tips for taking the SAT or ACT with ADHD

6 tips for taking the SAT or ACT with ADHD

Katie Azevedo ADD/ADHD, executive function, focus, SAT / ACT, study skills, test taking, tips for parents

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

tips for taking the SAT or ACT with ADHD

First, we can all agree that the title of this article is basically alphabet soup. Moving on.

The SAT and ACT are the two college entrance exams that high school students will need to take as part of the college application process. Sure, many colleges are now test-optional (wonderful!), but nearly all students should plan to take at least one of these standardized tests in order to expand their college options.

While college entrance exams are a challenge for typical students, taking the SAT or ACT as a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can seem impossible.

But it’s not. I promise – it’s not.

Some students with ADHD do incredibly well on standardized tests, despite inconsistent academic histories. The reason for this phenomenon is that those with ADHD often thrive in conditions of novelty and urgency. The SAT and ACT provide both.

For others with ADHD, the SAT and ACT can seem impossible, because these timed tests require intense focus for long periods of time, with very few breaks. Terrible recipe for most students with ADHD.

If you have ADHD, your approach to college entrance exams might look a little different than your friends’ approach. All good.

6 tips for taking the SAT or ACT with ADHD

1. Figure out which test is better for you. Focus on that.

While there are major similarities between the SAT and ACT (the grammar sections are nearly indistinguishable), the differences are enough to make one test clearly “better” than another test for certain students. Take one or two practice tests for each, and see how you do (score) and how you feel (stress level) after each one. Pick the better test and focus on that one.

Note: I encourage most students to take both tests, as they are so darn similar. But if you have ADHD, it’s usually best to put all your focus and attention on just one.

2. Take the test multiple times.

ADHD or not, students should take the SAT or ACT more than once; most college-bound kids take the test two to three times. Taking the test more than once can reduce pressure and anxiety – something that students with ADHD often struggle with. 

Cool things to know about retaking the SAT and ACT: 

  • ACT: After taking the full ACT once, students can retake specific sections of the test (math, science, reading comprehension, grammar) without retaking the entire thing. Schools will only see the top scores.
  • SAT: Students can retake the test multiple times, but can choose to send in just their top scores from each section (math and English).

3. Start preparing early.

Students with ADHD are more successful (on the SAT and ACT as well as in school) with slow, steady and incremental exposure to material. This is not the time for last-minute preparation.

4. Use an incremental endurance strategy for practice tests.

Both the SAT and ACT are timed tests that require cognitive endurance for almost four hours. The good news is that we can gradually train our brains to focus for longer periods of time. How? When you’re taking your practice tests, slowly add a few minutes to your focus time every week or so. Here’s how that might look, depending on your individual starting point:

  1. Week 1: Try to work on a practice test for 10 minutes straight without losing focus, 3-5 days a week. If you lose focus, start the timer over again.
  2. Week 2: Work for 15 minutes straight without losing focus, 3-5 times a week. If you lose focus, start the timer over again.
  3. Week 3: Work for 20 minutes straight without losing focus, 3-5 times a week. If you lose focus, start the timer over again.
  4. Week 4+: Continue adding 5-10 minutes to your work time until you can complete a full section of a practice test without losing focus. (Just one section; not a full test.)

5. Apply for extra time.

If you are currently on an IEP or 504 plan for school, it shouldn’t be too difficult to apply for extra time on the SAT or ACT. Ask your guidance counselor or academic advisor to apply for this accommodation.

If you qualify for extra time on the tests, you would most likely get “time and a half.” This means that on a 65-minute SAT critical reading section, you would have 97.5 minutes. Here is more information about extended time on the SAT and extended time on the ACT.

6. Answer questions strategically.

Students with ADHD (and even students without it!) should save the hardest questions until the end of the test. I suggest this strategy because I don’t want someone with ADHD to risk losing attention (zoning out) on questions he or she had a good shot of answering correctly. Here are my suggestions for both the SAT and ACT:

  1. Math: Do the easy ones first. Questions increase in difficulty, so you’d generally go in order. Don’t spend too long on questions that exhaust you. (Pick something, mark the question to maybe come back to, and then move on.)
  2. Reading: Do the double passage last.
  3. Grammar: Don’t spend too long on the “hard” questions. For the most part, these are questions that ask you to read and reread long sections of the test, like in the image below.
  4. Science (ACT only): The questions increase in difficulty within each “passage.” Don’t exhaust yourself on the last 1-2 questions of each passage.
This is an example of a “hard” question on the SAT, simply for the reason that it takes a lot of cognitive endurance to complete. Got ADHD? Don’t spend much time on these.

Taking the SAT or ACT with ADHD doesn’t have to be a nightmare. As long as you prepare well in advance, and take the time to work with your strengths and weaknesses, you can be perfectly successful. Here are 5 more test-taking strategies you might find helpful.

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