For most teenagers, the mere thought of spending three hours on a Saturday morning answering multiple choice and essay questions is anxiety provoking. Students with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities feel even more anxious:
• “With all that pressure, I just can’t think. I need larger print and more time.”
• “The test is so long that I get worn out—then, I space out.”
• “Keeping my place on the answer sheet is hard; I’m afraid I’ll skip an answer and get them all wrong.”

College admissions tests are labeled “high-stakes” because scores are an important part of the college admissions process, and may be tied to scholarships and special opportunities.

For students with attention or learning problems, these tests exacerbate their vulnerabilities by demanding speed and accuracy for long periods of time under stressful conditions. Students experience difficulties maintaining attention, screening out distractions, and dealing in-depth with an extensive range of topics.

Parents and school personnel can help students with AD/HD and or learning disabilities in several ways. These include:
• Putting into perspective the place of test scores within the college admissions process and life goals.
• Applying for accommodations to ensure peak performance on high-stakes tests.
• Developing a comprehensive college preparation plan.

Putting College Admissions Test Scores into Perspective

Adolescents with and without disabilities need to understand that scores earned on college admissions tests are an important--but not the only or the most important--aspect of the college admissions process. Colleges seek to admit candidates who will complete their degrees and contribute to the school through participation, teamwork, and leadership. The student with a disability is a student first; a young person with both strengths and vulnerabilities. Therefore, college admission committees tend to focus on what students have accomplished in the past and what they possibly can do in the future--not on what students can’t do because of their disabilities.

In addition, teachers, tutors, or coaches can include in their letters of recommendation the underlying causes of less-than-optimal scores, as well as reasons why the student should be considered in spite of a sub-par score on a standardized test. For example, an educational psychologist wrote, “The score earned on the verbal portion of the SAT does not accurately reflect this student’s potential to perform in college. “ The letter goes on to explain how the student’s grade point average is a more dependable indicator of academic potential.

Applying for Accommodations to Ensure Peak Performance on High-Stakes Tests

Students with AD/HD or learning- or other disabilities are eligible to take standardized tests under special testing conditions. This includes the preliminary or practice tests for the SAT and ACT: the PSAT and the PLAN. The most frequently requested accommodations for students with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities are extended time and a separate, non-distraction setting. Some students don’t want colleges to know about their disabilities or their use of accommodations. Such students are relieved to know that scores attained with accommodations (under non-standard test conditions) are not flagged in any way when they are sent to colleges. Alerting colleges about one’s disability is up to the discretion of the applicant.

Students (and their parents) may be unaware of the vast differences between classroom and college admissions tests. Classroom tests usually last for about 50 minutes and cover discrete aspects of a high school course. College admissions tests are administered for 2-3 hours, and are comprised of more difficult types of questions that cover a wide array of content; they are mentally and physically exhausting. Naïve students, especially those with very subtle disabling conditions, are often surprised and disappointed with the results of their first attempt.

Therefore, even if students with disabilities don’t usually use such accommodations for classroom tests, they need to be encouraged to apply for accommodations on college admissions tests. The application for accommodations takes time, so the earlier the application is prepared, the better.

When special arrangements are required, a qualified professional must state in writing that the teenager has a handicapping condition that interferes with his or her ability to take the test under regular testing conditions. Special arrangements are made regarding any of the following factors: time, physical arrangements, test materials and aids, and test administrator. Information about application dates and requirements for the SAT and ACT is provided on the following websites: and

Developing a Test Preparation Plan

There are four aspects to consider when developing an effective test preparation plan for a student with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities: set the stage early, identify strengths and vulnerabilities, analyze the results of the PSAT and PLAN, and prepare a schedule of study activities to hone the student’s skills. Most commonly, the skill areas to improve include vocabulary, calculations, reading rate, comprehension, learning and memory, test taking, and test-stress management.

Encourage Parents and Counselors to set the stage early.
School counselors, tutors, coaches, and parents help the student develop a preparation plan for the SAT or ACT. The process needs to be started earlier for students with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities, for several reasons. First, such students need additional time to learn and practice new skills, especially if they have not developed good study habits. Second, for students with short attention spans, it is best to have short, frequent study sessions scheduled over several months rather than cramming closer to the examination date. Moreover, achieving test-taking competence earlier reduces stress, increases motivation, and provides more time to work on practice tests.

Identify strengths and vulnerabilities.
Whether from a review of diagnostic reports, school tests, or student reports, a list of strengths and weaknesses is developed. This information is used to identify the amount of time and the type of resources that are required in addition to general SAT or ACT test-taking skills. Unless specific needs are addressed, there is no guarantee that merely practicing test questions will help the student to show what he or she knows on the SAT or ACT.

Analyze the results of the PSAT and PLAN.
Students are allowed to register for the PSAT and PLAN in the 10th grade. This allows ample time to analyze results and organize needed learning activities. The analysis of test results should be conducted by personnel in special education, reading, English, and/or mathematics so they can note the type and frequency of the items missed within each section and the reasons why incorrect choices were selected. For example, some students with ADD, AD/HD, and or learning disabilities are impulsive, selecting the first choice that appears correct. Other students read all the possible choices but lack advanced reading skill to help them to find the best answer. Still others work very slowly, become fatigued, or become anxious. These students require specialized strategies to perform effectively, even when they have time accommodations.

Here are some questions to use to analyze the results of the PSAT and PLAN:
• Is there a significant difference between the verbal and mathematical sections of the test (e.g. 30 or more points)?
• How consistent are the scores with school achievement?
• What types of errors occur most frequently (e.g., difficulty with reading questions requiring the student to make inferences)?
• Were sections of the test completed?

Prepare a schedule of study activities.
A plan should be the product of discussions among the teenager, school or other professionals, and parents. Several types of help may be necessary: a tutor in a content area such as math who is knowledgeable about learning disabilities and the differences between classroom tests and SAT questions; a special educator, counselor, or other school personnel to make special testing arrangements; and perhaps a psychologist, social worker, or coach who trains students to cope with test stress.

Instruction should be provided at times during which the student is most alert. Group instruction in the evening (as is commonly provided by costly commercial courses) is not usually as effective for students with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities as one-on-one instruction. Hiring an experienced teacher, tutor or coach is often a better use of funds than enrolling a student with disabilities in a commercial course.

At least one, full-length practice test should be taken prior to the actual test date. As with athletes and entertainers, a scrimmage or dress rehearsal provides valuable preparation.

Adolescents with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities need help to prepare for high stakes tests such as the SAT and ACT. Parents, school personnel, and other experts need to start early to plan and prepare. Students with disabilities frequently have problems organizing their school time, tasks, and materials. As their courses become more demanding and college admission chores mount, students with disabilities may deny, forget or avoid the study needed to prepare for the challenges of the SAT and ACT. The adults in their lives need to provide structure and guidance in a positive and supportive manner. Such assistance--in addition to accommodations when they are needed--helps students with AD/HD and/or learning disabilities to show what they know on college admissions tests.

Author's Bio: 

Geraldine Markel, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist specializing in improving critical thinking skills. Principal of Managing Your Mind Coaching & Seminars®, she previously served on the faculty of the University of Michigan, School of Education and as Director of Adolescent and Adult Services there. She is co author of a book entitled Peterson's Parent's Guide to the SAT & ACT and an audio CD set on the same topic. She is also co author of several books on adults and adolescents with ADD and Learning Disabilities. Visit or contact

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