Looking for tips and advice on how to stay calm during the SAT? Tired of imploding during standardized tests only to perform much worse than you know you’re capable of?

As a veteran SAT tutor, I’ve worked with many students who struggle to bring their best mind to test day. Below are some tips for how to take control of your test outcomes.

1. Embrace the idea that it’s ok to get things wrong, and plan to mess up a few times.

Imagine what score you want to get (and don’t tell me 1600…1550 is all you need to get into the most competitive school no matter who you are). So look up on past SAT test scoring charts how many about you can miss and still get the score you want. It’s not zero. And that should give you peace of mind. You don’t have to be perfect to accomplish your goals. Embrace that idea, let a few go without sweating it, and fight to get more right when you can.

2. Tell yourself the truth: it’s just a test.

The SAT does not define you, your self worth, or what you are ultimately capable of. It’s a tool you can use to create more opportunity, but it is not the only tool.

3. Remember YOU CONTROL THE TEST, the test does not control you.

Many of my students feel as if the unexpected problems on the test make them feel out of control, as if they can’t manage the situation because something is challenging or surprising. This is a hard test, and that feeling of “I have no idea” is bound to hit even the most experienced of us (ahem, even me!) at some point during the exam. But what you CAN do is be ready for that feeling of “oh no.”

Have a game plan in place for how you trouble shoot, what steps you take, and how you combat the test. Go through your steps, stick to your methods, and move on when your allotted time is up. Having a “to do list” and a dedicated approach can help calm nerves because you become the one in control of your test experience, the one choosing to let go or keep fighting.

My Sample Gameplan:

1. When you see something difficult:

  • BREATHE
  • Reread the question, but not the passage (that difficult passage section might not be in the questions so don’t waste time, yet! You can reread when addressing actual questions but not on your first read). If it’s a 2-part evidence question, consider doing out of order.
  • Step through the question again, a little at a time. Most questions are easier than they first sound.
  • Use your test taking strategies. Anticipate the answer, narrow the choices, then compare what’s left, look for cherry picks, isolate answers, identify flags, watch your specifics, etc. (These are my personal strategies… if you’re on our online course these will make more sense, or even if you’ve watched some of our YouTube videos).
  • Plan at what point you will give up, circle it, and move on. (60 seconds, three passes/tries, etc.)

2. Plan how many questions you can “give up” on and know it’s ok.

3. Keep moving and your eye on the clock.

Ideally, make time at the end to come back and tackle again. Often fresh eyes can help.

When you have a plan, YOU become in control of your test, instead of the test controlling you.

4. Adjust your expectations to include multiple testings.

Almost every university allows you to only send scores you want to send (Yale is the holdout in terms of high profile schools; a few others might ask for you to send “all” scores from a single test).

One of the worst things students do to add pressure to their lives is to imagine that they can only take the test once. That’s just not true. Even if it’s November, you can take December and still mail it in to most schools. If you know tests give you the freak out, plan ahead and create a calendar that includes at least three SAT test dates, plus a couple test dates for subject tests if you’re taking those, too. Remember SAT test dates are identical to subject test dates, so you can’t take both exams on the same date.

Planning ahead is especially important for international students, who have only 4 opportunities a year to take the SAT or Subject Tests.

For international students with testing anxiety, I recommend you take your first SAT or subject test by October of Junior year or earlier.

5. Take the ACT as a backup.

You don’t have to worry about it or study too much, but sometimes taking the ACT is like snagging a lottery ticket that just may pay off. Don’t put all your eggs in one test basket and sometimes you’ll surprise yourself on the “backup” test.

6. Know what options you have that don’t require good standardized test scores and make a plan C.

Sure, Plan A might be to crush the test and apply to Harvard. Plan B is to score reasonably well and still apply to that fairly competitive school. But Plan C means you have a shot at opportunity, even if your score is abysmal.

There are “two” plan C’s that are great options for most students.

A) Apply to Test Optional Schools

Many colleges now accept “test optional” applicants. Take advantage of this opportunity and consider applying without showing your scores. If you don’t believe your scores reflect you, and your college of choice is test optional, then do NOT submit your scores, as doing so may jeopardize your chances. If your scores are not submitted, colleges may not have to report these as part of their rankings calculations, and you may be better off.

B) Attend Community College and Transfer

Did you know over 1/3 of college students in the US end up transferring at some point in their college career?

Many colleges and universities, in particular state schools, gladly accept transfer applications from students without standardized test scores. Many private universities (though not many top 10 universities) also will accept transfer applications without a score. Instead, colleges focus on your GPA in community college as proof of your ability to handle challenging course work. If you can pull a perfect GPA in community college (or even another college that is less competitive than your dream school), you can often transfer in to another college that would not have accepted you straight from high school.

Some university systems, such as the University of California, also offer “guaranteed transfer” programs to students at particular community colleges. These programs effectively guarantee program participants who maintain certain GPAs and take particular coursework the ability to transfer in to a 4-year program. That means you can get a fast track to UCLA or Berkeley without ever showing them your SAT score.

Being realistic about the fact that you may not be the person who is the best at testing can help you relax because you’ll know that even if your plan A doesn’t work out, you have other great options that can help you achieve your goals.