How Parents Can Help Their Kids Through the SAT and ACT

Experts share tips on reducing anxiety for students.



Vicki Reilly thinks of herself as calm, cool and collected. But locked in the privacy of a bathroom with her phone, she furtively checked her son’s ACT scores—even though she’d told him not to while the family vacationed in Colorado. 

Reilly didn’t have cause to worry. Her son, Greg, was in AP science and math classes at West Chester High School East. Her angst was for naught. Greg did so well on his ACTs that he was accepted into the honors program at Penn State University, where he’s now a junior. 

The whole thing was a learning experience for Reilly. She’s since realized that the ACTs are a good option for many students, despite not having been popular when she was in high school. Back then, the SATs were the gold standard. “Greg took the ACT, and his scores blew away what he did on the SAT,” says Reilly. “My husband and I asked ourselves the question: Did we really know what was best?” 

Alexandra McIlvaine frequently sees this scenario. As director of education for Educational Services, a regional SAT/ACT prep company, McIlvaine helps students find the most strategic testing path. Until recently, parents insisted on the SATs and looked disdainfully at the ACTs. “Parents need to know that colleges look at them equally,” McIlvaine says. “Even Ivy League colleges are fine with either test. The important thing is to take the test on which you score higher.”

Getting high scores can become a dangerous focus for students, causing extreme anxiety. Advance planning can be a great antidote, says Neal Cousins, director of college counseling at the Haverford School. Students should start in January of junior year, when PSAT results are released. Take a practice SAT and a practice ACT, then consult with a school counselor to decide which test is best suited to you and what is the optimal time of year to take it. “The diagnostic tests are great tools for helping us create game plans,” says Cousins. “That alleviates a lot of anxiety right off the bat, because we know the direction we’re headed.”

Test anxiety isn’t recognized as a diagnosis in the DSM-5, the standard for mental disorders. So those who suffer from it aren’t always granted extra test time, like those with dyslexia or ADHD. Alli Swartz, a test proctor and instructor at Educational Services, specializes in working with kids who have anxiety and learning differences. “I met a mom who said that her son doesn’t have anxiety, but I saw it right away,” she says. “It was little habits, like leg twitching and his hands moving in and out of his pockets.” 

Compounding the anxiety are the seemingly endless changes made to the SAT. Without extensive sample tests, students don’t know exactly how to prepare. The College Board, which oversees the SAT, claims that changes were made to represent what students are learning. McIlvaine doesn’t buy that. “We think the ACT was making more money because it became more popular than the SAT,” she says. “The College Board revamped the test to look more like the ACT, but they made it drastically harder.” 

McIlvaine believes the plan backfired. “We used to be 90-percent SAT, and now we are 75-percent ACT,” she says.

Parents are facing their own double-edged sword when trying to help their kids through the process, since some teenagers can translate mild-mannered parental support into added stress. For kids who need an extra push to prep, parents should act as advocates. Instead of focusing on the final score, create an environment in which they can succeed, whether that’s through private tutoring or an educational consultant. Make sure that, if appropriate, guidance counselors have petitioned for more time or sittings. “Most importantly, parents need to tell kids that, even if they don’t reach a certain score and get into their first choice college, their life won’t be ruined,” says Swartz.

Hugs and cookies help, Reilly says. Her other child, Sarah, is a senior at West Chester East and will matriculate at James Madison University in September, her first choice. Reilly became co-chair of high school’s in-house prep class. Prices are affordable, and the school offers scholarships to families with financial difficulties.

“Everyone should have the same opportunity to prepare for those tests,” Reilly says. “Students and parents have to think of the SAT and ACT as a marathon, not a race. Prepare early, practice and, above all, remain calm.” 

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