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Understanding Standardized Tests and Scores

Standardized testing is a dreaded part of the college application process and one not many students fully understand. Read on for a quick intro to these exams.

Standardized testing is often the most dreaded part of anyone’s college application process. Although test-optional schools are becoming more popular, most colleges still require at least one test, and in some cases your results could be the difference between acceptance and rejection. Often students either overstress when preparing or give up on testing completely. Neither strategy is useful. Instead, remember that with preparation and practice, anyone can earn a superb test score. Here’s how.

What test should I take?

Answering this question comes down to a few considerations. First, take time to research the schools you plan on applying to. See if they’re test optional, require the SAT Essay, or accept the ACT. By figuring out what is required of you first, you can prevent paying for a test you don’t need or studying material you didn’t have to.

Next, consider what you want to show schools about your own abilities. If you’re applying to a STEM program, you might take the ACT to highlight your science skills. If you’re really knowledgeable about a certain topic and you plan to study it in college, see if there’s a related SAT Subject Test.

Finally, think about what kind of test taker you are. The SAT and ACT are super different, so a great way to determine which one will get you the best score is by taking practice tests. Try to get a feel of the style and content of the questions and see which one you’re the most confident taking. Most colleges don’t have a preference of exam, so it won’t hurt you either way.

How do I prepare?

Everyone learns differently and has access to different resources, so test prep isn’t one-size-fits-all. The first thing you should decide is whether you want to prepare on your own or with others.

If you’re most comfortable learning from a teacher one-on-one, private tutoring could be helpful. You can usually find ads for tutors online or at your local library, community center, or school. Sometimes local high school or college students offer their services with flexible schedules and reasonable rates. When you’re looking, make sure you thoroughly research tutors before you commit. Talk to former clients and don’t be afraid to shop around.

If you don’t have the time or resources for a private tutor, try looking for test prep classes at your local school or library. Free tutoring courses are often offered for groups of students, and if you prefer to learn in a classroom setting, this could be best.

If none of these options seem appealing, learning on your own could be the way to go. Test-prep books can be found at your local library, and you can get tons of resources free on the internet. For example, Khan Academy will sync your SAT scores from the College Board and provide personalized training. For test prep books, make sure to check the date of publication, as the ACT and SAT have changed in recent years and you don’t want to study for an older version. When looking online, always take steps to determine the credibility of a website.

In addition to studying content, make sure you research the pacing and timing of the test you’re taking. Train for the exact types of questions you’re going to encounter and figure out what the test is really looking for you to master. Time your practice tests the same way the regular test will be timed.

Related: How to Study for Each Section of the ACT

Is my score good or bad?

When you receive your test results, you’ll be bombarded with out-of-context numbers. Instead of focusing on the number of questions you got right or wrong, look at the percentile score. It tells you what percent of test takers got an equal or lower score than you. For example, if you scored in the 75th percentile, then you did as well as or better than 75% of the all the students who took the test.

Additionally, most colleges will release the average SAT and ACT scores of enrolled students. They usually provide either an average score range or a 25/75 percentile report. If a range is given, such as 1200–1350, you want your score to be within the range or above the highest number. The 25/75 percentile report will give you two numbers—for example, Math 520/600. The first score tells you that 25% of the students who enrolled got a Math score of 520 or lower. The second score tells you that 75% of the students who enrolled got a 600 or lower. If you want to get into this school, you should aim for a score above a 520. Anything above a 600 would put you in the top 25% of students and improve your chances of admission.

Related: How Are Standardized Test Scores Used in Admission?

Colleges are aware that standardized test scores are only one aspect of a diverse applicant and a holstic application process, so understand that your score doesn’t singularly define you. That being said, it still gives admission offices insight into your ability to prepare, practice, and succeed in an academic setting. Think of standardized testing as a way of showing off what you can accomplish when you work hard and challenge yourself. Keep an open mind regarding these tests and you can emerge with strong scores and a strengthened application.

Find more SAT and ACT help in our Test Prep section.

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About Melody DeBlasio

My name is Melody DeBlasio, and I am a high school junior from New Haven, Connecticut. As a bona fide nerd and eager scholar, I've navigated all the ins and outs of the high school academic system. I currently take honors, AP, and dual enrollment classes, and I'm a part-time college student at three universities. I'm excited to be sharing my knowledge and experiences through CollegeXpress as I myself prepare for life after high school. Outside of school, I am a competitive swimmer, member of the debate team, participant in multiple extracurricular science programs, a world traveler, and a lifelong Girl Scout.


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