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Ask the Experts: Test Prep Tips

By Peterson's Staff updated on Friday, March 21, 2014

Question Do colleges prefer one standardized test to another? - Carolyn

AnswerIn recent annual admissions cycles, virtually all colleges and universities have welcomed submission of either the SAT or the ACT testing format. However there are several statewide public university systems that specifically ask for the SAT and SAT Subject Test testing format. You should be certain to check the requirement for those colleges you have a serious interest in. Keep in mind that colleges will indicate in their literature a preference, if they have one, for one or the other tests. If the ACT is submitted, you are not expected to submit SAT Subject Tests. We encourage students to review both test formats and determine which one will result in a better performance on your part.

 

Question If you are a poor standardized test taker but a very good student, and no matter what you do to increase your standardized test grade, you can't, what are your options?  It doesn't seem fair that you can work so hard in high school but because of one test, you won't be able to attend the university of your choice. - lisa

AnswerYou are quite right in voicing your frustration over standardized testing and its potential effect on admissions opportunities. We can cite the cases of hundreds of students who have performed at a level of excellence in their school work but do not fare well on a timed, multiple choice type of testing. Be reassured that you, as were all of these past students, will be accepted to a college of your choice because every college or university states that the quality of a student's high school curriculum and performance in those classes as indicated by grades and teacher recommendations carry far greater weight in the admissions decision process than test scores. Honest! Of course there is a cluster of very competitive colleges that have to use testing more because of the large number of qualified candidates. But we are talking about twenty to thirty colleges here.

 

Question Everyone in my grade is taking test prep courses, some are even getting tutors for the PSAT! How do you decide which option is right for you?  And when is the typical time that you should plan to take the SAT's? - Jason

AnswerFrom our experience with thousands of students, we believe it is important to prepare for standardized tests, just as a student should for any tests or final exams in school courses. Test readiness and test savvy comes as a result of familiarity with a particular test, in this case the SAT or ACT, and lots of practice. There is, however, no one best way to prepare as every student has a different style, areas of specific ability, and facility for learning particular subjects. You should study the various tests by going to some of the online services or purchasing one or more of the paperback workbooks. Reviewing the materials and trying some of the practice exams will give you a pretty good indication of what areas you need to focus your practice on and how much time you are going to need. For example, there's are some great free practice tests available online, here at Peterson's, for the SAT, the ACT, and the PSAT. It is not essential to take a highly expensive individual or group course if you have the self-discipline and motivation to utilize the outstanding review materials available to you today.

Begin your review in the junior year for both the first effort at either the SAT or ACT. If you take the PSAT in October of your junior year you should do a brief review beforehand to understand the nature of the test. Your test results here will be a good indicator of how much you have to do to ready yourself for the real SAT in the spring of junior year.

 

Question Do you think colleges should maintain use of a standardize test as the means for viewing students' applications or are there other options? And, what other options are there beside the SAT/ACT? - kara

AnswerSome key points to put testing into perspective and offer some other options:

Standardized tests are not the most important factor in college admissions decisions. A strong college prep curriculum and consistent performance in those courses over time remains the most important part of the college admissions decision process. We know that from surveys of admission officers and constant comments from them in interviews and discussions with us. Standardized tests usually come third, although not at every school. Class rank matters, though not always, especially because many high schools do not rank. Extracurricular and personal activities (character strengths and so on) are also very important. Applications. Recommendation letters. Interviews at some schools. So, there are a lot of other factors in play that help students present themselves to colleges and show they are qualified and a good match for the institution.

Many students do not "test well". They have higher average grades in strong courses but their SAT/ACT scores don't seem in line with their consistent classroom performance. We often recommend they consider small colleges in general, which tend to offer a more personalized admission process that places less emphasis on the standardized tests, and some colleges in particular that make the SAT or ACT optional, or require SAT Subject Tests or the ACT, or Advanced Placement (AP) scores, or a graded high school paper, but not the SAT. Fairtest.org maintains a list of these kinds of programs.

 

Question I would like to study abroad, what types of tests are required? - jared

AnswerIt is difficult to give you a simple answer to this question because every country in the world has its own admissions requirements, including testing. If you are still a high school student you should research the particular high school graduation and test requirements for the country you hope to study in. You can refer online to several organizations that are heavily involved with international studies such as IIE and CIEE. If you are presently a college student, you should check with the study abroad office on your campus on the many international universities they have cooperative arrangements with. Normally admissions tests are not required at this level, but a certain grade point average and, if teaching is in a language other than English, two or more years of formal study of this language will be required.

