Digital SAT: Managing stress at the start of an adaptive test

Updated June 2023 

The SAT is becoming a computer-adaptive test, and some students are nervous about a new kind of testing experience and the anxiety that comes with knowing your performance on the first module of a section will have a large impact on your score.

Never fear! We’ve seen adaptive tests in action and already have strategies to help you handle the extra stress associated with the earliest questions. Here are a few ways to manage test anxiety at the start of an adaptive test.

Prepare yourself for a solid start.

The stakes may feel higher at the start of an adaptive test like the digital SAT. Engaging in mindfulness exercises such as controlled breathing can help you relax, lower your heart rate, and clear your mind before the exam begins.

Work carefully, but don't let one question derail you.

On the digital SAT, how you perform on the first module will determine the difficulty level of the questions you see on the second half of the section. For that reason, making the most of your available time and double checking your work on the first set of questions is important. However, if you miss a question (even early on), you’re not doomed to get a bad score, so try not to let a single question derail you.

We’ve seen two students miss the same number of questions and end up with very different scores on other kinds of adaptive tests! What’s the takeaway? Your score is based not only on the questions you answer correctly but also on the complexity of the questions you encounter, among other factors. With that said ...

Don't overthink the difficulty of a question.

A common trend on adaptive tests is for students to waste energy trying to figure out how they’re doing based on the questions they encounter. However, you should avoid guessing the difficulty of any single question.

Why? If you feel like the questions are too easy, you might think you’re doing poorly and worry about your performance. On the other hand, it can be demoralizing to only encounter what feel like the hardest questions—even though you might actually be doing really well.

Remember that the difficulty of questions is relative. What’s easy for you might be hard for others and vice versa. It’s nearly impossible to determine what any adaptive test thinks is an easy or hard question, so don't overthink it.

Focus on the task at hand.

Instead of worrying about how you’re performing, focus on what you’re doing, one step at a time. Compartmentalizing can help you prevent distracting thoughts and feelings from overwhelming you.

Develop methodical approaches that you can apply regardless of the difficulty of the questions you encounter. Is there a way you can organize the information you’re seeing? How will you use the computer-based tools? Figure out how you can consistently troubleshoot when stuck and determine how to best guess. You don’t want to decide all of this on test day. Figure out a plan that you can follow—and stick to it when you take the exam!

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Josh Hsu

About Josh Hsu

Since earning his M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine, Josh has taught students of all ages for nearly every college or graduate school admissions exam. A strong advocate of the Socratic style of teaching, Josh believes that the best learning experience comes from guiding students to discover the practical techniques that work for them, coupled with a thorough understanding of the content of the exam. Josh recognizes that all students have specific needs, and he meticulously structures their programs and his teaching style to build on their strengths.

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