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College Admission Tests: Everything You Need to Know

Get ready to have your mind blown by acronyms. This is everything you need to know about standardized tests related to college admission.

Before you start worrying that your whole future depends upon the results of a single test—don’t! Though admission counselors often value test results highly when reviewing applications, they also know they’re just one facet of you as an applicant. Your GPA, essay, recommendations, and activities, among other things, give a more complete picture of you as a potential student, making it that much more important that you take the time to craft a thoughtful application. Also, though standardized tests were developed as a way of measuring student preparedness amongst widely differing high school curricula, they continue to evolve (lookin’ at you, SAT), and the importance of test results in admission varies from school to school. In fact, at some colleges, tests hardly matter at all (see “Test optional”)!

What you should worry about is when, where, how, and why to take these tests. Here we give you a glimpse at general tests and terms—but there is a lot more to them! Fortunately, you have tons of free resources available to you, whether through your library or guidance counselor or your own online research. Be sure to refer to the testing agencies’ websites, as well as the Test Prep section of our sister site, CollegeXpress.com! This is just an introduction to common testing language. For a more nitty-gritty look, we recommend the ETS Glossary of Standardized Testing Terms.

ACT

The ACT was designed to test concepts learned in school rather than the less tangible analytical skills. It comprises four required sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The Writing portion of the ACT is optional, though some colleges and universities may require it as part of their application for admission.

Students can take the exam six times throughout the year, with test dates in September, October, December, February, April, and June. (Check to make sure the Writing portion is offered on your preferred test date should you be interested in taking it.) The total testing period, including breaks, lasts about five hours with Writing or about four hours and 15 minutes without.

The ACT is often taken in the spring of students’ junior year or fall of senior year. It is scored on a scale of 1–36. Your composite score is the average of your scores in the four main sections rounded to the nearest whole number.

Its baseline fee is $42.50 for 2017, or $58.50 with the Writing component; test takers may also incur additional fees (see “Fees”). For more information regarding the ACT, visit act.org

AP exams

There are more than 30 AP subjects to choose from across the following areas: arts, English, history and social science, math and computer science, sciences, and world languages and cultures.

High school AP classes are guided by course descriptions designed by the same people behind the corresponding exams. These classes and tests are meant to measure students’ abilities with college-level work, and students can earn college credit should they achieve adequate scores. However, college and university guidelines for accepting AP credit vary wildly; some may accept a score of 3 or higher, while others require a 4 or 5. Also, a college or university’s course catalog may not correspond with AP credit in the same way as another school. Students may receive credit and/or place out of introductory courses.

AP tests are administered each year throughout the month of May and cost $93 each (additional fees may vary). Students may take multiple AP exams should they wish. Comparable to SAT Subject Tests, they should be taken at the culmination of the corresponding class.

Most AP tests last two to three hours and include multiple-choice and free-response sections. Additionally, language tests have a speaking portion, and those taking the Studio Art test submit portfolios, amongst other differences.

For more information regarding AP tests, visit collegeboard.org.

Calculators

Most math problems found on standardized tests can be completed without a calculator, but they are generally permitted, though their use will likely be restricted to only the math portion of the given test (i.e., you can’t have your calculator out during a writing section). Permitted calculators vary from test to test; for example, the SAT allows graphing calculators but the ACT does not. Be sure to confirm and review the rules dictating calculator use for any standardized test you plan to take. And make sure the calculator's batteries are charged on test day!

Fees

Test fees vary greatly by test and are paid at the time of registration. Students may also encounter additional fees for sending their test scores to more than a set number of institutions or for choosing to send scores after the opportunity to designate schools has passed. The SAT, for example, includes four score sends with test registration; that means any students who register and take the test can send their results to four colleges/universities of their choice for free. Sending results to five or more schools usually incurs additional costs.

There are also several other possible fees, such as for late registration and changing your test date. However, students who can demonstrate their family’s financial need may qualify for test fee waivers. You can usually find more information on official test websites, but be sure to ask your high school guidance counselor for help if you need it. The important thing is to investigate any test you plan on taking and make sure you know how much it will cost before signing up.