 

Question Hi, I am looking to get into MIT (GPA 3.8 top 12% in my grade, sophomore in HS). Would it be beneficial for me to take the SAT this summer or early fall to get ahead of the curve, to ensure the best score? Also, how many times can you take the SAT overall, or per year? - Jennifer

AnswerWe admire your setting high goals this early on. It is wise to start planning which tests to take and when is the best time. Here are some key rules and strategies to follow. Since you are presently in your sophomore year, you should only consider taking SAT Subject Tests in a course that you will be completing at the end of this year and in which you are doing very well. Typically for sophomores this could math level I or a science or a history course.

The great majority of students will take the SAT and SAT Subject Tests or the ACT in the spring of their junior year because they have a stronger academic background. You can take the SAT or the ACT for the first time in April, May, or June. If your goal is to apply to highly competitive universities like MIT you should take the SAT in April or May so that you can take SAT Subject Tests in June. In applying to scientific or engineering oriented programs like MIT, you are expected to submit an advanced math SAT Subject Test and either physics or chemistry or both if you are well prepared.

You can retake any and all tests in the fall and early winter of senior year if you are not satisfied with your test results from junior year. Admissions committees almost always tend to give applicants the benefit of considering their best test results. So, start early in preparing and practicing on old tests, but do not take the real tests prematurely. Be certain that you are well prepared by virtue of your academic course work and practice.

 

Question im a sophomore in high school and im graduating early next year when is it a good time for me to take the SAT test? and what is the test about? - jasmin

AnswerIf you are planning to graduate from high school a year earlier than normal, then you have to move up your schedule for taking the SAT or the ACT. You can take either test as early as next fall and then again in the late winter or early spring if you are not satisfied with your results.  You should check out the colleges you are interested in to learn what exact tests they require for admission. Then tailor your plans accordingly. Go the Web site CollegeBoard.org to find test dates for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. The same holds true at the ACT.org Web site. You can register to take the tests that you determine suit you online at both sites. Peterson's also provides articles that explain more about the content, structure, and format of the SAT and ACT.

 

Question I am international student hoping and aspiring to university education in the us. i was told to sit for toefl and others said Act, so please tell me, which one do i go for? and tell me the advantages of ACT over toefl. - Bryant

AnswerAll international students whose first language is not English should take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This is a requirement at most colleges. The TOEFL will be compared to your scores on the ACT or SAT, and will help the colleges to put scores on those tests in the context of your overall English language abilities. The TOEFL also helps colleges to evaluate whether you can handle the academic programs (taught in English) at their institutions. So, take the TOEFL, and take the ACT or SAT or both. Most U.S. colleges require either the ACT or SAT in addition to the TOEFL, and some require additional SAT Subject Tests.

 

Question I'm a student currently in class 12 and located in India. I would be appearing for the s.a.t. exams as well as toefl. Can you tell me what's the appropriate way for preparing for these exams and the necessary points i should keep in mind while preparing for these exams? I am doing my bit by studying from various guide books but getting an expert advice would definitely be of great help. - Shardul

AnswerGuide books are a good place to start, with steady preparation twenty to thirty minutes every few days plus taking practice exams under simulated, timed test conditions. You can do online preparation here on the Peterson's site, and/or work with a local tutor or class if you believe that would be helpful. Reading has the biggest long-term impact on success on both the TOEFL and SAT.

 

Question I graduated high school and joined the military. My enlistment ends next year, and I plan on attending college. I did not take the ACT/SAT, so can I take these tests even though I am no longer in high school?? - Melissa

AnswerYou're not in an uncommon situation. Yes, you can take the SAT and ACT at any time. You can also consider the CLEP tests, which might help you to demonstrate proficiency at the college level in a variety of academic subjects. Read carefully on the government's financial aid Web sites (such as studentaid.ed.gov and fafsa.ed.gov) to learn about special financial assistance opportunities for members of the armed services.

 

Question hi, i am an american resident ( i have a green card), i live in lebanon. i have the french bacaloria , and the question that i want to ask is : do i have to do SAT to enter a college if i have the french bacaloria? - abdul

AnswerYes, you'll need to take the SAT or ACT for most colleges to which you might apply. Some will waive the requirement, especially if you take the TOEFL, but you would do better to at least try the SAT once. Some colleges might also require some SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT. The IB coursework in the long run could earn you advanced standing and course credits once you enroll in a college here.

 

Question i was wondering what do you need to know in order to take the sat's. Also what is the sat's why are they required. Im only a freshman IN HIGH SCHOOL im going to start school in a week and my grades were'nt that great and im tring to get into a great college - Lucero

AnswerThe most important ways to prepare for the SAT or ACT include doing lots of reading, with an English language dictionary to improve your vocabulary, and taking math classes at least through Algebra II. Writing and grammatical skills have also become more important. These standardized tests, and possibly others like the SAT Subject Tests, are a central component of admission to most colleges, and you should prepare to take them during your junior year (SAT Subject Tests possibly earlier, depending on when you complete a class like Chemistry or World History, for example). You should take the PSAT in the fall of junior year, and the ACT Plan in sophomore year (depending on your school's testing program), possibly with some early preparation to make sure you know what the tests are all about.

