5 Standardized College Admissions Tests and How to Prepare for them

here is a lot to think about when applying to college: choosing the right school, writing a great essay, getting letters of recommendation, your resume, and more. But for many, none of these create more anxiety than standardized tests. Which test or tests should I take? How much weight will they carry in the admissions process? How do I prepare?

This article will help clear up some of that confusion.

What Tests to Take?

Though many universities have adopted test-optional policies, mainly during and in the wake of COVID, most four-year and many two-year colleges require either the SAT or the ACT as part of your admissions package. 

Here are the five most prevalent standardized tests and what you need to know about them.

  • PSAT/NMSQT. Before taking the SAT, most high schools will have you take the PSAT/NMSQT. This test is not usually looked at nor required by colleges but is excellent preparation for the SAT (it’s really a “mini SAT”). It’s also used to qualify students for National Merit Scholarships, so if you do well, you could set yourself up for a scholarship!
  • SAT. The SAT is administered by the College Board and has three sections: Mathematics, Critical Reading, and Writing. Administered seven times a year, you have many opportunities to improve your score. Most colleges on the East and West coasts require this test for college admission.
  • ACT. The ACT is administered by its own entity (ACT Inc.) and has four sections: Mathematics, English, Reading, and Science Reasoning. Many Midwest, South, and Rocky Mountain colleges require the ACT. The ACT is offered four to six times a year, depending on your location.
  • SAT Subject Tests. Most colleges do not require these tests, but they may be required by some degree programs. They tend to boost your college application profile and make you look more attractive as a candidate for admission. Formerly called the Achievement Tests and SAT II Subject Tests.
  • AP Exams. The AP (Advanced Placement) exams are offered to those who have taken or are currently taking Advanced Placement courses. Success in these exams can lead to college credit toward your undergraduate degree. Whereas the SAT subject tests can add weight to your college application during the admissions process, the AP exams themselves are a minor factor in admissions though the taking of AP courses is seen as a definite plus by colleges and does factor towards admissions.

Once you have an idea of where you want to apply, make sure you take the correct tests. More and more colleges are accepting both, but again, make sure you know the requirements of the colleges you apply to!

How Colleges Use Admission Tests

The College Board has a helpful list of 8 things you should know about how colleges use standardized tests:

Even among the colleges that require either the ACT or SAT for admission, the scores are important, but they are not the sole determining factor in admission. A good score may help you qualify for scholarships and determine your placement in college courses. Each college will most likely have its SAT or ACT score range posted on its website; these are guidelines only, and often students with lower scores (and higher scores) are still admitted. Your performance on standardized tests is an important factor in your college admissions process, but there are other factors that will lead to your acceptance or rejection.

Also, note that good test scores can help you win scholarships and grants. The Alliance has awarded millions of dollars to thousands of high school graduates and continuing college students since 1996. Learn more here.

“But the person who scored well on the SAT will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman. These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance.”

—William Julius Wilson, sociologist, and Harvard Professor

Preparing for Tests

Here are some tips to prepare for the standardized tests (SAT, ACT, SAT Subjects):

  • Read. Reading more than anything else will prepare you for the Verbal / English sections of the SAT and ACT. Getting into the habit of reading will increase your vocabulary and broaden your knowledge of the English language. Read literature, current fiction, and non-fiction. Read daily.
  • Get plenty of rest. It sounds basic, but these are grueling tests that take hours, and it’s important to be well-rested. “Cramming” for these tests the night before is unproductive because they test accumulated knowledge, and it will deplete your energy.
  • Take practice tests. This will help you get familiar with the format of the test and the types of questions you’ll encounter. It’s helpful to note that, on the SAT, correct answers get a point, blank answers get zero points, and incorrect answers get -.25 points. The general rule of thumb is that if you can eliminate at least one answer, you’re better off guessing (statistically speaking). The ACT does not penalize wrong answers.
  • Read the directions and questions carefully. This seems like a no-brainer, but pacing yourself throughout the exam and making sure you have followed the directions and thoroughly read the questions before answering will improve your score.
  • Review the subjects. Make sure you know what subjects the tests will cover and which areas of these subjects you’ll need to review. Many books are available at bookstores, and The College Board offers free SAT prep and practice tests.

Prep Classes

Some students might feel that they need more help to prepare for the big standardized tests. Fear not! There is a network of SAT / ACT prep materials and classes. Here are some of the main resources for these services:

  • The College Board offers an official SAT online course, plus a comprehensive website chock full of free materials to help you review and prepare.
  • The Princeton Review offers online and in-person group courses and private tutoring to prepare for the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, AP Exams, and more.
  • Kaplan also offers online and in-person group courses and private tutoring for every college admissions test there is.
  • Peterson’s offers free test prep and informational services about all of the tests on its website.

Hopefully, this has helped clear up the confusion around standardized college admissions tests. Remember, though, that tests alone will not get you into or rejected from a college. Many other factors will be at play. But if you can show good scores, good grades, and evidence that you’re a well-rounded student and individual, you’ll have a better chance of getting into the college of your choice.

Additional Resources

  • SAT – The official home of the SAT and SAT subject tests, complete with test day simulator and practice tests
  • ACT – The official site with practice tests and all the necessary info
  • PSAT/NMSQT – Everything you need to know from the people who create the test
  • AP Exams – If your school doesn’t offer AP classes or the AP class you want, you can sign up here to take the class online
  • Princeton Review – Take online or in-person prep classes in groups or in private
  • Kaplan – Prep classes, Princeton’s Review’s main competitor
  • Peterson’s – Online, reasonably priced test prep and informational services, with an available free trial

Make sure you have all your i’s dotted, and t’s crossed when you apply for college. Check out these Alliance articles about how to apply, when to apply, and essay, recommendations, and interviews. Be sure to check out The Alliance College Guide. It explains what you need to know about choosing, preparing for, applying to, and paying for college. All in clear, no-nonsense language.

College Stats

1.7 million students in the class of 2022 Took the SAT at least once, up from 1.5 million in the class of 2021