How to make an ACT study plan

This week’s post about how to make an ACT study plan is a little unusual. These weekly columns typically focus on questions I get from parents about how to support their child with learning differences, not test prep advice. But I’ve been getting a lot of questions like this one lately, and I recently wrote an email response that I though summarized my thoughts nicely, so I wanted to post this instead of my usual advice column this week.

All the advice below is based on my decade of experience tutoring the ACT and SAT. My students see an average score increase of +5.4 ACT or +270 SAT (as of June 2022).

Hi Jonah,

You were recommended to us by [my son’s college counselor] as a tutor for him on his SAT/ACT prep (and probably math generally). He is autistic and has a low processing speed so needs reinforcement with new concepts. He manages to get ok grades but definitely struggles in math and also his writing skills need work.

He took an ACT test last year and I think he got a 29. His scores are always heavily skewed towards verbal. Like he gets near-perfect reading comp scores and pretty atrocious math. He’s leaning towards sticking with the ACT ultimately because it has a science part which is not too difficult for him (it’s reading and chart intensive per him). I’ve asked him to get a copy of his 504 plan, we will see how it goes. There are a number of accommodations in it the main one being extra time. 

Can you meet with him to advise him on how to make an ACT study plan? I want him to get started now so he’s ready for the February test.



Hi Linda,

I’d be happy to meet with [your son] regarding his ACT study plan. Each student’s plan ends up being a little different, but there are a few key parts every plan has: what to study, how to study it, and when to study it. Here’s my recommendations for each.

What to put on your ACT study plan

  • We typically see permanent score increases after 20 hours of practice. That’s not 20 hours of instruction with a tutor, but 20 hours of sitting down and working on a practice test and reviewing the questions afterwards.
  • This usually works out to about 4 full-length practice tests.
  • I always recommend that my students use officially published practice tests, since they’re the closest to the real thing. Don’t waste your time with 3rd-party materials.
  • In addition to the practice tests they complete, students can add instruction time (small group or private) or self-study time to their study plan, which will act as a multiplier on that 20 hours: the more studying you do on top of the practice, the higher your scores will go.

How to study for the ACT

  • Students should focus their study time on the topics that need the most work. That means they need to understand which topics are the hardest for them.
  • You can find your problem areas by reviewing a practice test, checking your answers, and categorizing each wrong answer into silly mistakes, honest mistakes, and clueless mistakes. I teach students how to do this in our intro session.
  • Each week, you should review your clueless errors from the week before and either self-study that material or ask your instructor to review it with you.
  • Next, you should do some targeted practice of your honest mistakes until you have dialed in that question type: how to recognize it and how to answer it.
  • Only after you’ve studied those things, either with your instructor or by yourself, should you sit down and do your practice tests for the week.

When to study for the ACT

  • For most students, I recommend completing half of a practice test each week. That means you’ll complete the four recommended practice tests in eight weeks.
  • Pick your official test date and work backwards ten weeks (the extra two weeks give you some wiggle room). That’s when you should start studying.
  • Each week, you should do your study or instructional time (~2 hours), then your practice test (~1.5 hours), and finally your error review (~0.5 hours).
  • This 4-hours-per-week program gets good results, which is why I recommend it. Most students don’t have time to do more than this, and doing less is not as effective, since the spacing between repeated topics is too long.

That’s the basic program that I use for most students, though of course I usually adjust it to better fit each student’s schedule, goals, and progress.

I’ve seen some students make great gains by following this program on their own. Others benefit from some guidance. I often use a weightlifting analogy to explain it: the only thing that makes you stronger (higher test scores) is actually lifting the weights (practice tests). You can do that on your own, but some people work better with a personal trainer (me). I’ll encourage you, keep track of your progress, manage your records, and adjust the program as needed with careful observation, based on my years of experience. 

I’m happy to meet with [your son] to go through this program in greater detail and to send you some recommended resources. I offer free consultations, so we can always set up one of those and see if we’re a good fit. Even if we don’t end up working together, [your son] will have a clear idea of what he needs to do to improve and the steps he should take to get there.

If you have any questions, I’m always happy to answer them here or on our next call.


This “recommended study” program is a pretty basic, intro-level one. Many of my students, especially those who learn differently, benefit from differentiated instruction and different approaches to studying. But one thing always stays the same: just like in the gym, the only way to see real gains is to practice.

If you’d like to discuss if this program might work for your child, and any changes I might make for them, I’d love to chat about it with you. Set up a free consultation at the link below.