ADHD Students, Don't Let the SAT Intimidate You

By Andy Williamson | Founder, Hampton Tutors

Standardized testing is a near-compulsory part of a student’s experience. The SAT and ACT are important tests for college applications, and despite the talk from colleges on ‘holistic applications,’ both tests can make or break a student’s application.

There are a few problems with this. Firstly, both the SAT and ACT are not measures of intelligence; they only measure how good a student is at the SAT or the ACT (a recent report found SAT scores have a 16% correlation with undergraduate performance). Secondly, for students with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, test anxiety, or any Special Educational Needs, standardized testing is a living nightmare. Indeed, for students with ADHD who struggle to maintain focus over the near-four hours of the test, getting 50% extra time is a perverse accommodation.

One day the whole system will change, and the SAT and ACT will (rightly) be consigned to history. However, that day will not be in the next three or four years, so if you have a student in high school, they will need to get ready to take the SAT or ACT.

Given the inevitability of standardized testing (like death or taxes), what tactics can we use to help students with ADHD or other learning differences?


The biggest problem that students with ADHD have on standardized tests is timing. Both the SAT and ACT are set up to deliberately rush students. The average time per question on the SAT is 70 seconds; on the ACT it is 49 seconds (although this obviously lengthens with accommodations).

To help students with their timing, we need to work on time management. Skipping questions is a big part of this, as is ordering questions to fit our own preferences. Time is the currency of standardized testing and using it effectively is critical. Students should take every opportunity to save time.

Test-taking tactics

If I offered you the opportunity to take a test with all the correct answers written underneath the questions, you’d leap at the chance. That’s exactly how the SAT and the ACT are set up. The only difficulty is that the correct answers are camouflaged by incorrect answers. However, by looking for patterns and common wrong answers, we can manage the test more effectively (and diminish the anxiety that comes from the unknown).

For example, on the SAT reading, there are only 6 different question types. That means you can do most of your thinking in advance. After all, standardized tests are exactly that - standardized, meaning that there are not likely to be any nasty surprises.

It’s not like school

When taking a standardized test, students need to remember the content they learn at school, but forget the methods. There’s no points on the SAT for showing your work. Tactics need to be effective, not pretty. Students should use whatever methods work for them. For students with Special Educational Needs, this can be liberating. The opportunity to use a calculator when they want, or answer questions based on what seems intuitive to them, is the first time students are really in charge of their own learning. It can actually lead to a developed sense of metacognition.

If you’re planning on taking a standardized test, it’s better to do a little bit of work over a longer period of time. Neither the SAT nor the ACT are tests you can cram for and do well. SAT/ACT prep classes are a great way to spread out the workload and prepare for the tests over time.


Andy Williamson is the founder of Hampton Tutors, our partner in academic coaching. He specializes in working with students who have special educational needs, including ADHD.

Sign up for his next SAT/ACT class.