A small amount of SAT anxiety is natural for even the most well-prepared test-taker. After all, the SAT can have a significant impact on college admissions. That said, too much SAT-related anxiety has the potential to hinder your test preparation and derail your performance on test day.
So, if you’re a student who feels anxious about the SAT and is wondering how to manage your stress, keep reading. In this article, I’ll give you 10 practical and highly effective tips to reduce your test-related worries, so you can perform at your highest level on the SAT. I’ll also discuss whether it’s possible to get extra time on the SAT to accommodate for anxiety.
Here are all the topics we’ll cover:
- Test Anxiety Symptoms
- How Can I Stop Being Nervous for the SAT?
- Tip #1: Know the Material
- Tip #2: Take All Official Practice Tests
- Tip #3: Visualize Success
- Tip #4: Let Go of the Little Things
- Tip #5: Address Negative Self-Talk
- Tip #6: Create Your Personal Mantra
- Tip #7: Practice Deep Breathing
- Tip #8: Transform Anxiety Into Excitement
- Tip #9: Don’t Expect Perfection
- Tip #10: Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
- Can You Get Extra Time on the SAT for Anxiety?
- In Conclusion
- What’s Next?
Let’s start by taking a look at some common symptoms of test anxiety.
Test Anxiety Symptoms
Test anxiety can affect the mind and body in numerous ways. Here are some common symptoms of test anxiety that students may experience when thinking about, practicing for, or actually taking the SAT:
- A faster-than-normal heart rate
- Faster-than-normal or shallow breathing
- Racing thoughts
- An inability to focus
- Difficulty processing what you’re reading
- Worrying about how you’re performing
- Feeling lightheaded, faint, or dizzy
- Stomach cramps
If you’ve experienced these symptoms while thinking about your SAT, doing timed practice or taking practice tests, or sitting for the actual SAT, there is a good chance you were experiencing test anxiety.
If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms above while thinking about your SAT, doing timed practice or taking practice tests, or sitting for the actual SAT, there is a good chance you were experiencing test anxiety.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple yet highly effective strategies that any SAT student can follow to help decrease test anxiety and make higher test scores possible.
How Can I Stop Being Nervous for the SAT?
The college application process can be quite stressful even without anxiety (or in some cases, intense fear) related to college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to reduce test anxiety and thereby help make your college admissions journey exciting rather than panic-inducing.
However, it’s important to note that eliminating 100% of your nervousness surrounding the SAT is probably not a realistic goal. The SAT is a pretty big deal, and most students have at least some nervousness related to it. Importantly, though, eliminating test anxiety completely is not necessary in order to perform at a high level. Thus, rather than trying to “stop being nervous” altogether, reduce some of your SAT stress right off the bat by realizing that basically every student feels at least a little nervous about the SAT, and plenty of students still perform well. So, go easy on yourself and don’t beat yourself up about being nervous!
TTP PRO TIP:
A quick way to reduce SAT stress is to go easy on yourself and not beat yourself up about being nervous about your exam!
Now, let’s get into our 10 tips.
Tip #1: Know the Material
Knowing the material is the most obvious–and the most overlooked–strategy to reduce SAT anxiety. The better you know the material, the more relaxed you’ll be when taking SAT practice tests and on test day. Consider a math quiz on basic multiplication and division. Would you be particularly anxious about taking that test? Maybe a few students would be, but most high school students are quite comfortable with basic multiplication and division. After all, they’ve been practicing those operations for many years.
Change that math quiz to one covering geometry and trigonometry, and people start getting a little nervous. Their comfort level goes down. Why? Well, they may not be as well-practiced with those concepts. They know that this quiz is important and they’re not as prepared to handle its challenges. In that case, anxiety is understandable, right?
So, what can we do? Prepare our butts off! Then, after we’ve prepared enough, we can prepare some more. The best method of combating test anxiety is to be so well-prepared that the material is no longer a source of anxiety.
A good strategy for knowing the material like the back of your hand is not to practice until you can get questions right but to practice until you can’t get them wrong.
TTP PRO TIP:
Don’t practice until you can get questions right; practice until you can’t get them wrong.
