High School

Get Your ACT Together

Is your child with ADHD or LD wracked with nerves over upcoming SAT or ACT tests? Follow these simple tips to keep his head in the game.

A teen boy with ADHD applying study strategies to prepare for the SAT or ACT test
A teen boy with ADHD applying study strategies to prepare for the SAT or ACT test

The SATs and ACT are, literally, rites of passage for most college-bound teens, and most students hate to think about taking them. The tests are challenging, so a little grousing is to be expected. But in the end, most students just buckle down and prepare for test day. Most students, however, don’t have ADHD or LD.

College admissions exams bring out the worst in teens with ADHD or LD. The SAT and ACT challenge them to excel in their weakest areas: preparing and planning, getting organized, reading, writing, and math.

Many students with ADHD/LD give up, or seek out colleges that don’t require the SAT or ACT for admissions. While that’s not a bad thing to do, it limits your choices. And it doesn’t help when your dream school requires test scores. There’s hope, though. Here’s how to achieve a great score.

Don’t put it off.

Indulging in denial or procrastination won’t help. If you know you’ll be applying to colleges in your senior year, start thinking about the SAT and ACT in your sophomore year — or even before that. Students with ADHD should start preparing sooner than everyone else.

It is acceptable to take the test for the first time early in your junior year. I know that’s against the prevailing wisdom of waiting until the end of junior year, but there is no magic in the traditional wait. You will have covered all of the content on the SAT, and the vast majority of the content on the ACT, by the middle of your junior year, so get it out of the way. Starting early means you’ll have time to take the test two or three times by June in your junior year.

Apply early for accommodations.

Too many families assume that if a student receives accommodations in school, he will automatically get accommodations for taking the SAT or ACT. Not true. The requirements of the companies developing the tests are often more stringent than those of schools (particularly private schools). There may be glitches in the application process. Overworked school counselors sometimes make mistakes on the application, or your documentation may be outdated. You may think that the school applied for your accommodations for both tests, when they applied only for the SAT.

It is in your best interest to get the ball rolling in sophomore year, even if you don’t plan to take the test until junior year. Diagnostic testing done in tenth grade will be valid when applying for accommodations in college. If the College Board or ACT turns you down, you have time to submit an appeal. The good news is that approval of accommodations for either test will be valid through senior year.

Decide which test to take.

The current trend in high schools is to take both the SAT and ACT several times, making a first attempt with little or no preparation to “get a baseline score.” This makes no sense, especially for students with ADHD/LD . Test prep takes much longer if you have trouble focusing, reading, and so on. Why would you spend time preparing for two tests, on top of trying to meet ongoing school demands, when one will do? Colleges don’t require both tests, so commit to one and kiss the other goodbye. Your prep time will be more effective and efficient.

As for taking the test “cold,” this is a terrible choice for ADHD/LD students. Most are terrified of the test anyway. The stress of taking a test unprepared, and the less-than-stellar scores that will probably result, will undermine your confidence. Opt instead to take a full-length practice test of the SAT and the ACT, many of which can be found online. Score them, and make a choice.

The ACT is often better for students with ADHD and offers significant advantages:

1. The ACT’s content, and the way in which questions are asked, resembles the way material is covered in school. The SAT’s questions are more convoluted, and they can confuse students, even those who know the content being tested.

2. The ACT doesn’t directly test tough vocabulary words, as does the current version of the SAT. Many of my students struggle with reading, and their vocabulary suffers because of it. Vocabulary comes into play on the ACT, but tough words can often be roughly defined using contextual clues.

3. The way the ACT is administered is more favorable to students with ADHD. The SAT strictly times its nine sections (students with accommodations do not take the 10th “experimental” section), making the test well over six hours long for those students who have extended time. The ACT offers more flexibility by giving students one time limit of 5 hours, 45 minutes, for the four core subtests and the optional essay. Students do have to take the subtests in the standard order, but they can budget their time on each section to allow more time for weaker subjects.

I hope you give the ACT or SAT a try. Having options — applying to schools that require a test and to others that don’t — is always a good idea, when applying to colleges, so maximize your chances to get a “yes” from the college of your choice.