Standardized Tests

What Tests to Take?

  • PSAT/NMSQT. Before taking the SAT, most high schools will have you take the PSAT/NMSQT. This test is not usually looked at nor required by colleges but is excellent preparation for the SAT (it’s really a “mini SAT”). It’s also used to qualify students for National Merit Scholarships, so if you do well you could set yourself up for a scholarship!
  • SAT. The SAT is administered by the College Board and has three sections: Mathematics, Critical Reading, and Writing. Administered seven times a year, you have many opportunities to improve your score. This test is required for college admission by most colleges on the East and West coasts.
  • ACT. The ACT is administered by its own entity (ACT Inc.) and has four sections: Mathematics, English, Reading, and Science Reasoning. Many colleges in the Midwest, South, and Rocky Mountain region require the ACT. The ACT is offered four to six times a year, depending on your location.
  • SAT Subject Tests. These tests are not required by most colleges, but may be required by some degree programs. They tend to boost your college application profile and make you look more attractive as a candidate for admission. Formerly called the Achievement Tests and SAT II Subject Tests.
  • AP Exams. The AP (Advanced Placement) exams are offered to those who have taken or are currently taking Advanced Placement courses. Successful completion of these exams can lead to college credit towards your undergraduate degree. Whereas the SAT subject tests can add weight to your college application during the admissions process, the AP exams themselves are a minor factor in admissions though the taking of AP courses is seen as a definite plus by colleges and does factor towards admissions.

Most four-year and many two-year colleges require either the SAT or the ACT as part of your admissions package. Once you have an idea of where you might want to apply, make sure you take the correct tests. More and more colleges are accepting both, but again, make sure you know the requirements of the college where you’re applying!

How Colleges Use Admission Tests

The College Board has a helpful list of 8 things you should know about how standardized tests are used by colleges:

Basically, most four-year colleges require either the ACT or SAT for admission. These scores are important, but they are not the sole determining factor in admission. A good score may help you qualify for scholarships and determine your placement in college courses. Each college will most likely have its SAT or ACT score range posted on its website; these are guidelines only and often students with lower scores (and higher scores) are still admitted. Your performance on standardized tests is an important factor in your college admissions process, but it is not the determining factor that will lead to your acceptance or rejection.

Preparing for Tests

Here are some tips to prepare for the standardized tests (SAT, ACT, SAT Subjects):

  • Read. Reading more than anything else will prepare you for the Verbal / English sections of the SAT and ACT. Getting into the habit of reading will increase your vocabulary and broaden your knowledge of the English language. Read literature, current fiction, and non-fiction. Read daily.
  • Get plenty of rest. It sounds basic, but these are grueling tests that take hours and it’s important to be rested up. “Cramming” for these tests the night before is unproductive because they test accumulated knowledge and it will deplete your energy.
  • Take practice tests. This will help you get familiar with the format of the test and the types of questions you’ll encounter. It’s helpful to note that, on the SAT, correct answers get a point, blank answers get zero points, and incorrect answers get -.25 points. The general rule of thumb is that if you can eliminate at least one answer, you’re better off guessing (statistically speaking). The ACT does not penalize for wrong answers.
  • Read the directions and questions carefully. This seems like a no-brainer, but pacing yourself throughout the exam and making sure you have followed the directions and thoroughly read the questions before answering will improve your score.
  • Review the subjects. Make sure you know what subjects are being covered in the test and which areas of these subjects you’ll need to review. Practice tests and free booklets like The SAT Mathematics Review booklet can assist you in this process.

Prep Classes

Some students might feel that they need more help in preparing for the big standardized tests. Fear not! There is a network of SAT / ACT prep materials and classes. Here are some of the main resources for these services:

  • The College Board offers an official SAT online course, plus a comprehensive free website chock full of materials to help you review and prepare.
  • The Princeton Review offers online and in-person group courses and private tutoring to prepare for the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, AP Exams, and more.
  • Stanley Kaplan also offers online and in-person group courses and private tutoring for every college admissions test there is.
  • Peterson’s offers free test prep and informational services about all of the tests on their website.