How to Survive a Low Test Score (and Do Better Next Time)

So, you’ve taken the SAT or the ACT, and it didn’t go well?


You’re not sure what happened— you do great in school, you have a solid GPA and you were so certain that you’d ace your standardized test.

But the day came to take the test, and the vibe was all wrong. You didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, you arrived at the testing place just in the nick of time, and when you opened the book, the test was filled with topics you’ve never heard before in your life.

It was a disaster.

So, you weren’t shocked when you got the low test scores back, but you still thought you did better than that.

You’re not alone. So many students have similar stories where they're smart, bright students just like you— they’ve studied hard, they’ve always done their best, and then something like this happens and devastates them.

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But here’s the good news. Your low test score will not devastate you. It won’t ruin your chances of getting into your dream college. It’s not the end of the world. So, give yourself a break.

Try not to think of your test score as a reflection on you as a person.

Instead, think about it in this way: A low test score shows you that’s something’s not connecting. It may be that you’ve never learned some of the material or that you know the material but you’re allowing your nerves to get the best of you.

Whatever the case, I’ve got some pretty good solutions to help you do better next time. But, before I get started, I want you to remember this:

Don’t put too much stock into your first real SAT or ACT. Most students perform a lot better when they take the test again—in fact, it's a rare student who is "one and done"! So, no matter how low your test score was this time, you can still improve drastically. And you’ll get even better if you follow these tips below. Let’s get started

Tips for What to Do Better Next Time:

So, now that you’re not beating yourself up anymore over a low test score, let’s talk about strategies for making your next SAT or ACT that much better.

Schedule a Second Exam

Both SAT and ACT have multiple exam dates throughout the year. Specifically, the SAT is given in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June.

The ACT is given in September, October, December, February (all states except NY), April, and June.

Depending on how much time you have before you need to start applying for colleges, I recommend that you give yourself at least four weeks before taking a second test. If you've just finished your Junior year and are about to be a Senior, your next test would be the September ACT or the October SAT. These would both be in time for Early Decision applications, which means you have all summer to study and make next time count!

Create a Study Plan

Now that you’ve got a date to work towards, it’s time to create a solid study plan.

Your individual plan will vary, but here are a few best practices in creating the perfect study plan:

  • Study every day— treat your test prep like a homework assignment.
  • Study in short bursts. Don’t spend five hours a day on studying, but do spend at least one hour each day.
  • Choose a different topic to study each day of the week. For example: Study grammar on Tuesdays and Thursday and math on Mondays and Saturdays
  • Plan to take several practice tests

Take Practice Tests


Yes, "tests" with an "s" - meaning multiple tests.

In an ideal world, you should take up to four timed practice tests in the six weeks leading up to your actual test.

Why so many? Several reasons:

It helps you feel comfortable with the idea of taking a test. Do you know why many students fail to do well on their first SAT or ACT? Performance anxiety. Students come to the test with a ball of nerves, not sure what to expect. They build up way too much hope, fear, and energy on the idea of taking a test.

However, if you do a practice test over and over again, you reprogram how you feel about test taking. It becomes less intimidating because you’ve been there and done that.

It helps you feel comfortable with timing. Pacing yourself is huge when it comes to test taking—especially for the ACT! It’s important not to hurry through and miss answers in a rush against the clock. It’s equally important to finish ahead of the clock without wasting unnecessary time on difficult questions. The more you take the practice test, the more familiar you’ll be with how long you have to answer,

It helps you feel comfortable with the language and format of the test. You won’t feel as intimidated by the way questions are phrased if you spend a good amount of time with the practice material.

Here’s What to Do Right Before the Exam:

Get a Good Night of Sleep

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice, but it should be repeated because so few students actually do it. Your brain tempts you into thinking that you can cram in just a little bit more facts before the big day.

The truth is that last minute cramming doesn’t really help you much, especially if you haven’t studied it for weeks or months before hand.

Mostly, cramming and not sleeping just floods your body with stress hormones that can negatively affect your mental processes. This is definitely not good to do before a test.

The very best thing you can do is go to bed. You know what you know, and spending the night before a test trying to teach yourself something new or reinforce what you already know will backfire.

What doesn’t backfire is giving yourself enough rest so that you come to the test alert and with clarity. It won’t happen if you’re exhausted from a night spent cramming.

Eat Breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of a test day— and you definitely need to eat before you take your test. Your brain will respond better to carbs, and your body to protein. Make sure you have a balance of both.

Also, bring snacks! An apple or protein bar works wonders to keep focus for the last half of the test.

Wear the Right Clothes


Your standardize exam is definitely not a fashion show. You don’t have to impress anyone in that room but yourself.

So, don’t try to look cute. No one’s looking at you anyway, believe me— they’re stressed out about the test! If you come to the testing room in sweats with your hair pulled back in a ponytail and without a stitch of makeup on— perfect. And if you want to put a little lipgloss on, that’s fine, too.

My point is to be as physically comfortable as possible. No high heels, tight shoes, tight jeans, etc.

Do, however, bring layers (like your trusty hoodie) in the event they try to freeze you with A/C.

Arrive Early

Last but not least, be sure to get to your testing place with enough time to get settled in your environment. Don’t wait until the last minute to arrive and then rush to get yourself sorted.

Here's What to do During the Test:

Now, let’s briefly touch on some things to keep in mind when taking your test.

Stay Positive

Don’t allow your brain to think negatively. Banish thoughts like: “I can’t do this, I don’t what this means, I won’t do well on this test, etc.”

Instead, stay upbeat and focused. Repeat to yourself, “I’ve studied, I’m ready.”

Pace Yourself

While I don’t recommend looking up at the clock every five minutes, do keep an eye out and keep yourself on track. This is why it’s important to prep with timed practice tests— you can train yourself to be on time.

Always Look at All of the Choices

You may think you know the answer until you see another, better answer. So, be sure that you’ve looked through each answer before making your decision.

Get rid of the choices that you know are wrong. That will make it easier to decide between the choices you have left.

Skip a Question When you Get Stuck

Sometimes, a question is so off-the-wall and unfamiliar that you’ve got to keep going. You can’t waste any more time. Come back if you have the time at the end of the test.

Guess at Questions You Do Not Know

Yeah, so that question that you skipped over because you didn’t understand— if you come back and still don’t understand it, make an educated guess (unless you're taking the SAT 2 Subject Tests and you'll get penalized for wrong answers). Who knows— you have a 20-25% chance of guessing correctly!

Be Decisive

Don’t second-guess yourself. If you find yourself going back and forth between two answer choices, go with the one you initially gravitated towards. Your gut instinct is usually right, and sometimes that’s the best strategy when you’re unsure. Then MOVE ON.

Review Your Answers

Once you’ve completed the test, but you still have time to spare— don’t just twiddle your thumbs! Look back over your answers. Double check to ensure that you’ve filled in the right answer.

Final Thoughts

You may have done poorly in your first ACT or SAT, but that’s yesterday’s news. With the right strategies, you will do a lot better on your next exam. It’s practically guaranteed. After all, you continue to learn and grow, but the test stays at the same difficulty level! So, take a deep breath, study hard, and say to yourself, “I’ve got this”, because you totally do. Good luck!