What’s the best test prep timeline for a busy student?

Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.

All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.


We’ve signed [my daughter] up for the March SAT, per your recommendation. What does she need to practice before then? How much time a week should she spend studying? What’s the best timeline for her test prep? Guidance much appreciated.



Hi J,

As always, the exact recommendations for a test prep timeline vary from student to student, and the biggest factor is exactly how much points she wants to gain. Not only is it harder to gain more points (obviously), leading to a longer test prep timeline, but it’s also harder to gain points when you’re starting from a higher score. The top end of the score curve is harder to gain ground in.

All that said, I can still make some general recommendations. I’ve been collecting data for a long time, and I’ve seen that students usually see permanent and significant improvements in their ACT and SAT scores after about 20 hours of practice. That’s not 20 hours of work with me, that’s 20 hours of homework, whether or not they’re working with me or with a small group or on their own–because it’s the practice that raises the score, not the instruction. Of course, the quality of the instruction influences just how many points you gain, but 20 hours of practice is sufficient for seeing a permanent and significant score increase.

That practice is a loop that works like this: error analysis, instruction/study, practice test. In other words, you figure out what needs work, work on it, and then take a practice test to see how it went. On average, this loop takes about 5 hours to complete once, so to hit 20 hours we run it four times.

In a typical test prep timeline, I allot eight weeks for this process. That means 2.5 hours of practice a week, since we’re running half the loop each week. Building in two weeks of wiggle room, I recommend most students start prepping about two and a half months before the test date (that means [your daughter] has about two weeks before she should start).

I occasionally run an accelerated program, usually in a small group, that completes this timeline in four weeks (we meet twice a week). This is tough, but it does work, and I’ve seen some great results.

Hope this answers your questions. Happy to discuss this more on the phone next week if you like.


It’s hard to make generalizations about test prep, since it’s so individualized. But I have seen some consistent trends, and the 20-hour rule is one of them. It’s one of the reasons I run an eight-week program for my one-on-one students, and it’s also the reason I run a four-week small group program. Getting these practice hours in is essential for seeing good results.

If you’re interested in this 20-hour rule, I’m launching my spring 2023 small group prep class soon! It’s not open to public registration yet, but you can learn more about it here to see if you think it might be a good fit your student.