Go ahead, test me: Entrance Exams 101

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Sure, standardized college entrance exams aren’t the most fun way to spend a Saturday morning, and the pressure to do well can overwhelm even the most laid-back teens, but these tests are a necessary part of applying to college. So you might as well face them with as much good info as you can get.

Lucky for you, we’ve whipped up the details on exactly what you need to know to choose a test, prepare for it and do the best you can.


First, a bit about the tests. Most colleges accept either one, but you should double-check to find out if your schools have preferences. If they don’t, it’s up to you to find the one that suits you best.

The SAT is essentially a “reasoning” test that evaluates critical-thinking skills, while the ACT is an achievement exam—it tests your knowledge. The ACT covers four areas: English, math, reading and science. The writing section is optional. If you take the SAT, you’ll be tested on critical reading, math and writing.

There’s more. (Hang in there.) The SAT has a hefty vocabulary section, while the ACT focuses on grammar. The ACT tests trigonometry, while the SAT does not. The ACT is entirely multiple choice (except for the optional writing section), but students taking the SAT will encounter math questions for which you must fill in a numerical response in a grid. And finally, you get penalized for wrong answers on the SAT, but there’s no penalty for guessing on the ACT.

Time to do a little soul-searching. If you’ve had a strong high-school curriculum, but you get test anxiety, you might do better on the ACT. If you’re a good test-taker who hasn’t taken the toughest courses in school, maybe the SAT is the right choice.

Or you could take both. Many students do, and the advantage is that you’ll know where to focus your energy if you want to retake one to boost your score.

About those scores ...

Each section of the ACT is scored on a scale of 1 to a perfect 36; your overall score (called the “composite”) is an average of your section scores. On the SAT, each section is scored between 200 and a perfect 800; add them up and you get your overall score.

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Many students want to know if their scores will get them into or keep them out of their top-choice colleges. See how your scores compare to last year’s admitted students by checking out the freshmen class profiles, which colleges publish each year. There you’ll find the range of scores that the middle 50 percent of admitted students earned on the SAT and ACT.

If your score falls in that range, you know you have a shot. If your scores are higher, don’t use that bit of good news as an excuse to blow off the rest of your application; if they’re lower, don’t panic. Remember that 25 percent of last year’s admitted students scored below that range, too.

For both tests, you can control which scores colleges see. If you take either test more than once, you can have only your best score reported. Maybe you rocked out every part of the ACT except for the science; it’s worth practicing and then taking the test again.

Yes, we said “practice.”

The ACT and SAT are unlike any tests


you’ve ever taken. We don’t say that to scare you; we just want you to practice. The more familiar you are with the formats of the questions, the more successful you’ll be.

Find practice exams online; educationplanner.org, sat.collegeboard.com and princetonreview.com are good options. If you need more help, consider paying for a prep course online or in a testing center. Your guidance counselor can help you find these resources.

Or don’t take any tests at all.

A growing number of colleges—more than 850—don’t require standardized test scores at all. These schools are called “test optional,” and you can find the whole list at fairtest.org. Plenty of research shows that a student’s high-school record is a far more accurate predictor of college success than the SAT or ACT.

No matter what you decide, remember that standardized tests do not measure intelligence. If you do well on them, you still have to work hard on other parts of your app. If you do poorly, you’re not doomed to enroll in your last-choice school. And we promise that a few years from now, you’ll hardly remember the Saturday morning you spent slogging through algebra and grammar questions on your way to achieving your collegiate dreams.

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