The college search process can be a long one, and can bring about a variety of emotions ranging from exciting to stressful. As part of that process, one particularly nerve-wracking element can be the ACT and SAT tests.
When working with your high schooler on preparing for these college readiness exams, it can be useful to have some helpful hints for approaching the tests. In my role as a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Cincinnati Children’s, I participated in an episode of the hospital’s Young and Healthy podcast and discussed this topic with Iranetta Wright, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools.
Below are some highlights from our discussion. The following tips can help both students and parents get into the right mindset as your teen prepares to take these tests.
Before the Test
- It’s normal to worry. A lot of emphasis is put on college readiness exams. Your student may be feeling that the stakes are high, because exam scores might not only impact college admissions, but could also have an effect on scholarship opportunities. To help your student, talk to them about how they’re feeling and how they’re interpreting where these tests fit within the college admissions process. The ACT and SAT are not the only thing colleges look at when admitting students.
- Don’t catastrophize. Some students may feel that the test results are out of their control and will imagine terrible outcomes. If this sounds like your high schooler, have a conversation to put the test in perspective. It is one part of a much bigger picture. I recommend this approach: listen first, empathize second, and advise third.
A) “Stop catastrophizing! Not everything rides on this test.”
B) “I hear how worried you are that you won’t get the score you’re hoping for, and that it will make things a lot harder. I can relate to feeling keyed up when something feels both important and out of control. I want to make sure that you are thinking about the test realistically, rather than getting stuck on the worst outcome.”
The wording in example B above validates what your child is feeling and can help point your student toward being realistic versus focusing on the worst.
- Preparation is something your student can control. Being prepared in advance can help reduce feelings of worry, fear and being overwhelmed. Have conversations with your child about:
- When the tests are scheduled throughout the year
- What types of test preparation are available to your student
- Your child’s preferences related to learning style, so they have an idea of how best to study for the tests
Being a supportive caregiver for a teen preparing for a test can vary depending on when you get started, and your child’s study and organizational skills. Your support can range from developing a detailed study plan with your teen and facilitating their use of lots of external prep materials to simply figuring out the time and place they need to show up on the day of the test, and everything in between. There is no one right way or one-size-fits-all.
- Focus on doing their personal best. Often high schoolers will aim for a certain score on the ACT or SAT. But as they’re taking the test, a student won’t know whether they’re going to make that particular score. Instead, encourage them to focus on them doing their personal best. Once they’ve put in their best effort and find out their score, then you can determine together if there’s other work that should happen if they want to improve.
- Balance is important. Preparing for these tests can take a lot of time. If your student is also interested in other activities, evaluate together how beneficial the activity is before ruling it out in favor of test prep. Being in the school play can bring social connection and well-roundedness that’s just as important for teens as the college admissions process.
- Plan test dates thoughtfully. Look ahead at your family calendar when scheduling. Don’t plan for your family vacation to end on a Friday and your child to take the ACT or SAT the next morning. The evening before the test should be relaxed so your child can be as well-rested as possible when taking the test. Remind your child to request off work or be excused from an extracurricular commitment ahead of time if needed.
The Day of the Test
Give your student these reminders as the day of the test draws near:
- As with all standardized tests, the same advice is true for the ACTs and SATs: Get a good night’s sleep the night before, and have a good breakfast the morning of the test.
- Be as relaxed as possible going into the test. While getting to the test location, try listening to music that will help settle your nerves.
- Take a deep breath.
- Answer to the best of your ability.
- Use positive self-talk to coach yourself through your nervousness. This often sounds cheesy to teens, but it can help students get into a test-taking mindset. Try phrases like:
- “I am as prepared as I can possibly be.”
- “Even though I’m nervous, I can be brave at doing hard things if I try.”
After the Test
- The test is done! Congratulate your child and encourage them to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes after hard work.
- Have a game plan for what’s next. Know how to access test scores (your student will likely need a login to get online access; make sure they know their username and password). Talk about possible plans for taking the test again at a future date.
- Regardless of what your child’s test results are, emphasize that the score is not a reflection of their personal worth.
Today many colleges are becoming test optional, meaning students might not have to submit an ACT or SAT test score with their college application depending on the school. However, the assessments are still a part of the admissions process at many schools. It’s important to continue taking the tests seriously, while also keeping a clear perspective on how they are one piece of the overall college admissions process.
To hear Dr. Kurtz and Superintendent Wright talk more about test prep, including tips on how to manage students sharing test scores with one another, listen to the full episode of the Cincinnati Children’s Young and Healthy podcast.