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How do I stay focused for the ACT or SAT?

How do I stay focused for the ACT or SAT? published on

This article is the result of a question that someone asked me recently. They said that they found their mind wandering and struggled to stay focused for the SAT, even on time pressured sections. I realized that there’s a lot of people who might be finding it hard to stay focused on the ACT or SAT!


If you find it extremely challenging to focus on the ACT or SAT, you may want to consider getting assessed by an educational psychologist to see whether you have ADHD. Note that one of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD is that you have a hard time staying focused on tasks that you enjoy, so if this is a problem specific to the ACT or SAT because you find it boring, that is not ADHD.


Regardless of whether or not you have formally diagnosed concentration issues, there are a number of strategies you can use to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Even if you do have a diagnosis, it’s vital to recognize that you need to make good use of learning strategies to work around your problem.


The tips I’ve got below are specific to things you can do to improve your focus and concentration for the ACT or SAT on test day – if you’re looking for ways to stay motivated in your preparation, check out this article. Read these strategies now, practice them to see which ones work for you and help you to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Then read through them again before you walk into the test center so that you remember to apply what you’ve practiced.


study focus act concentration tips strategy


Top 10 tips to stay focused on the ACT or SAT

  1. Stay active while you’re doing the test. This is especially applicable to the reading and scientific reasoning sections where your mind could wander as you read the passage. Try to use your pencil to underline parts of the passage as you read. If you don’t actually want to underline, just doodle in the margin or fiddle with a spare pencil. Many people find that keeping your hands active is the key.
  2. Make sure you’re filling in the bubble sheet after every passage (and after every 10 questions for math). This is the most efficient way to do it anyway, but if you’re having concentration problems, it has the added benefit of breaking the section down into smaller parts.
  3. Try to do some physical activity during the break between the math and reading sections. There’s lots of evidence that physical activity aids concentration. I know it would be a bit ridiculous to start doing jumping jacks in the test center, but you might be the kind of person who doesn’t care what other people think! If you can go outside and get some fresh air then do. Don’t do anything that will jeopardize your test though! In the same way, you might be able to do little stretches at your desk while you’re doing the test to help yourself stay focused.
  4. Make sure you’re actively thinking about what you’re doing. Ask yourself about what you’re reading – after each paragraph (even if you’re just skimming), ask yourself what the point of the paragraph was, how that characters feel, whether the previous paragraph is in agreement with the one before it, etc.
  5. In less time-pressured sections, you may find that you can actually allow yourself 2-3 minutes of not focusing during the test without it hurting your performance. Take a break after the 3rd passage and just stare at the ceiling and let your mind wander. Take deep breaths, and don’t get so distracted that you take 10 minutes! This is an important one to practice, in case you do find that you accidentally take a 10 minute break.
  6. Write instructions to yourself at the top of each page. Don’t spend ages doing this, but it may be helpful to have a visual reminder that you need to stay focused on the ACT or SAT.
  7. Practice positive self-talk. So many students, with or without concentration issues, have negative thoughts running through their minds on test day. This is so unhelpful, and it’s been shown that your performance on a test is partly correlated to your expectations of yourself (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Focus on the questions, and what you’ve studied and prepared for. Put your fears to the back of your mind. Tell yourself that you will think things through after the test is finished.
  8. Practice plenty of full tests under test conditions. Don’t listen to music or white noise. I know this is a concentration aid, but you won’t get it on test day, so make sure you’re not relying on it. Make sure you’re not interrupted when practicing, and give yourself a break after the first two sections only (true for both the ACT and SAT).
  9. When you get to the test center, you might find that you can choose your seat. If not, it may be worth asking the proctor whether you can sit either near the front or the back of the room. Think about whether you are more likely to be distracted by noises behind you or visual activity in front of you, and choose accordingly.
  10. Use a timing marker! This is particularly helpful for reading and scientific reasoning. Let’s say the reading section starts at 10.06. You should be halfway through the reading section by 10.23 (i.e. 17 minutes after the test begins). So the first thing you should do when the test begins is find the 3rd passage, and write the current time plus 17 minutes at the top. Then start the test at the beginning. By the time you get to the third passage, you’ll know if you are ahead or behind your time, and you can re-adjust your pace accordingly. If you don’t know that you’re behind on time until halfway through the last passage, it’ll be impossible to catch up! You can use this idea of timing markers wherever you like. Just don’t use too many (I’d say 3 maximum), otherwise you’ll waste time putting them in. If you need more timing advice, check here.


Applying those 10 tips should help you to stay focused for the ACT or SAT. Remember that practice is key – both for applying your concentration strategies and generally getting familiar with the test.