Special Report: Test Stress

LAWTON Okla_ Many high school seniors are in full college mode, finding a school they like and a program they're interested in, all in a place they are comfortable living for four or more years.

You have to be accepted first, though, and the competition is certainly fierce. High school students are becoming more and more consumed by test stress. It's no secret the college admissions process can be stressful for students, especially the dreaded SATs and ACTs. These days, the pressure to perform is greater than ever, and some students are going to extremes to increase their test scores. When it came to raising her test scores on the SAT, Sarah Rodeo was determined to do whatever it took.

"I drilled the math all through the summer from my junior to my senior year," Sarah said. "In the fall, I was still drilling, still taking practice SATs every weekend."

Test prep took over her life, leaving her so stressed she even sought therapy.

"I was feeling a horrible amount of anxiety about the SAT math section," Sarah said. "I was pretty miserable. I missed so many things with friends."

Lisa Sohmer is a director of college counseling and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. She said pressure to prep is great than ever.

"Over time, it's gotten bigger," Sohmer said. Students a few years ago talked about doing test prep in the 11th grade, starting in the 10 grade. Now, people are talking about having test prep courses for students in the ninth grade."

For some, excessive prep can leave little time for anything else.

"My best friend has given up swimming," 12th Grader Sheila Kahn said. "She's given up hanging out with us, just so she can prep for the SAT."

"If a student said, 'I can't play basketball, because I have to test prep' or 'I can't be a member of the student government anymore, because I have to work on my test prep', then that's too much," Sohmer said.

Is all the prep even worth it? Admissions Officer and College Coach Elizabeth Heaton said schools look for applicants within a certain school range, then focus on the overall student.

"The idea that test scores kind of make you stand out, I think, is a little bit of a false one," Heaton said. "What is most important is what students are doing outside the classroom, doing well in their courses, being interesting people who have things they enjoy doing."

It's a strategy that probably won't give you an advantage, according to Heaton: taking both the ACT and SAT over and over.

"Colleges have no preference of one over the other," Heaton said. "They really just want to see the best score that the student can get."

However, trying both tests may not be a bad thing.

"They ask questions in a different way, and they gauge success differently," Heaton said. "There are going to be students whose SAT and ACT scores can be dramatically different."

Sarah, who is now a freshman in college, ended up taking the SAT three times, and her math score increased by 70 points. As for whether the extra effort was worth it, she said she's still undecided.

"I think I over did it," Sarah said. "I think I drilled myself too much. I stressed myself out too much."

Of course, some students are just simply not good test takers. No matter how much they might prep, they still do not perform as well as they would like. Many schools know this, which is why there is a growing number of colleges and universities that are becoming "test optional" and will still consider students who don't submit scores.

You can find a list of those "test optional" schools here.