How to Create (and Teach) an ACT/SAT Preparation Course

Creating a new course isn’t easy, especially if the goal of said course is to raise students’ standardized test scores. Public high schools are often judged on their ACT/SAT scores, and even the smallest dip can lower a school’s credibility, or worse, funding. 

If you’re tasked (like I once was) with creating an ACT (or SAT) preparation course from scratch, it probably feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. 

But there is hope. Let’s get started.

Get Preliminary Results

Developing the course, your first instinct may be to teach everything on the test.

This is wrong.

What you need to do instead is figure out what subjects on the test are your students’ greatest weaknesses. The answer: have students take a practice test and then perform a Pareto analysis. In short, a Pareto analysis will identify your students’ greatest (and common) weaknesses. Also, it will likely show you where you can get the most ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of instruction. This second feature is especially helpful if your course is only 4-9 weeks long, rather than a full semester.

Hooks Matter

Starting the course, I had two big problems. The first was that I couldn’t give a grade. The second was that I taught at an alternative high school, one where many students attended to have an educational experience far removed from standardized tests.

Knowing that students had these two obstacles in their way between them and success on the ACT, I had to hook their attention on day one. The answer: money.

And no, I don’t mean bribing.

In most states, high standardized test scores qualify students for lottery scholarships. As I taught in Tennessee, a student had to earn a 21 on the ACT to receive the TN HOPE Scholarship, which awards $24,000 over four years.

On the first day of the course, I asked if anyone had a part-time job. To those who said yes, I asked them how much they made. The answers ranged from $8-10/hour. I asked the whole class if there was a job that paid them $500+/hour, would they apply to it? Would they fight to get it? Everyone agreed. I then explained that by working hard in ACT Prep, they would be paying themselves $500+/hour by succeeding on the ACT in March.

For most students, that was all the incentive they needed.

Structuring the Course

Here is how I structured a typical week. Each week the course focused of a different section of the ACT.


  • Students take the ACT Reading Test under time conditions. (40 questions in 35 minutes)
  • The teacher provides the correct answers.
  • Students keep a log of their initial test score.


  • As a warm up, students complete just one part of the ACT Reading Test under timed conditions. (10 questions in 9 minutes)
  • The teacher goes over the results.
  • Students log their score.
  • Teacher provides instruction on one Reading Test weakness. Students take notes and then participate in an activity.
  • Students complete another passage/10 questions from the ACT Reading Test.
  • Students record their score.


  • Same as Tuesday, but focus on a new weakness.


  • Same as Wednesday, but focus on a new weakness.


  • Same as Monday

If you follow this schedule, students can track progress through their score logs. This will help them build up intrinsic motivation to continue working hard in the course. To this end, students’ organization is key. Here are some ideas for what you can do to help students stay organized:

  • Require a 1” 3-ring binder for the course.
  • Give students a cover page for each week in blue (or any color other than white). Design this page so students can keep track of their scores throughout the week.

If You Have a Co-Teacher

In this course I worked with a co-teacher. Each of us taught a group of juniors for four weeks before switching students for another four weeks. She focused solely on the Math section of the ACT, while I focused on the Reading/English/Science sections.

The mistake I made was not properly communicating my expectations for students’ organization. She knew of them, but I did not check in with her enough throughout the first month of the course. Also, she was retiring at the end of the year, which no doubt had an effect on her classroom management.

When we switched students, my new group knew nothing about organizing their folders or tracking their progress. Instead of instruction, most of the first week with my new group was teaching these skills all over again.  

In short, communication with your co-teacher is very important.

Final Thoughts

Even if you create the PERFECT ACT/SAT preparation course, your students may still need a little encouragement from time to time. They will always appreciate random acts of kindness (candy).

Thomas Broderick lives in Northern California. After teaching at an alternative high school for four years, he now works full-time as a freelance writer in the educational field.

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