Test Anxiety Tips for the SAT and ACT

Posted by Brenda Ronan on Jan 20, 2020 11:15:00 AM

There is a lot of good advice out there aimed at helping us calm down in stressful situations. Stress is a natural feeling, after all, and can be a great motivator. We will cover some of the best ways, regardless of the life situation, to help you relax and calm your nerves. We will also focus on some of the facts behind the ACT and SAT that should help you relax before these tests. 

Test Anxiety Tips for SAT and ACT

Test Preparation Can Ease Test Nervousness

There is no substitute for putting in the preparation ahead of time, such as studying. Walking into the test room and knowing you properly planned and prepared for the test can give you a lot of confidence when taking the test. A few things you will definitely want to do in preparation for the SATs include:

Keep track of important dates:

Important dates include more than just test dates, but also application deadlines for the schools you are applying to, practice dates and times for yourself, SAT Prep Class registration dates and deadlines. Feeling like you have a handle on your schedule can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed or like you waited until it was too late to retake the test.

Take Care of Yourself:

Nothing can lead to test anxiety faster that being hungry or overtired. Cramming the night before, oversleeping, or skipping breakfast will only set you up for more stress. Make sure you get enough rest, have proper nutrition and show up to the test on time.

Study in Multiple Ways:

If you are really anxious about taking the SAT or ACT tests, then just buying a test prep book might not be enough for you to feel really prepared. Some other options are taking an SAT Class or utilizing a private tutor. For more information on how to properly prepare for the day of the test, check out this article College Prep: SATs 101

Calming Techniques to Help Test Anxiety

Test calming tips and tricks

Even if you know you have done everything you can up until that point to prepare for the big test, a lot of anxiety before and during standardized testing has to do with unintentionally focusing on the worst case scenarios: What if I run out of time? What if I score much worse than I thought I might? What if my score isn’t high enough for my top college choices? There is an alternative to this type of negative thinking. You can use the following calming techniques to get yourself out of those negative mindsets.

Deep Breathing:

One of the most powerful calming techniques is to take slow, deep breaths. While taking long breaths, it is imperative that you focus on the breathing itself. While this has been well-known advice for a long time, scientists believe they now know why this type of breathing can have an overall impact on your brain and nervousness.

Relax your muscles:

When we are anxious, we tend to tense our muscles – focus on relaxing specific muscles, such as ensuring your hands aren’t clenched into fists. Also make sure you relax your shoulders – tense shoulders can throw off your posture. You can sit upright, feet flat on the floor, and relax your shoulders and let them drop while slightly pulling them back into an upright posture.

Talk it Out:

For many people, discussing any anxiety ahead of time can help alleviate some of the pressure, especially if your friend, mentor, tutor, teacher or family member has experience with standardized testing. Sometimes, just hearing yourself discuss the source of anxiety out loud can put a frame of reference around it, reinforce your support system and bolster your confidence.

Maintain Perspective:

Remember that while tests, especially standardized tests like the ACT, can have a bearing on college admissions and scholarships, they aren’t going to be the only factor schools or those granting scholarship look at. You should absolutely study, practice and plan like you are going to knock it out of the park and reach your target score. However, a little bit of perspective before and during the test may help you relax; just remember this isn’t going to be the sole determinant for where your life leads you.

In fact, here are a few things to think about ACT/SAT scoring that can help you relax going into your test.

How Understanding ACT and SAT Scoring can help Calm Test Anxiety

We aren’t advocating for not taking standardized tests like that ACT and SAT seriously. You should absolutely practice and prepare to the best of your ability. However, if the above text anxiety tips for the SAT and ACT aren’t enough, remember that you can have more than one shot at this. Most college admissions boards will accept some type of composite score to give you the best overall score possible, usually using your highest effort or highest scored components, even if they were from different test sessions. We would like to show you, on the positive side, how you may get a benefit from taking an ACT or SAT multiple times, as well as measures you can take to mitigate the damage of a less-than-stellar test score.

It is important to note that in order to reap benefits from these strategies, you would need to take the test at least twice, which is something we always recommend. Students also tend to improve when they take a standardized test more than once, partially because they may feel less stress on subsequent attempts.

First, a few of the ways College Admissions scoring can help you:

  • Superscoring – Many colleges accept test scores that have been ‘superscored.’ This is basically accepting your highest score on every section, even if they occurred on separate testing dates. Let’s say you took the SAT twice: The first time you scored a 600 on Reading/Writing and 650 on Math for a score of 1250. The second time you take the test, you score a 650 on the Reading/Writing, but regress to a 600 on the Math for another score of 1250. With Superscoring, a college may choose to accept your Math score from Test 1 and your Reading/Writing score from Test 2, so your total score would actually be represented as 1300, with 650 on both sections. (While this is helpful to students, it also benefits colleges as it bumps up, or better represents, their admissions test scores.)
  • Highest Test Date Score – Some colleges will take the highest composite score of any test date. This is different than Superscoring because they will not ‘mix and match’ your highest scores on different sections. Let’s say you took the SAT twice: The first time you scored a 600 on Reading/Writing and 650 on Math for a score of 1250. The second time you take the test, you score a 650 on the Reading/Writing, but regress to a 500 on the Math for another score of 1150. While Superscoring would give you a composite of 1300, highest test date scoring would allow the college to take your highest test instance, giving you a 1250.
  • Score Choice – Score Choice allows students to decide which SAT or ACT scores to send to colleges. If, for example, you took the ACT or SAT three times and one of the scores was an outlier and noticeably lower in all areas, you could choose to not send those scores to colleges. However, there are a few caveats. Firstly, while many schools allow Score Choice, some don’t, including Yale and Stanford – schools like this will force you to report ALL test scores. You should check the websites of colleges you are interested in to find out if they will allow this. Secondly, it is important to note that you can only withhold a test date, not certain sections; it is all or nothing. According to College Board, ‘Score Choice is actually intended to reduce stress.

Canceling Your SAT or ACT Scores

If test anxiety prevents you from completing a lot of the questions or you really struggle, there is a more drastic option available: Canceling your test scores. We would like to point out that unless something really dire occurs, it is often not best to cancel your ACT or SAT scores, since you need to cancel before seeing your scores. Often, students leave the test with a feeling they didn’t score well and are pleasantly surprised when they see their scores. Since many schools don’t require all SAT/ACT scores to be sent, most engage in some type of Superscoring and Withholding your scores may be an option, it is typically best not to cancel your test scores if you did complete the exam. However, if it makes you feel better and helps you relax at the beginning of the exam you can remember that no matter how rough it gets, you can basically pretend it never happened. If you Cancel a score within the proper timeframe, nothing for that test date will be reported to colleges.

Final Thoughts on SAT/ACT Text Anxiety

The importance of these different scoring methodologies is that one bad test is highly unlikely to ruin your college admission chances. This can help students focus on the positives, since it reminds us there are ways to mitigate potential negatives. Research has shown that a positive mindset makes us more productive than a negative or stressed state. So when you get into that testing room, take a deep breath and remember: you are going to be fine – you will do well. But, if you don’t, this is not the end of the line. You can continue to study, take the test again and mitigate bad scores.

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Topics: College Admissions

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