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Navigating Standardized Tests During Admission Season

With so many exams, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out standardized tests on your own. Here's a breakdown to help you out!

Applying to college is stressful enough—we shouldn’t let standardized testing make it harder! Our parents’ experiences with the SAT are certainly different than our status quo, and I found that school counselors are a little more preoccupied with helping people graduate high school than giving specific instructions on SATs. I’ve come to the conclusion that, while testing may be standardized, what tests you take are personal. The hardest part about standardized testing is getting started on your plan. Once you know what you need to do and have taken that first step, the rest is just practice.

Do I have to take the SAT or ACT?

This 100% depends on the college or university you’re applying to. If you don’t know where you want to go to school yet, you should sit down and have an honest conversation with yourself about what you’re looking for in a college, draft a list, and research what those schools require for standardized testing. (If you’re starting your college search early, be aware that your interests in colleges will likely change between freshman and senior year of high school.) If you have no idea what school you’re looking for or what your future holds, I would err on the side of caution and take the SAT or ACT. Many colleges require standardized test scores, so it doesn’t hurt to take either of them.

Related: 4 Tips for Taking Your Standardized Tests Early


If you’re a freshman or sophomore, start studying for the PSAT. Don’t let it take over your life, but set up a study plan early to help you score well. Don’t forget, there’s the National Merit Scholarship to consider. By spending a little time studying, you can set yourself up well and maybe get some money for college! I’d recommend taking the PSAT your junior year. It's not necessary, but it gives you practice in a testing environment. If you’re planning on applying to semi-selective or selective schools, I recommend taking the PSAT your sophomore year as well for extra practice.

Start by creating an account on Khan Academy, a free website that allows you to study for all different subjects. Khan Academy recently partnered with the College Board to provide free SAT prep so that everyone has equal access to study material. It’s an interactive experience where you can focus on areas you missed on past tests and complete practice tests to improve different skills. There’s even specific test prep for the PSAT. Plus, you can use your previous PSAT scores to create a personalized study plan.

For those of you at schools where everyone takes the ACT and not the SAT, there is also the PACT. I’ve heard mixed reviews about how well it translates to the ACT. It’s not offered where I live, but if you have the option, you should take it! As far as I know, there is no Khan Academy–type free study tool for the ACT, but many libraries and schools will have test prep books you can borrow. Use your scores on these practice tests to see what you need to study. The better prepared you are, the less likely it will be that you need to take either of these exams multiple times.

Related: Should You Take the SAT or ACT? Take This Quiz First!

For those applying to highly selective schools

If you’re planning to apply to highly selective colleges, plan on taking the PSAT/PACT and the SAT or ACT with Writing. I know it sounds like a lot, but once you get a handle on it, studying isn’t that bad. Take the PSAT/PACT starting freshman year through junior year. Then take your SAT as early as March of junior year. There’s really no point in taking the SAT before you get your PSAT scores back. Even if you have them in December, one month isn’t enough study time before taking the SAT in January. Take them in March and you’ll still have enough time to retake the test several times. I wouldn’t recommend retaking the SAT more than three times; studies show you’re unlikely to improve your score the more times you take the test. For the ACT, I would recommend taking it in April of your junior year. This gives you some time to study after you get your PACT score (if you took the exam) or take a few practice tests and get prepared. The same rule applies: don’t take it more than three times.

For those applying to less selective schools

For the majority of people who don’t want to go to Harvard, good news! You most likely just need to take the SAT or the ACT, probably with Writing. Make sure to look up what your college requires. Take the SAT or ACT in March of your junior year. If you’re happy with your score, you won’t need to retake it and won’t have to stress about testing once you start applying to colleges. If you’re unhappy with your score, there are still multiple opportunities to retake the test!

Related: How to Be a Competitive College Applicant

The most important thing is to not get stressed out. You’re capable of crushing these standardized tests, and with a little practice, you can show these colleges exactly how amazing you are!

Check out our Test Prep section for even more advice on surviving standardized testing.

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About Rebecca Barer

I am an avid reader, and I devote most of my time to writing and cooking. I also enjoy spending time with friends and family and generally enjoying life. I'm so excited to start at Johns Hopkins University this fall!


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