Identification

You may be required to show an original form of ID (not a photocopy) when you take your standardized test(s). This is generally used as a precaution against cheating or other fraudulent activity, and without such an ID, you may be turned away from your testing center. Acceptable forms of student identification include passports, driver’s licenses, and student IDs. If you don’t have an acceptable form of ID, you and your parents may be able to fill out supplementary paperwork before—and we’re talking well before—taking the test; this form will likely need to be prepared in conjunction with your school and/or a notary. Check with the organization responsible for your test(s) to confirm what ID, if any, is necessary on test day.

SAT

Like the ACT, the SAT evaluates students’ readiness for college work. A new version of the test was rolled out in March 2016. Some of the updates involved adding questions more closely related to high school course work, more “real world” vocabulary and math, no penalties for wrong answers, and a return to an optional Writing section. Scoring is also back to the 1600-point scale. The SAT is made up of four parts: Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and the optional essay.

The test lasts three hours and 50 minutes with the essay and three hours without it. The baseline fee for the current and new version of the SAT is $54.50 with the essay and $43 without. Test takers may also incur additional fees (see “Fees”). The SAT is administered by the College Board several times throughout the year. It’s often taken in the spring of students’ junior year or fall of senior year. For more information regarding the SAT, visit collegeboard.org.

SAT Subject Tests

Once known as the SAT II, these 20 tests, though similar to their SAT namesake, cover a single subject each, such as physics, US history, math, French, and more. Each lasts an hour.

Some colleges and universities, particularly the most selective schools, require SAT Subject Test scores (usually up to three), while other schools will simply consider the scores if applicants choose to send them.

The basic registration fee for the SAT Subject Tests is $26, plus $20 for each Subject Test, with the exception of Language tests with a listening component, which cost $26. You can take up to three Subject Tests on a single test day. If you take (or retake) any Subject Tests on additional days, you will need to pay an additional registration fee. 

The College Board administers these tests on specific dates throughout year; you can to look up the SAT Subject Test dates for the specific subjects you’d like to take. Like AP tests, SAT Subject Tests are best taken in your strongest subject(s), ideally in conjunction with the corresponding class (for example, you should take the French test at the end of your junior-year French class). Colleges and universities may also use SAT Subject Test results to award course credit and/or place students in higher-level classes (see “AP Tests”). For more information regarding SAT Subject Tests, visit collegeboard.org.

Test optional

According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, there are more than 900 “test-optional” colleges and universities in the United States that “do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor-degree applicants.” This means the schools admit a “substantial number of students without regard to test scores.” These institutions vary considerably, from their size to focus to selectivity.

The movement toward test optional stems, in part, from a concern amongst school administrators regarding the overemphasis and overreliance of standardized tests. Instead, they rely more heavily on high school/secondary school performance and other factors. Test-optional schools also vary in the degree they regard standardized tests; some request supplementary scores for particular programs, and others may require a graded writing sample in lieu of test scores. It is important to confirm admission requirements and restrictions before applying.

How are test scores used in admission?

“We don’t think that our test should be a single source of decision,” says Steve Kappler, former Vice President of Brand Experience for the ACT. Kathleen Steinberg, former Executive Director of Communications for the College Board, agrees; she cites a recent report from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, where respondents ranked test scores as the third-most important factor in the admission decision “behind grades in college prep courses and strength of the student’s high school curriculum, and ahead of factors such as overall GPA, application essay, class rank, and recommendations.”

At Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, standardized tests are one of six “tools” used to evaluate applicants. “We believe that, in conjunction with other items—student’s academic record, writing sample, résumé, etc.—that we can see a profile of the student and an idea of how successful they will be at our institution,” says Christine D. Bowman, Dean of Admission and Enrollment Services at Southwestern. “I think students should base their search around multiple factors, with the fit of the school being the most important.” Test scores are used for more than admission purposes too; they can determine scholarship eligibility and what classes the incoming student may be required to take or able to skip.    

Students should know if and how their prospective colleges evaluate standardized tests. Look at the academic profile of the average admitted student. If you don’t meet those averages, it doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t apply to the school, but make sure you have a number of options where your academic record makes you a good fit.

So if it’s just one piece of the puzzle, what do admission counselors really think when they look at your test scores? “Who doesn’t get excited about a strong test score?” Bowman says. “But I get equally excited about someone who presents a great transcript and has great accomplishments, especially when the testing is a little off. I have found that the test scores usually parallel the academic record, but when they don’t, many times a great student is waiting to be discovered.”

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