SAT & ACT: Test Stress Extremes

Published: Nov. 19, 2013 at 8:51 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 20, 2013 at 3:30 AM EST
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(WFLX) - It's no secret the college admissions process can be stressful for students -- especially standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT.

But these days, the pressure to perform is greater than ever, and some students are going to extremes to increase their scores.

When it came to raising her scores on the SAT, college freshman Sarah Rodeo was determined to do whatever it took. "I drilled the math all through the summer from my junior to my senior year. And, in the fall, I was still drilling, still taking practice SATs every weekend."

Test prep took over her life -- leaving her so stressed, she even sought therapy. "I was feeling a horrible amount of anxiety about the SAT math section. I was pretty miserable. I missed so many things with friends."

Lisa Sohmer is a director of college counseling and member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. She says pressure to prep is greater than ever. "It's just, over time, gotten bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The pressure comes from everywhere. Students a few years ago talked about doing test prep starting in the 11th grade. Starting in the 10th grade. Now, people are talking about having prep courses for students in the 9th grade."

For some, excessive prep can leave little time for anything else. "My best friend has given up swimming, and she's given up hanging out with us, just so she can prep for the SAT," said high school senior Sheila Khan.

"If a student says, 'I can't play basketball because I have to test prep', or, 'I can't be a member of the student government anymore because I have to work on my test prep', then that's too much."

But is all the prep worth it?

Former admissions officer and college coach Elizabeth Heaton says schools look for applicants in a certain score range, but then focus on the overall student. "The idea that test scores kind of make you stand out, I think, is a little bit of a false one. What is most important is, you know, what students are doing outside of the classroom, doing well in their courses, being interesting people who have things they enjoy doing."

A strategy that probably won't give you an advantage, according to Heaton, taking both the ACT and SAT over and over. "Colleges have no preference of one over the other. They really just want to see the best score that the student can get."

However, trying both tests may not be a bad thing. "They ask the questions in a different way, and they gauge success differently. There are going to be students whose SAT and ACT scores can be dramatically different."

Sarah, who is now a freshman in college, ended up taking the SAT three times, and her math score increased 70 points.

As for whether the extra effort was worth it, she's still undecided. "I think, I over did it. I think I drilled myself too much and stressed myself out too much."

Since not all students are good test takers no matter how much they might prep, a growing number of universities are becoming "test optional" and will still consider students who don't submit scores.

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