Entrance exams like the SAT and ACT can be nerve-wracking experiences. Despite thorough preparation, even top students are prone to making avoidable mistakes. To help you steer clear of common pitfalls, we surveyed dozens of experts from the National Test Prep Association to compile a list of the top ten mistakes students make on test day.


1. Obsessing Over Tricky or Difficult Questions

“When taking the tests, spending the most time on the most time-consuming questions is a bad bargain. The smart move? Take a quick, educated guess on questions you find confusing. This way, you’ll have time to answer the easier questions. Once you’re at the end of the section, you’ll have time to revisit those hard questions.” – David Blobaum, Summit Prep

2. Departing From What You Learned and Practiced

“Mike Tyson, the boxing great, once said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That’s true for test-taking. The test day environment will challenge you, and you want to resist the urge to revert to your old habits the moment you feel the adrenaline kick in. Make your practice count by simulating the test day environment so all your hard work doesn’t go to waste the moment you reach a question that feels like a punch in the mouth.” – Jon Stein, Empowered SAT

3. Skimping on Sleep

“Adequate sleep is crucial for optimal test performance. Not getting a good night’s sleep can lead to increased stress levels, attention issues, and difficulty processing information quickly, all of which can impact a student’s test scores. You don’t want to throw away weeks or months of hard work in a single night! Always make sure to get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep to guarantee your best performance.” – Nikki Rooks, Rooks Tutoring

4. Worrying about Test Difficulty

“After every single exam, I hear “that was way harder than any of my practice tests”. That’s possible, but unlikely. What’s much more likely is that your perception of difficulty was off. Don’t let how challenging a test feels affect your performance. If it’s hard for you, it’s hard for others. But you’ve prepared more than them. Control what you can control and focus on what you know. If it actually was more challenging, the scale will be in your favor.” – Alex Pint, Pathway Prep

5. Looking for Patterns in the Answer Choices

“Some of my students get a bit superstitious when they spot a suspicious pattern on the scantron—“4 C’s in a row!” It can be unnerving when you spot a pattern or you haven’t picked a particular answer choice in a while. However, don’t let this skew your judgment. Focus solely on each question and the best answer for it.” – Paul Pscolka, Ivy Masters

6. Experimenting with Test Day “Rituals”

“I’ve heard students tell me how they plan to “crush” the exam. For example, one student told me he will give himself a pep talk in the mirror and then blast ‘hype’ music on the way to the exam. Unfortunately, that surge of adrenaline doesn’t make you any better at analytical reasoning or critical thinking, and it will lead to a crash. It’s always better to avoid rituals and follow your normal school day morning routine.” – Ari Freuman, Ivy Tutor

7. Trusting Unqualified Advice

“Whether through self-studying or working with a tutor, learn what works for you. Absolutely avoid last-minute advice. You can be influenced by online videos or high-scoring peers because they have earned higher scores, which means their strategies must be better than the ones you already cultivated…right? NO! Trying new strategies on test day is a formula for failure. Trust yourself and use what you have rehearsed.” – Adam Snoza, Aim High Test Prep

8. Rushing Through Sections

“Some students are determined to go fast—”Not running out of time today!”—but they only absorb a fraction of what they’d understand easily at a normal pace. As a result, these students finish much earlier, making many mistakes. Time is resource that should be optimized. Aim to finish each section with just a few minutes to spare.” – Mike McGibbon, MathChops

9. Leaning on ‘Tip & Tricks’

“There’s a common misconception that studying for tests is about learning “tips & tricks.” While tricks are useful in places, true success in the SAT comes from deep understanding and solid preparation. Success on this test comes from putting in the time and effort to truly understand how to solve the problems. This is the path that leads to a score worth bragging about. So, while strategies are fantastic, they are most effective when combined with a comprehensive understanding of the material – that’s the winning formula.” – Laura Whitmore, Strategic Test Prep

10. Going in cold:

“Parents often ask if their child should take an ACT or SAT without prep, either to secure a baseline score or because they heard someone aced the test without prep. The short answer: “No.” The longer answer: “Nooooooooo.” We’ve heard stories of these miraculous cold 1600s or 36s, but consider us highly skeptical. Students who achieve top scores have put in the work! The truth is, these tests are hard, and almost all students do better when they’re coached by experienced professionals.” – Rob Pollak, Pollak Tutors

The National Test Prep Association features over 200 test prep organizations and professionals. We foster a community of test prep experts who share ideas to deliver the most effective test prep available. For tailored guidance and expert advice, we invite you to browse our directory to find test local prep experts who meet the highest standards of excellence.

Contributing Members:

  1. Summit Prep: www.summitprep.com
  2. Empowered SAT: www.empoweredsat.com
  3. Rooks Tutoring: www.nikkirooks.com
  4. Pathway Prep: www.pathwayprepkc.com
  5. Ivy Masters Learning Center: www.ivymasters.com
  6. Ivy Tutor: www.ivytutor.com
  7. Aim High Test Prep: www.aimhightestprep.com
  8. Mathchops: www.mathchops.com
  9. Strategic Test Prep: www.strategictestprep.com
  10. Pollack Tutors: www.pollaktutors.com