How to Help Students Overcome Test Day Frustrations

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Test prep can be a bumpy road for students. The SAT and ACT task students with learning and honing a whole gamut of skills all in service of a single test day performance. Moreover, the stakes are high. Doing well can pave the way to acceptance letters and dream schools while sub-par scores may mean preparing for retakes or bracing for rejection letters.

For students, having access to exceptional test prep curriculum in the hands of great test prep tutors can go a long way - but frustration can still creep in.

Thankfully, there are ways tutors can help students overcome these common testing frustrations. By equipping students to face these stressful moments during test prep, it increases the likelihood that the coping strategies will carry over into test day.

Eliminating writer’s block

As a writer, I can assure you that writer’s block is real (and it is awful). What’s worse, it somehow always tends to appear when the pressure is at its highest – timed writing tests and approaching deadlines come to mind.

During test prep, do whatever it takes to get students to write. Writing is a skill that needs practice – allowing students to succumb to writer’s block can derail that endeavor in a big way.

That said, every student is different. Writer’s block is a personal issue that requires a personalized approach. In most cases, simply finding the tactics and motivations to encourage students to dive into a practice writing task can make a huge difference for when the pressure is on.

If you are working with a student who freezes up or tunes out during writing time, here are some proven strategies to try:

  • Diagnose the cause of the problem - Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has compiled a useful list of different symptoms of writer’s block with suggested cures. The follow-up post has even more strategies to try.
  • Establish the writing time routineEntrepreneur contributor Brandon Turner suggests treating writing like a basketball free throw. Help students find a way to get into their zone and then turn those steps into the routine every time it’s time to write.
  • Consult the pros - Last year, the Medium published a piece quoting famous authors’ strategies for overcoming writer’s block. Not only are the suggestions practical, but they also show students that even the best writers get jammed up sometimes.

It's worth noting that several strategies included above won’t fly in a testing room (i.e., walking away, talking it out, asking for a new topic, or consulting a tutor). However, they still may help during test prep to make a breakthrough with a student struggling to write. When all is said and done, building students’ confidence in their abilities to engage with writing tasks during test prep will surely translate to success on test day.

Prepping for the logistics of test day

Test day doesn’t start with the first question in the first section - it starts the night before.

It’s a proven fact that lack of sleep can increase stress levels and, in turn, leave us more susceptible to bouts of frustration. Likewise, a poor diet can create challenges for focus and positive energy levels.

Test prep tutors should work with students to help them walk into their testing centers as prepared for the task ahead of them as both mentally and physically as they are content-wise This means establishing sleep, diet, and even exercise plans to make sure students are at their physical and mental peak when the tests begin.

Also, tutors should make it a point to eliminate as much mystery about test day protocols as possible. Some questions to consider include:

  • Do students know where their test centers are?
  • When and where can students enter their test centers on test day?
  • What do students need to have handy for a speedy registration?
  • What are acceptable or unacceptable items to bring into a testing center?
  • What breaks can the student expect once testing begins?

Should any of these issues become frustrating test day surprises, it could erase hours, days, and months of test prep efforts!

For more keys to preparing your students for a successful test day, check out our free Illustrated Test Day Checklist!

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Relieving stress between test sections

The SAT and ACT are long tests. Students are confined to their assigned seats for hours with limited opportunities for breaks.

While test prep sessions shouldn’t be as long or arduous, they can be the perfect staging ground for helping students plan and try out decompression strategies for test day.

Some practical de-stressing suggestions that won’t lead to invalidated scores include:

For students with deeper anxiety issues, more help may be needed that you can provide as a test prep tutor. Knowing these signs and what strategies work can make sure students have the optimal help and strategies before test day.

Dealing with the unexpected

Standardized tests are supposed to be just that – standardized. The experience should be the same for every test taker regardless of their testing location.

But this is the real world. No matter how scripted and structured a testing manual may be, irregularities are bound to happen. It can be frustrating for students trying to perform their best with jackhammers pounding away outside or when a stray dog wanders into the testing room (true story - that actually happened!).

Some more common issues include:

  • no visible clock
  • the proctor fails to follow the testing script or issue the required 5-minute warnings
  • disruptive test takers are not dealt with appropriately
  • unauthorized devices or materials in the testing center
  • not allowing the use of an approved calculator
  • problems with testing devices or testing materials

If your students have any issues or irregularities in their test day experience, be sure they report them. Both the SAT and ACT have phone numbers that are provided for this purpose. Both the ACT and College Board take these issues very seriously.

How to Report SAT & ACT Test Site Irregularities

SAT irregularities can be reported to the Office of Testing Integrity by phone at 609-406-5430 or 800-257-5123 (test day only), or by email at

ACT irregularities can be reported using the ACT’s Test Security Hotline at 1-855-382-2645 or by using the online submission form.

Both the SAT and ACT will (at their discretion) offer score cancellations and/or free retests in the case of extraordinary disruptions or test center issues. This isn’t much help during the test, but it can be reassuring for a test taker to know that there is some available recourse for an unfairly frustrating testing experience.

Test prep is as much about preparing students for taking tests as it is taking specific tests. During test prep, help students to identify frustrations in the moment and give them the tools to overcome them.