At a minimum this means getting a good prep book or two and spending some regular time practicing questions and learning about how to best use your time on the various sections of the tests. At the other end of the spectrum, you might take an online or in-person class or work with a one-on-one tutor/coach to help you with specific skill building.

 

Question I'm in tenth grade and i have not taken the ACT or the PSAT. Is it to late for me to take those tests? - Ashley

AnswerNot to worry. College-bound students most typically take the PSAT in October of their junior year and then the SAT in April, May, or June of junior year. The test can be taken multiple times if necessary, depending on your scores. The same schedule holds true for the ACT as well. Check with your guidance counselor this spring regarding signing up for the PSAT at your school next October.

 

Question Hello, First of all I would like to know the difference between the ACT and the SAT tests.  Secondly, do most universities accept either or? Thirdly, is there a stat out there that indicates that some students do better on ACT as opposed to the SAT? Thank you. - adriana

AnswerIt has become increasingly confusing for students to comprehend the different admissions testing options available to them and which might work better for the individual student, and what do colleges want. Here goes with a brief summary for your guidance:

The SAT and the ACT are both multiple choice, timed tests. The major difference in our view is that the ACT is more of a subject content-oriented test; that is, it tests for learned information in the basic subjects of math, English, social studies, and science. While it calls for good reasoning and logical thinking, the test calls for knowledge gained in the classroom in these four subject areas. The SAT by contrast is more of an aptitude or reasoning ability test that in theory requires less learned information and more the ability to reason out solutions to the problems presented.

We find in our review of the results on either or both tests by many students that those students who are strongly motivated and have taken a very solid college prep curriculum do well on the ACT. It is not an easier test, but it does allow students more directly than the SAT to demonstrate the academic foundation they have built over their high school years. The SAT seems to suit well those students who are fast and facile processors of information. In theory, a test taker does not have to have studied advanced level work in English or math since the test is focused on the ability to reason out solutions to the problems and questions presented. Strong readers do well on the critical reading section of the SAT; slow readers do not. Fast thinkers who can do math problems in a short cut fashion and like more abstract problems do well on the math.

You can take practice tests of each, including here on the Peterson's site, to see which test matches your learning style and academic preparation and strengths best.

Since the greatest number of colleges accept either the SAT or the ACT, you can attempt both tests the first time and see how you perform. You can then focus on the test format that worked best for you. Most universities do accept both the SAT and ACT. Some of the more selective institutions require two to three SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT, and sometimes in addition to the ACT. Many students these days try both tests, and then submit the scores from one or the other, or even both, testing regimes depending on the scores.

Some differences to note: the SAT includes three sections, scored on an 800-point scale, including Critical Reading, Math, and Writing (including an essay). The ACT includes four sections, reading, verbal, math, and science concepts, as well as an optional essay. All but the essay are scored on a 36-point scale and you receive section scores and an overall composite score. All your SAT and SAT Subject Test scores go to colleges when you generate a score report, but the ACT sends only scores from individual test dates when you request them. It is generally acknowledged that it is easier to receive accommodations on the SAT, such as extended time testing, than it is on the ACT.

Again, you should examine practice tests for both test options, and consider taking both if it seems appropriate for you. There is no risk or harm in doing so, since you can choose not to send the ACT, or the SAT scores, depending on which exams suit you better.

 

Question I read somewhere that if you atke the SATs more than 2 or 3 times that colleges begin to think you're obsessed.  First of all, is this true? Why would they think less of you for wanting to score well?  And if you take it 3 times is that bad?  And also for highly competitive colleges, do they consider all of your SAT scores or just the highest ones? - Stephanie

AnswerYou ask a very important, commonly asked question by motivated students. From our college admissions background and continual discussions with selective college admissions officers, we offer the following overview. Selective colleges expect that applicants will take either the SAT or the ACT tests more than once with the intent of raising their scores. Almost every college and university will give an applicant the benefit of any combination of their best individual sets of scores (e.g. they will use your highest critical reading and math scores from several SAT sets).

Yes, a student can appear to be "obsessed" or compulsive if they take either of the admissions test formats more than three times. There is then an inclination to average all the scores or to look at the middle point of the many numbers put before them. Our advice is to study and practice for the test, review the results to determine what parts of the test you feel you can improve upon with  more focused review before taking it a second time. This should be enough testing for anyone.

