Stress is not necessarily a new feeling for high school students, but taking a standardized test like the ACT or SAT can bring its own set of challenges.
These college entrance exams are somewhat unfamiliar settings for many students, and they come at a time in their lives when they haven’t yet developed many strategies to cope with the pressure, says Ginger Fay, director of global partnerships for Georgia-based Applerouth Tutoring.
No matter how much test prep a student has done, test day can be a struggle.
“It’s helpful for students to recognize that this is a high-stakes moment,” she says. “It will come with stress, just like the beginning of a race. There’s a lot of stress in that moment. Hopefully it helps you burst into energy and helps you do your very best. But it can sometimes get in your way.”
Preparation and perspective can go a long way, and implementing these six tips can help students feel comfortable and perform well on test day.
Get Plenty of Mental and Physical Rest
While it might be tempting to cram the night before, experts say that time is better used relaxing and getting to sleep early enough to feel refreshed the next morning.
“You should have already done just about all of the heavy lifting over the past three-to-four months by focusing on any academic weakness prior to the test,” Pierre Huguet, CEO and co-founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. “Students should focus on lowering their stress level as much as possible at this stage. That isn’t accomplished by actively focusing on ‘not stressing’ but rather by proactively engaging in activities that will take your mind off the test.”
Huguet says any prep the day before rarely has a significant impact on students’ scores. Instead, he recommends students go for a walk, read a book or play video games, so long as none of those activities keeps them up late. Students should get as much sleep as possible, he says, but he encourages them not to overthink it and try to get the “perfect amount of sleep.”
“Placing too much emphasis on getting enough sleep tends to cause unnecessary stress,” he says. “Instead of completely changing your routine, stick to your habits.”
Eat a Good Breakfast
Going to sleep at a good time makes it easier to wake up early enough to eat a good breakfast, which preferably would include protein, Fay says.
“Eat it before you go to the test site, so that you’ve had a little bit of time to digest it,” she says. “So all the blood and energy is not targeted on your stomach, because you want it back in your brain.”
Pack Essentials the Night Before
Getting items ready the night before and having them by the door can ease the process on the morning of test day and alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety, Fay says.
Items that experts recommend bringing are water, snacks with protein or a little bit of sugar, two-to-four No. 2 pencils, a small pencil sharpener, a sweater in case it gets cold and a calculator that’s fully charged or has extra batteries if it requires them.
Experts also stress that students remember to take their test ticket and photo identification. Students with accommodations should print out the letter from the College Board or ACT that describes the accommodations and make sure they’re packed as well, Fay says.
“Preparation will help build your confidence,” she says. “When you hit a stressful situation, what you really want to think is, ‘I’ve got this,’ rather than, ‘I’m not ready for this.’ Every chance you have to go in feeling more confident and more prepared is better and will help you do whatever you’re capable of on test day.”
Read the Questions Carefully
Both tests are timed. The SAT takes three hours, while the ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes. The ACT also includes a 40-minute optional writing test, which would stretch that to a little more than three and a half hours.
The time limits cause stress for many students, experts say, and it can be tempting to rush through questions, not read them thoroughly or misunderstand them entirely. Some questions might be designed to trip test-takers up.
“Think carefully about what it’s asking of you rather than assuming you know what to do and what the answer is,” Fay says. “Sometimes you’ll rush to judgment when you’re taking a test like that and think you can solve the problem, but really the question is asking what you need to solve the problem.”
If the time pressure starts to feel overwhelming, some breathing exercises may help, Fay says. Counting down from 10 or another similar counting method paired with a focus on inhaling and exhaling can help calm nerves.
“Any physical signal that the stress is getting the worst of you, that’s a time to try and bring yourself back to center,” she says.
Complete Questions You Know First
There’s no rule that requires test-takers to complete questions in order, so if time is a concern, experts suggest skipping the hard questions and completing the easier ones first.
“It’s better to keep your momentum going than to break it,” says Carl Foreman, a master tutor for education consulting company IvyWise.
Each question, no matter the difficulty, is worth the same amount on both tests.
“There’s no value in spending five minutes on one question when you could answer five questions in the same minute,” Fay says. “If you get stuck, you are better off moving on than overdoing answers. If it’s taking you longer than a minute to work out a math problem or to figure out where the comma goes in a sentence, then it’s probably in your best interest to move on.”
Foreman says both tests are structured so that the questions get progressively harder as a section goes on. “Make sure you get all the easy points,” he says.
When test-takers encounter a difficult question, they should select an answer but make a note on the test booklet to go back and review it, experts say. That way, if time does run out, at least there’s an answer provided.
There’s no penalty for a wrong answer, so experts suggest that test-takers guess if they are unsure rather than leaving it blank. Strategically, it’s best to guess the same letter for each question that stumps you, Fay says.