As part of getting to know the material, you can leverage what is known as the compound effect.
Leverage the Compound Effect
The compound effect is the idea that small, continual changes over time can produce dramatic results. For example, imagine if you learned to recite one line of poetry each day. How many poems would you be able to recite after a year?
We can apply this principle to SAT prep. Sometimes students feel that they have to study for hours and hours each day in order to make progress. So, on days when they can’t devote however many hours to their test prep, they simply don’t study. As the missed study days pile up, their anxiety about the SAT grows. These students aren’t leveraging the compound effect.
Maybe on particularly busy days you can study for only 30 minutes in the morning. Even so, if you consistently study for 30 minutes each day over the course of months, you can develop a strong set of skills.
On the other hand, if you skip studying altogether any time you can’t fit in as much test prep as you thought you’d be able to, after that same number of months, you will have missed out on many valuable opportunities to get more familiar with the material and increase your skills.
So remember, even if you can’t fit in as much SAT prep time as you’d like from one day to the next, by consistently studying a little each day, you can make significant gains in your skills.
TTP PRO TIP:
Studying a little is always better than skipping a study session altogether.
Tip #2: Take All Official Practice Tests
There is an old saying in sports: “You won’t play any better than you practice.” In other words, if you don’t take your training all that seriously, you can’t expect to perform well on game day.
The SAT is no different. In my years of teaching students, I’ve seen many who put in the time studying the material but fail to take enough practice tests before they sit for the real thing. How well can they expect to perform?
Taking all 8 official practice tests made available by College Board is an excellent way to reduce SAT anxiety because you build familiarity and comfort with the testing experience that you can’t get from simply completing problem sets. Taking numerous, full-length practice tests under realistic test-day conditions desensitizes you to the process of sitting for the SAT. Thus, you can make the actual SAT feel like just another practice test.
TTP PRO TIP:
Make the actual SAT feel like just another practice test by taking all 8 official practice tests. They’re free!
Tip #3: Visualize Success
Even if you’re putting in the test prep time, if you don’t believe in your ability to succeed, you could be sabotaging your own efforts.
To make the most out of your preparation and set yourself up for success on test day, visualize yourself being successful. Visualize yourself correctly answering SAT questions and earning great test scores. See it and believe it.
People tend to underestimate the influence our thoughts have on our performance. Mindset matters! If doubting your abilities is causing you anxiety and stress, try visualizing your success for 5 minutes each day. If you’ve never tried this exercise before or are skeptical that it will work, you’re the person who needs it most! Here are some things you can visualize:
- Tiny elves placing bits of SAT knowledge in your brain.
- Recognizing and knowing how to solve all of the questions you see on test day.
- Being happy and feeling positive on the morning of the test.
- Being fast and accurate during the test.
- Walking out of the exam room feeling amazing after your SAT.
These are just a few ideas. You can use whatever visualizations make you feel most confident.
TTP PRO TIP:
Take 5 minutes each day to visualize yourself being successful on the SAT.
Tip #4: Let Go of the Little Things
If you let little things get to you throughout the day, it’s going to be difficult to stay calm and cool when you’re preparing for the SAT or on test day. After all, every day, you’re training yourself to be on edge.
Your strategy is to try to remain calm each day. For example:
- Work to be more patient with the people around you. Don’t allow yourself to be rattled when a friend is late or you have a disagreement with a family member. Make a concerted effort to maintain your cool.
- Take care not to be too hard on yourself during the study process. If you get a question wrong, don’t agonize. Learn from it! If your test prep is taking more time than you thought it would, recognize that it’s not possible to perfectly predict how the study process will go. Continue to do your best.
- Recognize that many of the problems and situations that stress you out from one moment to the next probably won’t be that important in the grand scheme of things.
Obviously, we can’t anticipate or avoid some stressful life events that may occur. Nevertheless, if you can reduce your daily stresses and annoyances in a few key ways, you should be in a better position to handle the pressures of SAT test prep and the testing experience.
TTP PRO TIP:
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Tip #5: Address Negative Self-Talk
SAT anxiety is often accompanied by negative thoughts about the test and how you’ll perform. Common examples include:
The SAT is too hard. I’ll never be able to increase my score.
