Students with LD: Preparing for the SAT or ACT

By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED

For students with learning disabilities, college entrance exams are often daunting. Given the intimidation factor, as well as the different biases of the SAT and ACT, it is best to select just one test on which to focus. Taking the PSAT and PLAN (pre-ACT) tests can help students determine the test that best suits them.

The SAT has traditionally been the test of choice on the east and west coasts—many schools here don’t even offer the PLAN test. In time, the ACT will increase in popularity, but for now, many guidance counselors just push the SAT. The majority of students aren’t even aware that the SAT and ACT play to different strengths. For math and science-oriented students, this can be a huge disadvantage.

Regardless of whether your teen takes the SAT or ACT, there are three critical factors in scoring well and alleviating test anxiety:

  • Entering test day familiar with the format
  • Knowing how to best utilize time for each section
  • Understanding test-taking strategies
Is A Prep Course Necessary?

This is a highly individualized decision where you and your child have to weigh the cost against the benefit. Depending on your child’s test-taking history, the increase in score may not be significant enough to justify the price tag of a professional prep course.

If, however, you do decide to go for a prep course, tell your teen to sit up front and center, or find a small class that offers individualized guidance. Either way, your child should practice on actual tests published by the College Board or ACT, depending on which test he will be taking.

An alternative to a prep course is one-on-one tutoring, usually a pricier option. Again, it pays to know your child. Private tutoring sessions, as well as prep courses, are known for assigning considerable homework. Will your child’s efforts make this a worthwhile investment? Will she be able to sustain attention for the length of the sessions? You may want to consider a private tutor who works in shorter increments and emphasizes strategies over content. If you are certain your child will receive test accommodations, make sure the tutor allows for these while practicing. Consider test prep a dress rehearsal that prepares your teen for opening night. After all, a test is indeed a performance!

Finally, a third (and free!) option is going online to learn basic strategies for these tests. The internet has no shortage of tutorials and sample SAT and ACT tests. Khan Academy is an excellent free site offering SAT prep podcasts that can be downloaded on iTunes, or try Khan Academy SAT Math Prep with outstanding videos. Another worthwhile site for SAT or ACT is Brightstorm. It costs $29.99 a month but they do offer a 3-day free trial. Just know that the do-it-yourself method requires a higher degree of self-discipline on the part of your child… or oversight (aka nagging) on your part. Again the cost (to your relationship) may outweigh the benefits.

Regardless of the path you choose, an extensive vocabulary is key to test success, not to mention subsequent college success. To that end, all students can benefit from free interactive online vocabulary sites. Among the best are Quizlet, a flashcard site that tests on the most common SAT/ACT vocabulary words, and Free Rice, with 50 vocabulary levels, allowing students to customize lists to their needs. Additionally, for each correct answer, the last-named site donates 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger.

Test Prep Resources

To learn more, check out the following resources:

  • Specialized Prep is a company that helps students with LD prepare online for college admissions testing.
  • By Googling “SAT/ACT prep for students with LD + area” you’ll find local prep programs or individual tutors.
  • A useful guide for students preparing on their own is Barron’s SAT Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities. (There isn’t a comparable book for the ACT.)

What about Accommodations?

The most widely-known accommodation for the SAT and ACT is extra time. For the SAT, this can be 50-100% extra time, depending on your documentation. For the ACT, it can be 50% more time, along with other options (see Extended Time On ACT for exact details).

Students and parents may be unaware that there are many other accommodations as well. For example, some students are entitled to take the SAT or ACT over the span of several days. Other accommodations include, but are not limited to, a reader, a scribe, a tape recorder, extra/extended breaks, a distraction-free environment, a large print version, an alternative test format, etc. See SAT Accommodations and ACT Accommodations for specific guidelines.

The most important factors in obtaining accommodations for college admissions testing are:

  • A professionally-diagnosed, well-supported evaluation of a learning disability on file at school. For the SAT, the documentation date must fall within five years of the testing date for learning disabilities (12 months for psychiatric disabilities), and for the ACT, it must fall within three years of the testing date. Documentation from the evaluator must include test scores (sub-test scores included) as well as functional limitations caused by the disability.
  • Records indicating a history of accommodations use. If no prior accommodations have been provided, the evaluator(s) and/or qualified school officials must include a detailed explanation of why no accommodations were used in the past and why accommodations are needed at this time.
  • Timely submission of request and documentation. Since accommodations requests undergo thorough reviews, the earlier you submit, the better. For the PSAT, documentation should be submitted the spring before the test. If approved, the accommodations also carry over to the SAT. For the ACT, documentation must be received by the deadline determined for that year. For example, for the Spring 2012 ACT, the deadline was January 27, 2012. Check the internet for deadlines.

If your teen is denied accommodations, you may appeal. As a parent, this takes time and perseverance. To be a strong advocate for your child, start early, learn the documentation requirements, and get advice from someone who knows the process if you need it.

  • Requests for accommodations on the SAT may now be submitted online; ACT requests must still be submitted by mail.

For complete details on accommodations for college admissions testing, see:

Hints, Tips, & Strategies

Quick Tips for the SAT

  1. Although there is a penalty for wrong answers, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t guess. Mathematically, if you can eliminate just 1 of 5 choices for a question, it pays to guess.
  2. The more you write, the higher your score. Show calculations, underline important information, show process of elimination, and circle things you don’t understand.
  3. Writing section: Write an uncomplicated essay. Scorers aren’t looking for fancy vocabulary, just sound logic. State your position, support it with several examples, and end with a summarizing conclusion.

Quick Tips for the ACT

  1. Answer every single question, even if that means randomly guessing as the clock ticks down. Since there is no penalty for wrong answers, you can only increase your score.
  2. Multiply the score you want in each section by 5/3. This tells you how many questions you need to get right in that section. Always go for the easy questions to build your score.
  3. Math section: Always draw a picture for geometry questions, and remember that any pictures drawn for you may not be to scale.

Quick Tips for Either Test

  1. Learn the instructions for each section before test day. No need to waste time reading them that day.
  2. Mark all skipped questions in your booklet, so you can go back to them later.
  3. Statements containing absolute words such as always, never, all, none, are usually incorrect since most things in life have exceptions.
  4. Don’t change an answer unless you’re 100% positive you’ve made an error!

Finally, remember if you test so poorly that you think taking a college admissions test would be an exercise in futility, there is always the option to apply to the ever-growing list of colleges that don’t require SAT or ACT scores. To explore this list, see Fair Test.

Joan M. Azarva runs Conquer College with LD/ADD, (link to, a website for parents of college-bound students with learning differences. She also has a private practice in the Philadelphia suburbs that focuses on students making the transition from high school to college.

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