All of the Tests! How to Prepare for the ACT, SAT, and More

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Freelance Writer

This standardized test guide covers prepping for the ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and more. It's basically everything you need to know about any test that can help you get into college. (You're welcome.) So let's get started.

True or false: the purpose of standardized tests is to cause stress, tears, and heartache for high school students everywhere.

If you’re tempted to answer this question with “true,” you’re not alone. For anyone planning to attend college, the prospect of taking the ACT, SAT, or other such exams is usually daunting. But it can be helpful to realize these tests are not really the enemy. On the positive side, they give you a chance to demonstrate your college readiness. And the results can make the difference in getting admitted to your top-choice school, winning a scholarship, or other great things. It can also be reassuring to know that an increasing number of colleges and universities now consider standardized tests an optional part of the application process—but more on that in a moment.

This standardized test guide covers the following topics:

  • SAT overview
  • ACT overview
  • SAT vs. ACT
  • AP and IB exams
  • Exams for international students
  • The no-test option
  • How to prepare for standardized tests
  • Retaking standardized tests
  • Grad school exams
  • Top tips for standardized test success

To help you negotiate the challenging world of standardized tests, here are some key facts about the exams, along with essential tips for doing well when you take them.

SAT overview

The basics

More than 1.5 million students take the SAT every year. And for many colleges and universities, the scores earned on the exam are a major factor in deciding whether a student is admitted.

SAT questions draw heavily on students’ critical-thinking and reasoning skills, as well as practical “real-world” applications of their knowledge. This combination of subjects on the SAT is designed to assess students’ college preparedness on a uniform, national scale. The optional essay offers the chance to demonstrate your writing skills. There are 154 questions, and the test lasts three hours without the essay (or three hours and 50 minutes with the essay).

One last thing: in case you haven’t heard, in 2016 the College Board introduced a revised version of the SAT, so you will probably see references to “the new SAT” to distinguish it from the previous version. Any general advice you may encounter from before that time may still be useful, but for specifics, be sure your test-prep resources are up-to-date!

Sections and topics covered

Administered by the College Board, the SAT consists of three tests: Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. (They’re also divided into two sections for scoring purposes: Math, and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. Confusing, we know.)

  • The SAT Reading test focuses on—not so surprisingly—reading! It also tests your understanding of the given information. It consists of multiple-choice questions based on info you read while taking the exam, consisting of written passages, as well as tables, graphs, or charts. Material includes topics from literature, historical documents or other texts, science, and a social science such as economics or psychology.
  • The SAT Writing and Language test involves reading passages, finding weaknesses or mistakes, and fixing them.
  • With the SAT Math test, there are two portions: one that allows the use of a calculator and one that does not. Some math questions are multiple choice, while others involve filling in a grid with a specific answer. The questions cover algebra, problem-solving and data analysis, and manipulation of complex equations.

The SAT also has an “optional” essay section, where you’re given a passage to read and then need to explain strategies the author used to make a persuasive argument. However, some colleges require the essay from their applicants. You can potentially avoid completing the essay part of the SAT if you’re absolutely certain all of the colleges you’re applying to do not require it. However, if you’re not sure about your college choice—and few students are—it may be best to tackle the essay just in case.

Scoring

Cumulative SAT scores range from 400–1600, with each section worth up to 800 points. The essay is scored separately based on three factors: reading, analysis, and writing. You can score 2 to 8 points in each of those areas. While statistics vary over time, average scores hover a little above 1000.

An important thing to note about the SAT and scoring: there is no penalty for wrong answers. (This is a relatively new thing too, so don’t be alarmed if well-meaning people and outdated websites tell you differently.) So it's okay to guess if you’re unsure about the best response. And if you find yourself running out of time, it’s better to answer the remaining questions in a hurry than to leave any of them unanswered.

ACT overview

The basics

The ACT is similar in many ways to the SAT—it too is designed to assess knowledge you’ve gained through your high school studies and your overall college readiness. But there are several differences.