I’m bad at math and I’ll never improve.
I’ll never be able to answer SAT questions quickly enough.
I know I’ll mess up on test day.
The SAT is dumb. Why do I have to spend my time studying for it?
I really hate studying.
Students with high SAT scores generally don’t engage in this negative self-talk. Instead, they are realistic and optimistic about their current skills, score goals, and the work they’ll have to put in to earn the scores they want. Examples of their self-talk include:
The SAT is difficult, but I’m up for the challenge.
If I put in the time and study hard, I can significantly improve my math skills.
I will get better and faster at solving SAT questions each day.
I’m going to earn a great score on test day.
Studying isn’t my favorite thing, but it’s temporary, and it’ll be worth it.
If you’ve ever found yourself engaged in harmful self-talk, that’s OK. Recognizing negative thinking is the first step toward eliminating it. Each time you catch yourself engaged in negative self-talk, take a moment to write down what you’re telling yourself, either in a journal or in your Notes app. Then, write down a more positive take.
As you perform this task over and over, you’ll start to take the sting out of the negative things you’re telling yourself. You may even be surprised by how much negative self-talk you’ve been engaging in!
TTP PRO TIP:
When you engage in negative self-talk, write down what you’re telling yourself, and then come up with a more positive take.
Tip #6: Create Your Personal Mantra
Have you ever created a personal mantra? Don’t knock it until you try it! Positive affirmations really can help with test anxiety. Think of a mantra that you like and repeat it before your SAT study sessions. For example, “In all ways, I will CRUSH the SAT” or “I WILL score [insert score goal here] on the SAT.”
The more you repeat your mantra in your mind, the more likely you are to believe it.
You can also employ a mantra if and when you need to recenter yourself because anxiety is starting to knock you off track. For example, “I am putting in the work. I am doing what I need to do.”
Another mantra that can be very effective is, simply, “I can handle this.”
TTP PRO TIP:
Use a personal mantra to pump yourself up before SAT study sessions or any time to start to feel anxious about the exam.
Tip #7: Practice Deep Breathing
We know that fast and shallow breathing are common symptoms of test anxiety, so it’s no surprise that people who are calm tend to breathe deeply. In fact, taking long, deep, full breaths can actually make you calmer. So, when you’re not feeling calm, “fake it ‘til you make it” is worthwhile advice.
When you engage in deep breathing, you deliver more oxygen to your brain and calm your body. So, whether you’re reviewing concepts, taking a practice test, or sitting for the actual SAT, to put yourself in a calm state that is optimal for knowledge acquisition and problem-solving, take some slow, deep breaths. The breaths shouldn’t stop in your chest but go lower, into your abdomen. Doing this type of breathing is one of the simplest, fastest, and most effective ways to reduce anxiety.
TTP PRO TIP:
Engage in deep breathing to put yourself in a calm state that is optimal for learning and problem-solving.
Tip #8: Transform Anxiety Into Excitement
There have been some interesting studies into performance and anxiety, including by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks. Her research found that people performed better when they got excited in anticipation of a stressful task, rather than trying to calm down. According to Brooks:
“Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying ‘I am excited’ out loud) or simple messages (e.g., ‘get excited’), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.”
Let’s look at some research that is very applicable to the SAT.
Student Test Outcomes
In one of her studies, Professor Brooks observed how reappraising anxiety as excitement helped students perform better on tough math questions completed under strict time constraints. (Sound familiar?) Before completing any questions, one group of students said out loud, “Try to remain calm,” while the other group said, “Try to get excited.” Brooks found that the students who said “try to get excited” performed significantly better on the questions.
Similarly, Jeremy Jamieson, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, divided college students into two groups that took a practice GRE, the test used for graduate school admissions. He told one group about research suggesting that stress could actually be helpful to exam performance. He also told the group that if they experienced stress during the exam, they should remind themselves that the stress may be helping their performance. The other group didn’t get this pep talk.
Jamieson found that the group that got the pep talk earned higher scores on the test than the other group did. About a month later, both groups took the official GRE. When Jamieson reviewed their scores, he found again that the group that had received the pep talk performed better.
