How to Relieve the Pressure Surrounding the SAT and ACT

SAT Prep | ACT Prep

The pressure surroundingPressure your performance on the SAT and ACT can be colossal. It may seem like everything—from admissions to scholarships to pride—is riding on those few hours spent huddled over a scantron form. For some students pressure is motivation, and they use the energy of the situation to focus and produce their best possible performance. However, for the majority of students, the pressure and their desire to perform well actually has the opposite effect, and leads them to struggle during the tests. How can you overcome this?

A history lesson

Thousands of years ago, Marcus Aurelius, one of the last great Roman Emperors, wrote “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Marcus Aurelius surely wasn’t referring to standardized tests when he made that statement, but the idea behind it applies equally well: you must revoke the power you have given the SAT and ACT in order to avoid the pressure associated with them. You cannot make these tests the single measure of your achievements and you cannot believe that they has the ability to control your future. Here are few simple things to remember that can help clear your mind and increase your test performance:

Only part of the package

Remember, the entire admissions process does not ride solely on your SAT and ACT scores. These tests are only one component of your college admission folder and admissions officers will also be looking at your application, transcript, other test scores, activity list, essays, recommendations, and possibly even an interview. A college is looking for the most dynamic individuals to fill their hallowed halls, and while test scores can reveal a person’s potential academic success, they do little to show character and integrity. For this reason, some schools—especially those that specialize in liberal arts—no longer require the SAT or ACT. And, in most schools where the these tests are required, students can offset a subpar test score or average grades by documenting initiative in an academic pursuit or passion for a single extracurricular activity.

Multiple opportunities

You should also remember that this is not your only chance to take the SAT and ACT, nor do you have to reveal your scores if things do not go perfectly. If your score does not meet your expectations, you have options. Under the College Board program Score Choice™, which was designed to relieve test anxiety and maximize student achievement, you can choose which individual SAT test administration you would like to send to colleges. This means that an uncharacteristic score never has to be revealed to any admissions program. Or, if you choose not to use Score Choice™, many colleges look at all of your tests, using only your highest scores on each section. For example, say you take the test in January and receive a 630 on Critical Reading, a 540 in Writing, and a 490 in math. You retake the test in June and score a 600 on Critical Reading, a 590 in Writing, and a 550 in math. Colleges that use this policy will only look at the 630 in Critical Reading, the 590 in Writing, and the 550 in math. The lower scores are ignored. To find out how your prospective colleges view multiple test scores, call their admissions departments. Knowing that you have other options and opportunities should relieve much of the stress surrounding the test.

The definition of standarized

Also, don’t forget that the SAT and ACT are standardized tests, meaning that every test is similar and conforms to a “standard” (hence the name!). Similar tests have patterns, and there is a finite number of concepts tested on the SAT and ACT. If you learn all of these patterns and concepts, you will have no problem mastering the tests. This knowledge alone should give you the confidence you need to do well and banish any fear or anxiety surrounding the test.

Overinflated predictions

Remember that the SAT and ACT scores are not an IQ score, nor are they predictors of how well you will do in college. The makers of the tests would like you to believe otherwise, but test prep instructors can give you many examples of students with average IQs and exceptional SAT and ACT scores. They are beatable tests. The concepts can be learned and mastered by every student. The SAT simply tests how well you will do on the SAT and the ACT reveals how well you will do on the ACT; they do not indicate how well you will do in the rest of your life. Do not overinflate their importance!

Positive mental attitude

Finally, always keep in mind that your mental approach to the tests will have a huge impact on how you perform. If you think about the tests negatively, then it becomes more likely you will have negative performances. On the other hand, if you approach the tests with energy and enthusiasm, you are much more likely to do well on the exams. So, start looking at the tests differently. Don’t dread studying for them, and don’t worry so much about test day. Even change the language you use when discussing the tests. Instead of worrying about what you have to do, assert what you will do: “I will do well on the SAT; I will crush the ACT.” A simple change in outlook can radically affect your actual performance.


The moral of the story is that the pressure you feel surrounding the SAT and ACT is largely in your own mind. Sure, you will hear others obsessing about the exams or talking negatively, but their performance doesn’t impact yours. You can control how you think about the tests and in doing so, lessen the pressure you feel. And when you do that, your score will start to rise. Good luck and stay relaxed!


Photo: "Pressure Gauge," courtesy of William Warby