The ACT lasts just under three hours (175 minutes) without the optional essay; add another 40 minutes if you plan on taking the Writing section. 

Sections and topics covered

The ACT consists of multiple-choice tests in English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. An optional essay/Writing section is also offered to measure basic writing skills. But, again, much like the SAT, it may be in your best interest to complete the Writing section, just in case any of your potential colleges require it for admission.

The English section covers writing and language skills, while the Math section assesses skills that students have acquired in courses up to the beginning of 12th grade. The focus of the Reading portion is comprehension, while the Science area covers analytical and problem-solving skills needed in biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth/space sciences. 

Scoring

The ACT is scored differently than the SAT. You can earn from 1 to 36 points for each of four sections. These scores are then averaged to come up with a composite score for the entire exam. There’s no penalty for incorrect answers, so it’s best to answer every question.

The average ACT score is about 20. You can find out how any given score compares to national ranks on the ACT website.

SAT vs. ACT

So, should you take the ACT or SAT?

“With recent changes, the ACT and SAT are much more similar than they used to be,” says Brian Stewart, President of BWS Education Consulting and author of several test prep books. “Both the ACT and SAT test English grammar, mathematics up through trigonometry, and reading comprehension.” The ACT has also grown increasingly popular, and recently more students took this exam than the SAT.

Stewart says the two major differences are that the ACT has a Science section while the SAT does not, and the ACT might be more challenging to finish within the given amount of time. The SAT also has a Math section you cannot use a calculator on.

As for which test is best for you, it really depends on your personal preferences. Colleges, universities, and scholarship providers generally will not have a preference between the SAT and ACT.

One of the best ways to decide which test is right for you is to take a practice version of both. You can do this on your own using one of the many test prep books, classes, or websites available, often for free or low costs. If you time and score yourself as true to the real thing as you can, you should get a sense of which test you’ll score higher on, as well as which one just feels better to you. High school counselors, state education agencies, and colleges you’re considering are also good resources if you have questions about this choice.

AP and IB exams

Advanced Placement (AP) exams are based on corresponding high school courses that are taught at the college level. Students who complete AP courses and then perform well on these nationally administered exams may be able to use the results to earn college credits and/or substitute college courses. For example, say you take AP US History at your high school, then take the AP exam and get a good score. You may be able to test out of required introductory US History courses at many colleges and universities.

There are some real advantages to taking AP tests. It costs $93 for each AP exam ($123 if you’re an international student). This is a small fraction of the tuition typically charged for the equivalent course at the college level! If the exam credit can be applied toward your degree requirements, you can potentially save hundreds or even thousands of dollars by completing one or more AP courses and doing well on the exam. You may also appreciate skipping college courses you’ve essentially already completed in high school.

However, before you get excited about testing out of all your freshman year gen eds, keep in mind that colleges vary in how they value AP exam results. AP scores range from 1 to 5, and some schools will only accept a score of 4 or 5 for credit. So even if you earn a 3, which is a fair score, you may not be given the equivalent credit at your college. And some prestigious colleges (or some departments within those schools) do not accept any AP scores as a substitute for any of their courses. But these schools are in the minority, and for many students, AP is a great path to success.

AP tests are available in more than 30 subjects, including music theory, English literature and composition, world history, the physical sciences, and several languages. The courses and tests available to you depend on the specific offerings of your high school.

A somewhat similar program is the challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. IB courses are offered at more than 4,000 schools around the world, with instruction in three different languages. Because courses are taught at a college level, they may lead to advanced standing and/or earn equivalent credit in college, much like AP tests. IB exams are taken after course completion, and scores range from 1 to 7.

If you have questions about these exams or how they might be used at your college, talk to your high school guidance counselor, AP or IB teachers, and/or admission representatives at your intended college(s).

Exams for international students

Some tests are designed specifically to measure students’ English language and communication skills. They are important gateways for international students who wish to study in the United States or other countries where English is the primary language. Perhaps the best known of these exams is the TOEFL, which is recognized by over 9,000 colleges, universities, and other organizations in more than 130 countries. They use TOEFL results to measure students’ ability to use and understand English at the collegiate level.

