Managing Stress to Score Better on the SAT and ACT

By the time students in US public schools graduate from high school, they will have taken an average of about 112 standardized tests since kindergarten (Washington Post). On top of that, students are taking quizzes and tests in each of their other classes, not to mention AP tests and the all important ACT and SAT. Even for a strong tester, this is a gargantuan number of testing requirements throughout their educational career. But for those who suffer from mild to severe test anxiety? It can be crippling.

Anxiety and stress have a significant impact on the brains of humans. Stress and anxiety trigger the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and the fight or flight response, meaning that students in this position are less able to focus, are perspiring, their heart rate and blood pressure are rising, and their memory is inhibited. All of these things together make for an incredibly inefficient test taker, no matter their intelligence level.

One of the most important things for students to do, then, is to mitigate their test anxiety. To learn to find calm in order to focus better and score higher on any test they take—now and into the future.

No matter the amount of preparation they do, if they are not learning to manage this aspect of the testing process, they will not be able to score as well as they could have if they had been calm and collected.

These are five strategies you can teach your students to practice before they sit the ACT, SAT, or any other exam. And remember, the more they practice, the easier it will be to implement these strategies on test day.

  1. Exhaling

Exhaling is critical to finding calm. When students get stressed, they tend to hold their breath, causing them to tense their shoulders and lose valuable oxygen from their brain in the process.

Teach your students to exhale at three specific points in tests:

  • Before they read the question
  • Before they read the answer choices
  • Before bubbling in their answer

Getting into this habit helps clear their brain throughout the process of answering each question and helps them focus their energy on that specific question and not on something that comes before or after.

This may seem noisy or distracting to other testers, so it’s important to remind your students to exhale quietly to minimize this. And the more they practice, the more they will find opportunities to exhale before challenging or stressful situations in their regular lives, too.

  1. Grounding

When we are stressed, we tend to hike up our shoulders and hold our breaths, both of which fight the pull of gravity. Therefore, we must reverse that and take solace in the strength of the ground when we are beginning to feel out of control.

Practice this exercise with your students in order to become comfortable with the process and to lower your own stress levels at the same time:

  • Place your feet flat on the floor.
  • Feel the weight of your feet on the floor.
  • Feel the weight of your body in the chair.
  • Let your arms and shoulders be pulled toward the floor by gravity.
  • Feel your eyes sinking into your eye sockets.
  • Take a moment to feel this grounding sensation before returning to the task at hand.

People who are busy and those who are under a time constraint taking a standardized test may balk at this idea: why take so much time away from necessary projects in order to do this activity?

Firstly, with practice, it won’t take very long to find this grounding sensation, so that is a reason to practice it every day in small increments.

Additionally, through grounding, you become more focused and efficient; you are then more likely to do better work and get the right answer because you are able to better evaluate the task at hand. Taking a few seconds to ground yourself is worth it if the outcome is better than the alternative would be.

  1. Deep breathing

Think back to the last time you meditated or took a yoga class. If you’ve never done this, here’s a quick synopsis: you settle on the floor or on a chair, close your eyes, and begin to observe your breathing. Feel free to try this now if it is new to you.

Chances are, your breathing initially is rather shallow and might be short. This is even more likely if you are experiencing stress or anxiety. When you breathe shallowly, you are not getting as much oxygen and you are not expelling as much carbon dioxide. This combination prevents your mind from working at its maximum capacity and can and will adversely affect performance on tests and other mental projects.

To practice this, let’s do a quick exercise.

  • Sit comfortably on a floor or chair with your back straight (you can also do this lying down, but that’s not possible in a testing environment, so sitting is usually better for practicing this).
  • Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath for 2-3 breaths.
  • Start to elongate your breathing, eventually taking an inhale at a 3 count (1-2-3) and an exhale at a 4 or 5 count (1-2-3-4-5).
  • Repeat this slow breathing for 4 or 5 breaths.
  • Open your eyes and feel the difference.

Again, this may seem like it takes too long in a testing environment. However, when your students practice this every day leading up to their tests, they will be able to find this position of calm, deep breathing more quickly and their focus and scores will benefit from this practice.

  1. Sensing

When we are stressed, often it is because there is some sort of disconnection between ourselves and our environment. We are focused on where we need to go or what we need to do and are not really paying attention to the task at hand.

And multitasking is not the recipe for good scores on the ACT or SAT.

Another skill to practice, then, is how to use our five senses to evaluate the space we’re in and bring us from our anxious state back to the present moment.

  • Sight: What can you observe visually in the space around you? Where is there light? Where is there shadow? What colors do you see?
  • Hearing: What sounds can you hear? Is there the sound of pencil against paper or a lawn mower outside?
  • Touch: The paper and the desk have different textures. Do they feel cold to the touch or warm? Smooth or scratchy?
  • Taste: What does your mouth taste like? Did your toothpaste last until this moment? Did you have a snack and that taste is lingering?
  • Smell: What does the room smell like? Do you note a familiar cologne or perfume on someone nearby? Or does the smell of hand sanitizer permeate everything?

Help guide your students through this process as you practice it yourself. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of uncertainty in the world and the number of tasks that must be accomplished by a certain time. However, returning to everything that exists in the present moment can help us become better equipped to handle the situation at hand and make the future result better in the process.

  1. Relaxing the Eyes

It is through our eyes that humans take in information from the outside world around. In prehistoric times, humans used their eyes to evaluate their surroundings for safety to be better prepared to escape at a moment’s notice.

That’s part of why our eyes get tired after using them intensely for an extended period of time.

Now, think about the ACT and SAT specifically: students are required to use their eyes for nearly four hours to take in information and process it in order to “survive.”

It’s no wonder that this can become taxing for students!

Here’s an exercise students can try throughout their tests to break up the stress on their minds and help them score better:

  • Every ten minutes (or ten questions), close your eyes. 
  • Feel your eyeballs sink into your eye sockets for a few seconds.
  • Count to ten.
  • Open your eyes and keep going.
  • Repeat as necessary.

Becoming familiar with this process and the benefits of resting their eyes can make your students better equipped to do well on their ACT or SAT, especially as the test wears into its third hour and beyond.

Practice Makes Perfect

None of these strategies will be beneficial to you or your students without practice. Therefore, I recommend blending these activities into your SAT and ACT prep from day one in order to make them second nature for your students. Just as with a theatrical or athletic performance, it is a bad idea to try something new on the day you perform. Help your students become comfortable with these techniques as early as possible in order to maximize their score potential on the ACT or SAT when it comes around.

The world is a stressful place, but if we can all learn to manage our stress, we will become happier, healthier, and more successful on the tasks we choose to pursue.

About Mary

Mary Lanni is the Educational Advisor for Lampert Educational Resources and heads up their Test Prep Roadmap program. She has been working with students in performance environments for over fifteen years and has seen the positive results of stress management first-hand. If you have any questions for Mary, please feel free to email her at