 

Question I am a Twenty year old female working as a Receptionist full time i am trying to get into a school where i can get my GED as well as study Medics or law i know i need my GED however it seems harder and harder to get it. - Jennifer

AnswerThe place to start for GED, which is essential to pursuing a two- or four-year undergraduate degree, is your local community college. There are online preparation options as well, but you need to set a short-term goal of accomplishing the GED and then moving toward at least your associate degree in the liberal arts. That will set the foundation for a transfer to a four-year college or university where you can earn your B.A. or B.S. and be done with it, or then apply to law school, medical school, or another graduate program. Now, that's a long haul, but the first step is the GED. Check out www.acenet.edu for information on where and how to prepare for and take the GED.

 

Question what is CLEP and PCAT???? - Megan

AnswerCLEP stands for the College Level Examination Program sponsored by the College Board which also presents the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Any individual can take a CLEP test in one of dozens of subjects in order to receive a college level credit in that subject. This can be a great way to gain credits towards a degree and save time and money. Take a look at the program on the CollegeBoard.com Web site.

PCAT stands for the Pharmacy College Admission Test. This is a reasoning ability test required for entrance into a professional pharmacy school. If you actually meant to ask about the PSAT, this is the practice SAT that high school juniors, and many sophomores, take in October of each year as a preparation for the real SAT later on.

 

Question Is it okay to take the ACT and SAT in June of your Junior or should you take it earlier? I thought about taking it earlier, but I am play high school softball. Also will taking it in June interfere with getting recruited for college softball? For example would taking it this late delay the whole recruiting process or even college admissions? - Josie

AnswerThe only reasons you would need/want to take the tests earlier would be:

  • To allow for multiple test attempts junior year (you can still take the ACT/SAT again senior fall and the tests will count for college admissions, even Early Decision if you take the tests in October, and possibly November);
  • To allow for SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT (you can take Subject Tests in May or June, in place of the SAT, but not in April, when only the SAT is given);
  • Because you have done a lot of test prep and are ready for an earlier test date.

 

Recruiters do like to see SAT scores, but will often start with PSAT scores as a baseline, and, most intense recruiting really begins in July, so June scores are fine. You can contact coaches earlier in the spring, noting PSATs (if you have them) and GPA and curriculum, and then update them in June/July, as your softball season is complete.

 

Question I'm in my senior year of high school and previously took the SAT twice and the ACT once in my junior year. The scores I currently have seem to be in reach of the schools I'm applying to. Now it's time for the October test for each one of these and I was wondering if there would be any advantage to me taking them again. I've heard that your score doesn't usually go up that much from test to test. I'm wondering if I should just focus my energy on applications and not testing. - Michael

AnswerYour scores might go up depending on how much work you did preparing for the tests in the spring, and how much you have done since then. Many students' scores do go up over time, just due to additional reading, writing, and math practice. If you have a reasonable expectation of bringing up one or more sections of these tests, then you should try them again. If there is little hope, and your earlier tests were pretty representative of your highest practice tests and expectations, then you should indeed focus on your grades and applications.

 

Question I'm just not getting it. When it comes to tests I totally freak out and either don't know the answers, or don't know a single thing I read. I am a Jr. in High School, and I am prepping for the real S.A.T. what should I do to ease my nerves and succeed on the test? - Chelsea

AnswerKeep practicing, practicing, practicing. Ask an English or math teacher for help, or consider a private coach/tutor if necessary, and most important, keep working on your writing and reading skills. These are the most important pieces of the SAT and all your classes. Get a couple of practice books that are more substantive and work on fundamentals. Practice at home under timed conditions, and perhaps ask a friend or two to join you. Get a parent to time your testing under simulated conditions and help you score the test. You have time on your side here, so don't give up!

 

Question Do you advise taking the SAT subject tests on the same day as the SAT or splitting it up? - ann

AnswerThe SAT reasoning test and the SAT Subject Tests are not offered on the same dates. You have to plan to take each set on separate test dates. Go to the College Board Web site to check the official test dates.

 

Question I will be entering the 10th grade in September and I have a question about the SATs. What are the differences between the SAT I and the SAT II? What are subject tests? Thanks for your help. - Monique

AnswerThis is ever more confusing because of changes in the names of these tests and changes in colleges' requirements. The SAT is what used to be called the SAT I Reasoning Test. It consists of three sections: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. That is the main test you will take for admissions, and most colleges stop there in terms of their standardized testing requirements.

The SAT Subject Tests are what used to be called the SAT II or Achievement Tests. These are subject-specific hour-long tests in such areas as the sciences, foreign languages, and histories. Some selective colleges require or recommend two or three Subject Tests, typically in addition to the SAT. Usually, you take an SAT Subject Test as you complete a course, in May or June. For example, you might take one in Chemistry after completing that course in 10th or 11th grade. A few of the Subject Tests, notably Math Level 1 or 2 or English Literature, are less tied to course content and you might take them at any time you are ready.

Explore the College Board's Web site for more information on testing requirements and registration. Note that you can also take the ACT as a substitute for the SAT, and, in most cases, SAT Subject Tests.

 

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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