How to bounce back from a disappointing SAT/ACT score

It happens more often than you think. You study for weeks, take several practice tests, and use the tips and tricks you were taught ... but when test day rolls around, you fall short of your goal score. Scoring lower than expected on the SAT or ACT can be frustrating, discouraging, and disappointing. These are all understandable (and permissible!) feelings to have.

That said, it's important to keep in mind that even though your results aren't what you were hoping for, every testing situation is a valuable experience and you're in a great position to improve your scores if you take the exam again. You'll want to hit the ground running on continuing to work toward your goal score and making sure your successes are consistent and repeatable in the future.

Here are some steps you can take to do just that.

1. Reflect on what happened.

First, let yourself feel all of the emotions you are feeling. Everyone processes disappointment in their own way, and you should let yourself do that! By allowing yourself to experience those feelings, you'll set yourself up for a clearer mind and greater success when you resume your studies.

Once you have a clearer head, take some time to consider what about that specific testing experience might have contributed to your score:

  • What felt different to you about the official test versus the practice tests you've taken in the past? 
  • How were you feeling in the days leading up to the exam? Did you get enough sleep that week? Was school particularly stressful at the time? 
  • Did you have trouble focusing? Were there unexpected distractions in the testing room? 
  • Did you hit an early roadblock that threw you off for the rest of the exam?
  • Did you feel overly confident and perform less carefully than you needed to?
  • How was your pacing? Were you working too quickly or too slowly at any points during the test?

And so on…

It might be the case that nothing felt wrong or different that day, and that’s okay! This exercise can still help illuminate external and internal factors that contributed to your test day performance, fine-tune your awareness of what has and hasn't worked well for you in the past, and make you more aware of how to navigate challenges in the future.

2. Review your score breakdown.

Look at the full score breakdown for your exam to see which areas of each section were your trouble spots. Maybe you really struggled with inference questions on the SAT reading section. Perhaps your execution of trig functions on the ACT math section was off. Make a note of these weaker areas and focus some initial study time on these topics, adapting your typical study schedule as needed. Patterns in your performance can help you figure out your best opportunities for picking up more points the next time you sit for an official test.

If you're not sure where to start, we're here to help! The team of experts at ArborBridge is happy to help you analyze your score report, so don't hesitate to reach out. 

3. Revise your study plan for your next test date.

Now that you've been through an official testing cycle, you're in a great position to make your study plan even better. Once you've identified your future test date(s), decide how many hours of studying you'll aim for each week. Consider whether self-guided study, test prep courses, one-on-one tutoring sessions, or some combination of the above would be the best fit for your schedule and the specific skills you want to improve as you continue prepping for your next test.

If you haven’t done so already, now is a great time to consider seeking out a tutor to help tailor a study plan to your particular needs and learning style. Having one-on-one sessions with an expert can give you a sense of accountability in your studies as well as enlightening you to study methods and best practices you might not know about otherwise! If you were already meeting with a tutor, reach out to that tutor again to set up additional sessions, explaining what happened with your most recent test and letting them know which areas you'd most like to work on. Your tutor is there to support you and your testing goals.

4. Remind yourself to keep your chin up.

Finally, forgive yourself and celebrate your other incredible accomplishments! You're likely taking this test to gain admission to an institution of higher learning. These applications are so much more than your test score—personal statements, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.—because you are so much more than your test score. We all know these exams are important and stressful. It’s normal to want to do well. But you have come so far to even make it to this point, and you should be incredibly proud of yourself for that. This exam does not define you: you define you!

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.

Erika Anclade

About Erika Anclade

Erika loves education and grew up in a household devoted to its pursuit: her father is a high school science teacher, and her mother works at her elementary school library. Erika scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, and she was both a National Merit Scholar and an AP Scholar with Distinction. Erika enjoys making the test prep process fun while simultaneously challenging students to continue growing.

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