Line of students taking tests at desks with focus on White girl holding forehead

The Most Common Standardized Testing Struggles and How to Conquer Them

You’ve heard standardized tests are hard, but exactly how difficult are they? Here’s how to prepare and deal with the most common hurdles for students.

High school can be considered the best and worst time of our lives. Within the fun of football games and school dances, students are also burdened with the pressure of homework and grades. As we enter our junior and senior years, we’re encouraged to take the SAT or ACT in order to show colleges our strong suits. With testing season upon us, here are some tips to take on these exams and improve some common problem areas.

About your standardized testing options

The SAT and PSAT are standardized tests created and administered by the College Board. They serve as both college entrance exams and a scholarship opportunity; many colleges offer merit-based aid for high SAT scores, while the top 1% of junior-year PSAT test-takers in each state compete for the National Merit Scholarship each year.

Similar to the SAT, the ACT is another college admission exam that’s important to college admission. Unlike the PSAT, it does not qualify you for a specific scholarship if you do well, but you may earn private or institutional scholarships for high scores.

Related: How to Win Scholarships With Your SAT Scores

Time limits

Many students struggle with the time limits imposed by standardized tests. The SAT is three hours long and split into multiple sections based on subject; 50 minutes is added if you choose to complete the optional Essay section. The ACT is also around three hours long (exactly two hours and 55 minutes; add another 40 minutes with the Essay).

These may seem like long tests, but there’s a lot of pressure on students to answer quickly because there are so many questions. If you’re nervous about not having enough time to complete each section, try taking practice tests and setting a timer. Simulating a real testing experience is a valuable way to practice and can show you which sections are taking up your time.

Which section is the hardest?

The section that you find the hardest is largely based off your personal strengths and weaknesses. If you’re a more abstract thinker, you’re more likely to succeed in the Writing or Essay portions of either test. If you’re a logical thinker, you’re more likely to succeed on the Math sections (and Science on the ACT). While different portions of the test can be more difficult for some than others, the most common section that students report trouble with is Critical Reading because it uses learned bad habits against you to challenge your instincts.

Related: Run Toward Failure to Nail Your Standardized Tests

How can I get a leg up?

Standardized testing is hard, period. While prepping, we tend to focus on the hardest portions and put all our efforts into our weakest sections. One tip to do your best on the test is to focus on the little things. Sections like Grammar and Vocabulary are very important and lay a foundation for Critical Reading and the Essay. Getting those little questions about punctuation and grammar right can really give you all the extra confidence you need.

Practice, practice, practice!

Practice tests are the most common resource to practice for the ACT and SAT. They are long and almost always boring, but they’ll give you an idea of what you need to work on. Taking multiple practice tests over the course of several months is one of the best ways to prepare; you’ll learn what works for you, continually decrease your test time, and accurately replicate the real thing. As you do more practice tests, put special focus on the weakest parts of your previous test. And whether it’s an online tutor, hitting the books, or turning to social media like TikTok or YouTube for study tips, take advantage of all the resources you can. Consider visiting for some free online resources.

Related: SAT or ACT? Tips for Deciding and Top Study Resources

Now that you have everything you need to ace the ACT or SAT, give it your all—and most importantly, don’t forget to eat breakfast and stay hydrated! (Pro tip: Oatmeal is the best thing to eat the morning of your test.)

For more advice from experts and real students who’ve survived the SAT and ACT, check out our Test Prep section.

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About Gracie O'Brian

Gracie O'Brian

Gracie O'Brian is a high school freshman residing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She's a part of her school's swim, speech and debate, and tennis teams. During her free time, Gracie enjoys reading and crocheting while watching TV. She also loves hanging out with her hedgehog, Nala, and going on walks with her dog, Hazel. Gracie works as a junior florist at her local flower shop. She hopes that being a CollegeXpress Student Writer will offer insight to other aspiring college students! 


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