Test taking with ADHD

ADHD hurting your test performance? Whether you’re talking about tests in school, or standardized tests, there are proven steps you can take to drastically improve your scores. The first thing you should know is that ADHD people suffer in great numbers from something scientists call a Positive Illusory Bias. What this means is that ADHDers think they’ve mastered material when in reality they have not.<--break->It is important as part of test-taking to begin with test preparation because any of the strategies recommended for during the test, will depend upon what you’ve done beforehand. What I see most often in my ADHD coaching practice is that a large percentage of test-taking issues derive from two factors: students have not adequately prepared, but believe they have, and secondly, they have not taken practice tests or had someone else quiz them. Once they get these two steps handled, it is important to understand how to cultivate a positive mindset during the test. Here are five actions to START getting A’s. [START is an acronym for these five recommendations]


Cartoon with check mark

  • start early
  • trust but verify
  • ask the teacher
  • remember to take breaks
  • take a deep breath

Cartoon with x mark

  • wait until the last minute
  • stress out
  • do it alone
  • give up
  • just try one thing

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do start early

Most of us with ADHD are great at studying in short bursts. I call us “sprint studiers”. But, the trouble is that we like to wait until the last minute to start, which is usually not enough time for the information to sink in. Once you start a unit or chapter, study it that day for 7-10 minutes and repeat with a timer everyday until the test. For standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT, take a prep course at least a few months before you’re scheduled to taken them. Get books and take practice tests yourself at least once a week.

Do trust but verify

Sure you have to trust and believe yourself, but if you, like me, are an ADHDer, you’ve got to find a way to get outside verification. Quizlet.com, classzone.com, and Edhelper.com are three of the thousands of great websites that can assist you. Use the Internet to help pack power into your studying and to make sure that when you think you know, you really do. With standardized tests, there are plenty of online options as well as books that allow you to test yourself and determine your weak areas. If you identify some weaknesses, it might be time to find a tutor in your area. ADHD people are prone to something called the Positive Illusory Bias. We think we have mastered material long before we actually have. Are you one of those ADHDers who goes into a test thinking you’re going to do well and then does poorly a lot of the time? If so, this step is particularly important for you. With the ACT and SAT, I recommend you plan on taking these standardized tests at least 3 times. Your highest score is the one that gets reported.

Do ask the teacher

Many ADHDers study for a long time and quite thoroughly, only to sit down for the test and realize they did not study all the right material. For this reason, make an appointment to talk to the teacher and get guidance on what is most important, and also what information you will not need to know. This helps make studying incredibly efficient. During a test, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. With standardized tests, the practice booklets are easily available. You should know the test format backwards and forwards by the time you take it for real.

Do remember to take breaks

Again, study in short bursts and time yourself for 10, 15, maybe even 30 minutes if you can really make it that long. Use a timer. When it goes off, take a break and do something fun. Check your Facebook, play a video game, or better yet, exercise. Physical activity gets the brain working much more efficiently. You have to give yourself small rewards to work toward. Pause between sections of a test, even if just for a few seconds, to gather your thoughts. With standardized test practice, get a booklet and break each section up into manageable chunks, perhaps 10-15 problems at a time. I recommend increasing the number of problems you do at one sitting over time. The first week you might do 15, and the second week you can do 16 or 17. Slowly increasing the number of problems you do per session will slowly and naturally increase your test-taking stamina.

Do take a deep breath

When you’re sitting in the class or testing center ready to take a test, take a few seconds to breathe deeply and relax to get yourself mentally prepared. If you get stressed or anxious during the test, close your eyes and breath slowly to let your mind wander back to times when you studied. This will help remind yourself that you did prepare and you do know the information. It will come to you if you’re patient. Talk to yourself and tell yourself positive statements: “You know this. Just relax and the answer WILL come.” You have to learn to believe in yourself. Remember, the ACT and SAT are less about your intelligence, and more about how well you have prepared.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not wait until the last minute

When you procrastinate and end up cramming, you will likely not remember as much information, and the information will not absorb into your long-term memory. This means that you will have to totally re-learn the information when your mid-terms and finals come around. On the test day, try to review the material before class. When you do this, relax. Trust that you have prepared.

Do not stress out

Learn your body’s stress triggers. Do you get tension in the forehead? Tension in the abdomen? Shoulders? Do your hands perspire? When you are taking the test and these danger signs start to occur, take a deep breath and let your mind focus on all the studying and preparation you did.

Do not do it alone

People process information in different ways. Find a study buddy or study group so that you can help each other. Someone else may be better at some things, while you are better at others. You may need to go in for extra help from the teacher.

Do not give up

If you’ve tried different strategies, but aren’t still getting the grades you want, keep at it. Sometimes it can take several months to turn the situation around. I have had students in my practice go from all failing grades to all A’s. It takes time and a willingness to try different approaches.

Do not just try one thing

You have to be willing to try a whole array of strategies. What works in one class may not work in another. It may be that math is the most troublesome subject. Most teachers will let you take tests in another room, especially if test anxiety seems to be the problem. You may need to study differently for different classes.


Test taking, above all else, requires extensive preparation and a willingness to try new strategies. Nothing calms anxiety more than a thorough knowledge of the material. When you’re taking a test, understand when you’re starting to get stressed and actively work to calm yourself down. By taking a proactive mindset, you will succeed. It may take a while, but I can assure you that success is in your reach if you just stick to a program and try as many different strategies as possible. Practice. Practice. Practice.

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