hours, spread that time over a couple of months and you’re less likely to quickly forget everything.

Let’s see why our recommended study time calculation makes sense by breaking it down.

The Math and Logic Behind the ACT Study Time Recommendation

If you’re an average student already scoring around the 50th percentile (about an 18 on the ACT), every 1 to 2 correct questions will net you one additional point. You can probably look at a question you missed, identify what you did wrong, and re-learn the basic math or English concept tested in about 45 minutes to an hour.

Multiply that 45 minutes by the 2 missed questions you need to figure out and you’re looking at about 1.75 hours to get 1 additional point–in one test on the ACT. But since there are 4 tests (English, Math, Reading, and Science), and your ACT composite score is just the average of your scores across those 4 tests, you’ll need to repeat this 4 times, meaning 1.75 hours × 4 tests = 7 hours for 1 point in ACT composite score improvement.

Another way of looking at this required study time estimation is to think about how many topics are tested on the ACT and how many you’re a little weak in.

For example, the ACT Math test consists of 60 questions testing approximately 60 topics ranging in difficulty from calculating area and perimeter to graphing polynomials and trigonometric functions. Assuming you have previously learned these topics in your school math class, you might be able to re-learn the basics of any forgotten concept in 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Since you’ll need to get about 2 questions correct for each 1 point gain, that means you’ll need to study about 2 hours. For a 4 point bump, you’re looking at 6-8 hours of study time to refresh yourself on 8 topics.

Expected Improvement From Common ACT Prep Course Formats

Let’s take this recommendation of 7 hours of study time for 1 point score improvement to look at a few common study scenarios:

  • 1-day, in-class “Boot Camp” = 7 hours of prep for a 1 point gain
  • 2 Month Prep Course = 8 weeks or 16 hours for a 2 point gain
  • 5 Months of Private Tutoring = 20 weeks or 40 hours for a 6 point gain

Boot Camp. Many schools will hire an outside provider to teach a one-day “boot camp” in school, which lasts about 7 hours. Based on our calculations, you’re likely to see a 1 point improvement from actively participating in that boot camp. For best results, complete this boot camp not more than 2 weeks before you take the ACT.

2 -Month Prep Course. Maybe your school is able to commit a few more resources into getting you ready for the ACT. They might offer a teacher-led prep course that provides two, 1-hour classes a week to help you prepare for the ACT. These 16 hours could net you a 2 point increase.

Private Tutoring. In Houston where Piqosity is based, students able to hire an ACT tutor often start preparing in November before an April test date. The student will spend about 2 hours studying a week during these 5 weeks and expect a 5 to 6 point improvement after 40 hours.

These estimates work pretty well for you if you’re an average student starting around an 18 and looking to boost your score to the mid to upper 20s. But what about if you’ve already spent 40 hours getting to a 28 (90th percentile) and you’re looking to get a 35 (99th percentile)?

Diminishing Returns if You Already Have High ACT Scores

If you’re fortunate to already be scoring in the top 10 percent, how much studying you’ll need to do to get an even higher score gets a little foggier and there’s admittedly a diminishing rate of return—instead of studying 7 hours to go from a 28 to a 29, you might have to spend 10 or 12 hours!

The primary reason for this extra work is that you’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit. For example, you already know that you need to answer every question on the test, and you already know how to use a comma.

The additional 5 questions that you need to answer correctly in each section to move from the top 10% to the top 1% are the most difficult ones on the ACT test, and getting them right isn’t as straightforward as relearning how to find the slope of a line. Instead, you have to find the slope of a line and follow 5 additional steps, weaving in 4 other math topics including maybe something you haven’t learned yet and almost definitely asked in a way you’ve never seen before.

Furthermore, there are also less-academic factors that might prevent you from getting that perfect score. Maybe the testing room is too cold or you nearly got into a car wreck on the way to school. Maybe your neighbor grinds their teeth. Maybe there’s an eyelash in your eye. All of these little things could easily cost you a few correct questions that you can’t prepare for so easily. So don’t stress out if you end up with a 35 instead of a 36.

Nevertheless, you can and should prepare for the ACT; you will improve your score. Start as soon as you finish reading this article, because time is your most finite resource.

Learn More about the ACT Test from Piqosity