College applications are a complex and nuanced process–and one of the biggest factors of a successful application in today’s college ecosystem is standardized test scores. Unfortunately, these tests can also be very stressful for students, many of whom find it difficult to find time to study on top of their existing academic and extracurricular responsibilities.
It’s important for students to understand they are more than a number: test scores do not singlehandedly represent their talents, aptitudes, and interests. So as your students begin mapping their post-graduation path, here are some great tips and resources from our college experts on how to make standardized testing as straightforward and stress-free as possible.
Test-taking tips for students
What tests should I take?
The right tests for you will depend on the type and location of the colleges you’re applying to. Usually, you don’t have to take both the ACT and the SAT–but it might be a good idea to take practice tests for both, see which you score better on, and focus on that one. Here’s a quick breakdown of the major tests:
The ACT is the most common standardized test for schools in the Midwest and South. It covers five subject areas: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing (although Writing is optional). The number of states that administer the ACT doubled in the last few years: now, more than 20 states either require that every junior take the test or offer it as a free option for students who wish to take it.
Scores on the ACT range from 1 (lowest) to 36 (highest). You’ll receive a composite score, as well as individual subject scores. The test takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete, or 3 hours and 40 minutes with the optional Writing section.
The SAT is more common for coastal schools. The test covers Reading, Writing, Language, and Math. It takes 3 hours (the optional Essay section was discontinued in 2021). Test-takers get 2 scores: an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score (commonly called the “English” portion), and a Math score. Section scores range from 200 to 800, and the composite score is calculated by adding the two section scores together.
Many high school sophomores or juniors also take the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), also called the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. This is the first step in the National Merit process and can give students practice with the format of the test.
ACT vs. SAT
Most high schools require or strongly encourage their students to take one of the two tests their junior year. There are a couple of key factors that differentiate the ACT from the SAT.
- The ACT is generally tied more closely to college prep and secondary education curricula, compared to the SAT, which is more tied to general aptitude.
- There are no trick questions on the ACT, but there are on the SAT.
- If you take the ACT multiple times, you can choose which scores to report. The SAT reports them all.
You can always take both tests and see which one you do better on. Or, your school counselor can help you decide which to prioritize based on your college interest list.
AP exams are designed to test your mastery of a specific AP course–although, you can take the exam without actually enrolling in the course. Different high schools offer different AP courses, and they are generally rigorous and structured similarly to college courses. Scores range from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Many colleges will accept high AP scores as college credit, but the specific score thresholds vary from school to school.
Should I pay for a prep course?
There are plenty of study and test prep options available to you for any standardized test. Check with your counselor–your school might offer test prep courses for free. Or, some students pay money for external prep courses, or even private tutors. This can get expensive, so consult with your parents and counselors before paying a lot of money.
You can always check out test prep books from your local public or school library. Or, find free online practice tests like these.
Can I qualify for accommodations or fee waivers?
If you have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan, you may be able to get accommodations to help with standardized tests, but you’ll have to apply for them in advance and be approved by the testing agency. This process can take several weeks–so plan ahead, and connect with your counselor and IES provider as soon as possible. Juniors, do this during January or February of your spring semester. Seniors, do this as early as you can in the fall of your senior year.
Most high schools offer at least one free ACT or SAT for their students. For AP tests, or retaking the ACT or SAT, you can apply for fee waivers. Eligibility information has already been sent to your school, but here are some helpful links:
1. No matter what test you decide to take, familiarize yourself with the structure of the exam and the question formats ahead of time. That way, you can focus just on content when the actual day arrives.
2. Find out if there’s a score penalty for wrong answers, so you know whether to guess or skip the questions you don’t know.
3. Get a good night’s sleep before the test and eat a low-sugar, high-protein breakfast.
4. For multiple choice questions, there are a few strategies that can help you eliminate answers:
- Look for similar words in the question and answer
- Look for the longest and most specific answer
- Numbers in the middle range are usually correct
- Research shows the most common answer is “C”, followed by “B”
- “None of the above” is rarely correct
- “All of the above” is often correct when the answer choices are very specific
- 100% qualifiers (statements with “always,” “never,” “none,” etc.) are rarely correct
5. When taking practice tests, try to simulate the real testing conditions–time of day, clothing, location, etc. Take the full practice test in a single block of time, rather than spreading it out over multiple days, if you can.
Timeline and checklist
- Take PSAT.
- Research AP courses offered by your school and add them to your graduation plan.
- Research colleges you may be interested in, and find out which standardized tests they prefer. Make a list of average applicant scores.
- Begin studying for the ACT or SAT. Consult with your counselor to find cost-effective prep materials.
- Take the SAT or ACT.
- Take exams for any AP courses you enrolled in.
- Retake ACT or SAT, if desired. Make sure you complete your testing by winter break!
- Send scores directly to colleges. ACT or SAT will provide more information about how to do this and any associated fees.
- Take any remaining AP exams.
- Send scores directly to your chosen college. Be sure to clarify what kind of college credit you may receive!
These are general guidelines that might help you as you navigate standardized testing and college prep. Different high schools may have their own policies and timelines–so be sure to stay in close contact with your counselor and determine the plan that works best for you.
And remember, at the end of the day, your college application is far more than a single number. Standardized tests can be scary and stressful, but admissions representatives understand that there are many other factors that contribute to post-secondary success. So study, prepare, but don’t panic!