By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

First, we can all agree that the title of this article is basically alphabet soup. Keep going.

SAT and ACT are the two college entrance exams students must take as part of the college application process. Sure, many colleges are now test-optional (wonderful!), But almost all students should plan on taking at least one of these standardized tests to expand their college options.

While college entrance exams are challenging for typical students, taking SAT or ACT as a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may seem impossible.

But it is not. I promise – it isn’t.

Some students with ADHD do incredibly well on standardized tests, despite inconsistent academic histories. The reason for this phenomenon is that people with ADHD often thrive in conditions of novelty and urgency. SAT and ACT offer both.

For others with ADHD, SAT and ACT may seem impossible as these timed tests require intense focus over long periods of time with very few pauses. Terrific recipe for most students with ADHD.

If you have ADHD, your approach to entrance exams may be a little different than your friends’. All good.

6 Tips for Taking SAT or ACT with ADHD

1. Find out which test is better for you. Focus on it.

Although there are great similarities between SAT and ACT (the grammar sections are almost indistinguishable), the differences are sufficient to make one test clearly “better” than another test for certain students. Take one or two practice tests at a time and see how you behave (score) and how you feel (stress level) after each test. Choose the better test and focus on that one.

Note: I encourage most students to take both tests because they are so damn similar. However, if you have ADHD, it’s usually best to focus entirely on one.

2. Do the test several times.

ADHD or not, students should take SAT or ACT more than once. Most college kids take the test two to three times. Taking the test multiple times can help reduce pressure and anxiety – something that students with ADHD often struggle with.

Cool things to know about SAT and ACT repetition:

  • ACT: After taking the full ACT once, students can repeat certain sections of the test (math, science, reading, grammar) without having to repeat the whole thing. Schools only see the best results.
  • SAT: Students can repeat the test multiple times, but only submit their best results from each section (math and English).

3. Start preparing early.

Students with ADHD are more successful (both in SAT and ACT and in school) when exposed to material slowly, steadily, and incrementally. This is not the last minute preparation time.

4. Use an incremental endurance strategy for practice tests.

Both the SAT and ACT are timed tests that require nearly four hours of cognitive stamina. The good news is that we can gradually train our brains to focus for longer periods of time. As? As you take your practice tests, slowly add a few minutes to your focus time every week or so. This could look like this, depending on your individual starting point:

  1. Week 1: Try to work on a practice test for 10 minutes 3-5 days a week without losing focus. If you lose focus, start the timer again.
  2. Week 2: Work 3-5 times a week for 15 minutes without losing focus. If you lose focus, start the timer again.
  3. Week 3: Work 3-5 times a week for 20 minutes without losing focus. If you lose focus, start the timer again.
  4. Week 4+: Add an additional 5-10 minutes to your work time until you can take a full section of a practice test without losing focus. (Just a section; not a complete test.)

5. Apply for extra time.

If you currently have an IEP or 504 plan for school, getting additional time on SAT or ACT shouldn’t be too difficult. Ask your advisor or academic advisor to apply for this accommodation.

If you qualify for the extension of the tests, you will most likely get “an hour and a half”. This means that you would have 97.5 minutes of critical reading time on a 65-minute SAT section. Here you can find more information about the extended time in the SAT and the extended time in the ACT.

6. Answer questions strategically.

Students with ADHD (and even students without!) Should save the toughest questions until the end of the test. I propose this strategy because I don’t want someone with ADHD to risk losing attention to questions he or she got right. Here are my suggestions for SAT and ACT:

  1. Mathematics: Do the simple ones first. The questions increase in difficulty, so you will generally work in the correct order. Don’t spend too long on questions that exhaust you. (Select something, highlight the question you might want to return to, and then continue.)
  2. Read: Do the double pass last.
  3. Grammar: Don’t spend too long on the “hard” questions. For the most part, these are questions that ask you to read and reread long sections of the test, as shown in the image below.
  4. science (ACT only): The questions become more difficult within each “passage”. Don’t exhaust yourself on the last 1-2 questions in each passage.

This is an example of a “difficult” question about the SAT, simply for the reason that it takes a lot of cognitive stamina to answer. Do you have ADHD? Don’t spend a lot of time doing it.

Taking SAT or ACT with ADHD doesn’t have to be a nightmare. As long as you prepare well in advance and take the time to work with your strengths and weaknesses, you can be completely successful. Here are 5 more testing strategies you may find helpful.


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