Students planning to take the TOEFL have plenty of scheduling options, since more than 50 test dates are held yearly. If after taking the test you would like a chance to earn a higher score, there is no limit on retakes, as long as you wait 12 days between test sessions.

Other exams also assess English skills. One is the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic), offered in some 200 locations around the world. Another is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). It’s available at more than 1,100 locations, with nearly 50 exam dates every year.

The no-test option and criticism of standardized tests

What if you choose not to take the SAT or ACT at all? Does that mean you can’t attend college? Fortunately for those interested in such a possibility, that’s not necessarily the case.

“Many high school students are surprised to discover that admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT are not required at many US colleges and universities and that the number of test-optional schools is growing rapidly,” says Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director for FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

The SAT and ACT are not universally admired. Some experts feel the tests are not always accurate in determining whether a student is ready for college. They believe that a test designed to rank student performance has inherent technical flaws. Critics also complain about a perceived lack of fairness. For example, they point out that the tests favor students who can read and think quickly, or simply have good time management skills. Advocates of such exams, on the other hand, respond that standardized tests are only one of several factors considered by colleges in admitting students, and that factors such as grades, class rank, activities, and admission essays provide balance to the admission process.

Currently, more than 950 accredited colleges and universities across the country admit students without requiring SAT or ACT scores, including Hampshire College, Wake Forest University, College of the Holy Cross, Washington State University, and Hofstra University. In some cases, individual schools describe themselves as “test optional” or “text flexible.” But it’s important to note that test-optional admission practices vary a lot from school to school. For example, some schools ask for test scores but use them exclusively to place students in the right college courses. Other colleges might require standardized test scores if GPA standards aren’t met. Or they might require scores only for out-of-state students.

If test-optional admission appeals to you, check out the searchable database of schools that don’t require test scores at fairtest.org. If you’re not sure about a school’s policies, check out their website or give the admission office a quick call.

Most two-year colleges also admit students without standardized test scores. Typically community, junior, and technical colleges practice open admission, meaning that any students who can benefit from instruction may attend. The angle here is if you decide to enroll at a two-year college, you can eventually transfer to a four-year school, even if it requires test scores for incoming freshmen. In most cases, the credits you transfer to a four-year school show that you’re academically prepared to move on, and the lack of test scores is not an issue.

How to prepare for standardized tests

Getting ready for standardized admission tests may be easier than you think. Even for first-time test takers, it’s helpful to remember that, in a broad sense, this isn’t entirely new territory. After all, you have years of experience taking tests, and the material covered should stick pretty closely to what you’ve already been studying in high school (at least in theory…).

Of course, college entrance exams and other tests structured for a national or international pool of students represent a whole new challenge. And without a doubt, it can be stressful knowing the results may have a big impact on your future. But at the same time, it can be helpful to remember that you have at least some experience—and you can further prepare by following the tips below.

How do you test best?

Consider your personal experience with test taking in general: Do your test scores typically provide an accurate snapshot of your knowledge level, or do you feel you often know more about the subject than your scores reflect? Do you get exceptionally nervous about taking exams? Run out of time before completing them? Do well with some test formats but poorly with others? Once you ask yourself such questions, you can then analyze your strengths and weaknesses, and develop an action plan for addressing them whether on your own or with a guidance counselor, tutor, parent, or mentor.

Apps and websites

There are tons of mobile apps and websites providing myriad test-prep opportunities and resources, many of them free! Just one of many examples, the College Board offers a free “Daily Practice for the SAT” app. Once you download it from the App Store or Google Play, you’ll receive a daily question related to the Math, Writing and Language, or Reading sections of the SAT. But there are many other practice apps available from other companies.

For more comprehensive test prep, Khan Academy offers full-length practice SATs you can take for free online or print out to complete on paper. You can also access thousands of individual practice questions, check out video lessons, and review helpful test-taking tips. The ACT offers several fee-based test prep options, but you can get free practice ACTs at many of the sites below.

