ACT, SAT, PSAT, APs… the list of capitalized letters seems to be endless. Just keeping up with the differences between the tests, why each is important, and registration and test dates is a major stressor by itself. However, it’s important to understand what each standardized test is, which colleges ask for them, and how to prepare for each exam. Once you get a better grasp on how to prepare for each standardized test, your college admissions journey will be much easier. Keep reading for AdmissionsMom’s advice on college admissions standardized tests.
The SAT is the oldest college entrance exam and is administered each year by the CollegeBoard. There are seven opportunities each year to take the SAT. The SAT has two big sections – Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math. You can earn a scaled score of between 200 and 800 points on each section, for a possible total of 1600 points. Most, but not all, undergraduate college admissions offices require either an SAT or ACT score to apply. You should plan on taking either the ACT or SAT, if not both. It is a good idea to plan on taking the SAT during your junior year of high school, preferably even in the fall. This allows plenty of time for you to retake the test. Most colleges will take your highest score, or even “super-score” your scores by taking the highest you score on each section across different test dates. While SAT and ACT scores are not the be all and end all in determining if you are admitted to a school, they will give you a better idea of what your chances are of getting in to a school and which schools are surefire safeties or lottery schools.
The ACT is a similar test to the SAT. Each college that requires SAT scores will also accept your ACT scores if you would rather submit them instead. There are several fundamental differences between the two tests. The ACT is graded from 1-36 not 400-1600. The ACT is the same length of time as the SAT but has four sections: Math, Reading, Writing, and Science instead of two. The best way to determine which test is right for you is to take a practice test of both and see which exam feels most comfortable. Both the ACT and SAT websites offer free practice exams. Many students opt to take both exams, but if you score well on your favorite test first, or simply find that one or the other of the tests feels better, it may not make sense to take the other test.
The Preliminary SATs are administered in each high school in the United States during the fall of junior year. Colleges do NOT ask for PSAT scores and in most cases your scores will have no impact on whether or not you are admitted into a university. There is no reason a college or university will see your PSAT scores unless you want them to. However, there are many scholarship opportunities connected to high PSAT scores. Additionally, some schools offer free admission to National Merit Scholars, the program connected to students with high PSAT scores. If you have time and opportunity to study for the PSATs, it may be in your interest to do so.
SAT Subject Tests
SAT subject tests are another subset of tests offered by the College Board. These tests, examine your knowledge in a specific subject and are graded from 200-800. Here is the complete list of the different types of SAT subject tests you can take. These tests are generally “recommended” (read required) by highly selective universities. While there are many different subject tests offered, most colleges that require them will only ask for you to submit scores in two subjects. A very few like to see three. A good idea is to take the subject tests when the material is fresh your mind. For example, if you are taking a high-level spanish course in your sophomore year, it is a good idea to take the SAT Spanish Subject test at the end of your sophomore year. Many students will take SAT Bio at the end of their freshman year and World History at the end of the sophomore year if their course plan allows this. Not every college requires you to submit a subject test, but having two good scores by the end of your junior year will best prepare you to apply to schools during your senior fall. Essentially, only skip the SAT Subject tests if you know that you will not be to applying to any schools that require them. But, really, how can you KNOW for sure what you are going to want to do, so I suggest taking them, so future you won’t be held back.
AP and IB Tests
Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses may be available to you based on where you attend high school. If your school doesn’t offer AP or IB courses, no worries. College admissions officers understand the curriculum offerings at different high schools and they evaluate your application based on the courses offered at your high school. If your school does offer AP and IB courses, it’s a good idea to take a handful of these tests in subjects you are proficient in. Talk to your guidance counselor and teachers about how many AP and IB courses are a comfortable amount for you before your course load becomes overwhelming. Besides showing up nicely on your transcript, a high score on these exams may give you college credit for wherever you decide to go to college.
As always, a key part of your college admissions journey is planning ahead. Making a schedule to study for tests, and figuring out which exams you do and do not have to take is a critical part of applying for college. Be sure to prepare well ahead of time so you can score well and so that if you need any additional accommodations or assistance paying for test fees, you can get the help you need. The College Board, ACT, and colleges are generally receptive if you have questions or worries about standardized tests. Also, keep in mind that colleges recognize that you are more than your test scores and many are becoming test-optional; you can find a list of test optional schools here at fairtest.org. Your high school guidance or college admissions counselors are also a great resource. Lastly, AdmissionsMom is always available via email or DM on social media sites.