So, if you’re feeling stressed about the SAT, try telling yourself that what you’re feeling is actually excitement. When you sit down to practice solving SAT questions, try saying something like, “I’m pumped about studying for the SAT!” And if you find yourself stressing out during the actual SAT, take a moment to remind yourself that the stress is probably working in your favor by keeping you on your toes.
TTP PRO TIP:
Turn your anxiety into excitement by telling yourself you’re excited to study for and take the SAT.
Tip #9: Don’t Expect Perfection
Another major difference in the thinking of students who experience a significant amount of SAT stress and those who don’t is that the former feel a need to be perfect.
Students who chase perfection see every question they answer incorrectly as an affront to their idea of how they should perform and how events are “supposed to” unfold. With each affront to their perfectionist worldview, their anxiety grows, making their test preparation more difficult and putting their performance on test day in jeopardy.
On the other hand, students who don’t expect perfection of themselves see missed questions as an opportunity to improve. They see a question that they take too long to answer as a natural part of the learning and growth that comes with studying for the SAT.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you or anyone else taking the SAT must achieve perfection. Trust me, if you’re striving for perfection, you’re never going to feel “good enough.” And if you never feel good enough, you probably don’t think you can perform very well on the SAT. We’ve already learned the damage that kind of thinking can do to your test scores.
TTP PRO TIP:
Striving for perfection is a losing game. Instead, try to view your mistakes as opportunities for improvement.
Tip #10: Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Along the same lines, comparison has the potential to detract from your SAT performance.
Of course, in preparing for such a significant test, it’s easy to compare yourself to your peers. Maybe your friend earned a 1550. Maybe your classmate has been studying for only a month and is already at her score goal. Who cares! These people are not you. All you can control is yourself. So, don’t waste your limited time and energy comparing yourself to anyone except the best version of yourself.
Comparing yourself to others can worsen your SAT anxiety, so do yourself a favor and focus on your personal goals.
TTP PRO TIP:
The only person you should compare yourself to is the best version of yourself.
Now that you have 10 strategies for reducing SAT stress and anxiety, let’s discuss a common question among students, which is whether it’s possible to get extra time on the SAT for anxiety.
Can You Get Extra Time on the SAT for Anxiety?
While some SAT accommodations, including extra time, are available to students who qualify, test anxiety is generally not considered a valid reason to grant accommodations to SAT test-takers. In fact, the College Board has addressed this issue directly, saying the following:
“In most cases, anxiety about test taking by itself is not a psychiatric disorder and does not qualify a student for accommodations.”
If you have a documented psychiatric condition related to anxiety–as opposed to anxiety just related to taking the test–then it’s possible you may qualify for accommodations. However, be aware that to request accommodations, you will have to submit thorough documentation to the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities. These records include a doctor’s note and details of your diagnosis. And even if you receive accommodations during tests in your high school classes, there is no guarantee that the College Board will grant your request for accommodations on the SAT.
That said, if you have a documented condition for which you think you need extra time on the SAT, by all means, pursue the accommodations you need. A good place to start is the College Board’s “Who Is Eligible?” page.
Test anxiety is generally not considered a reason to grant SAT accommodations, but you may qualify for accommodations if you have a documented psychiatric condition related to anxiety.
Remember, eliminating test anxiety entirely is pretty much impossible. Moreover, the idea that you have to do so can be debilitating, because if you find yourself becoming anxious while taking the test, you may decide that you’ve already lost the game. So, eliminating all anxiety is not the goal. The goal is to deal with any anxiety that you do experience.
Remember also that some degree of anxious alertness can be beneficial. Furthermore, responding to anxiety by becoming anxious about the anxiety clearly won’t help. Instead, use the following strategies to keep your SAT anxiety at bay:
- Know the material
- Take all official practice tests
- Visualize success
- Let go of the little things
- Address negative self-talk
- Create your personal mantra
- Practice deep breathing
- Transform anxiety into excitement
- Don’t expect perfection
- Don’t compare yourself to others
Before you know it, you’ll be cool, calm, and ready to rock on test day!
Now that you know how to tame test anxiety, check our helpful article about how to motivate yourself to study for the SAT.