Some of our favorite free test-prep websites include freetestprep.com and test-guide.com.

Test-prep books

A long-standing and effective approach for many students has been using old-fashioned test-prep books. They are affordable (most can be found for less than $20 online) and typically filled with helpful information, including sample questions if not full tests.

Examples include:

  • Official SAT Study Guide, from the College Board
  • The Official ACT Prep Guide, from ACT
  • Cracking the SAT Premium Edition with 7 Practice Tests, published by The Princeton Review
  • The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, from Educational Testing Service

Other resources

Beyond books, apps, and websites, several companies offer tools like old-fashioned flash cards that can be great for helping you memorize key facts. For example, McGraw-Hill offers a pack of cards featuring 500 terms that often appear on the SAT, with definitions for each term supplemented by an example of its use in a sentence. A similar set of flash cards is available from Barron’s. Other flash cards cover topics such as AP course subjects.

Stewart notes that underutilized test-prep resources include the test information release offered through the ACT and the question-and-answer service available through the SAT. “For about half of the test dates, you can order a copy of your test booklet, the correct answers, and your answers,” he says. “This is a fantastic diagnostic tool for future test dates.”

Whatever medium works best for you, the real key is simply putting in the time. “It’s no secret that preparation is key to doing well on any standardized test,” says Roxanna Cruz, Associate Vice President for Recruitment and Admissions at Barry University. “The more comfortable you are with the material, the better you will feel on the day of the test.”

But don’t go thinking you need to spend a lot of money preparing for the ACT or SAT. In fact, Schaeffer cautions against paying too much for test-prep resources. “Only if your family has the financial resources, consider more expensive options such as test-prep companies and tutors,” he says. “These can cost from several hundred to many thousands of dollars.” Your high school, town library, and/or other local nonprofit organizations may also offer free or low-cost test-prep classes, information nights, or other tools.

Retaking standardized tests

So, you took the SAT, ACT, or perhaps another standardized test and didn’t do quite as well as you would’ve liked. Should you retake the exam?

Opinions vary on whether it’s wise to take the SAT or ACT more than once. Depending on your initial score and ultimate goals, a retake may not worth the time and trouble. In fact, the better your score the first time around, the less likely you are to raise it with a retake.

However, some experts advise at least one retake. Studies have shown that most students do better with a second effort, especially after some time and additional focused test prep.

In short, if your initial score on the ACT or SAT is high enough to meet your individual goals (like the score cutoff for a college or scholarship), once may be enough. But if you’re aiming to get into a college where every point counts, retaking exams can be beneficial. Just be smart about it: come up with a strategic study plan based on your initial test results, and don’t retake the test a dozen times!

“If you really need a higher score to be more competitive for admissions or financial aid, look first at free or low-cost books and computer test-prep programs,” Schaeffer says. “Students who work their way through the lessons and practice exams in these publications will be much better prepared for the actual exams.”

Grad school exams

An added advantage of these tests is the experience they provide in the general practice of taking exams. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it!), the SAT is just one in a long line of standardized exams you might find yourself taking in your life. For example, if you want to go beyond the bachelor’s and pursue a master’s, doctorate, or other advanced degree, chances are you’ll need to take the GRE (a general test assessing readiness for graduate studies) or the GMAT (for business-related programs). Hope to study law? If so, you’ll need to take the LSAT, required by most law schools. Or you may encounter other exams covering specific areas.

Still other exams provide alternative approaches for gaining college credit, such as CLEP (College Level Examination Program). It’s targeted primarily at adults, but it may be of interest to high school or college students who master college-level material outside of the official college environment. With CLEP, you can take any of 33 exams and upon achieving specific scores, earn college credits at one of nearly 3,000 colleges and universities.

In preparing for such exams, the same prep strategies that worked for your undergrad exams earlier can be helpful. The experience you gained with the ACT, SAT, or other admission-related exams may serve you well in the future.

Bottom line: it’s up to you to seize the opportunity presented by standardized tests. Be sure to make the most of them!

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