Compiled by Katherine Cohen, Ph.D., CEO & Founder and the team of counselors at IvyWise
It’s spring, which means testing season is in full swing. You know the scene: the early-morning haze over your eyes; the perfectly sharpened number-2 pencils lined up neatly on your desk; the industrial clock ticking away the seconds; those little bits of eraser gathering at your feet. With more standardized test options than ever before (PSAT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT, AP, TOEFL), it’s easy to get confused – and overwhelmed! The key to standardized testing is knowing what tests to take and when to take them (IvyWise students receive a detailed standardized testing schedule with recommendations). Take a deep breath, the experts at IvyWise are here to explain the acronyms and offer up some great tips to ease those test-taking anxieties.
SAT vs ACT
As of 2007, every four-year college that accepts the SAT now also accepts the ACT. Determining which test is best for you (based on format, timing, and content) is an important step in ensuring testing success. At IvyWise, we recommend taking one practice SAT and one practice ACT test under realistic testing conditions, scoring both tests, and comparing initial scores. Once you determine which test is better suited to your individual abilities and begin studying, we recommend taking a practice test weekly for eight to ten weeks leading up to the actual test date. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to take the test before college applications are due. Generally, your initial test date should be in the spring of your junior year.
The ACT consists of four main components: English, math, reading, and science reasoning. These sections are knowledge-based and entirely multiple-choice. The total ACT composite score is an average of all four sections, which are each scored on a scale of one to 36. There is also an optional writing section that is scored separately on a scale from two to 12 – even though this section is optional, many schools require it, so make sure to check the testing requirements of the schools on your college list. In total, the test lasts two hours and 55 minutes, or three hours and 25 minutes with the optional writing section. The ACT has slightly harder math than the SAT, but the entire section is multiple choice, so some students find it more straightforward and less “tricky” than the SAT.
The SAT has three main components: critical reading, math, and writing. Each component is scored out of 800 (the writing section includes an essay, scored from two to 12, which is factored into the overall writing score), making your highest possible total SAT score 2400. The SAT is a 10-section exam (three sections for each component, plus an experimental section) that lasts three hours and 45 minutes. The SAT has fewer questions than the ACT and students are granted more time to complete each section, so if you prefer to reason through longer, more abstract questions you may want to consider taking the SAT. You are penalized for incorrect answers by ¼ point on the SAT, whereas there is no penalty for incorrect answers on the ACT.
SAT Subject Tests
Unlike the SAT and ACT, which should usually be taken during junior year or in the first few months of senior year, the best time to take an SAT Subject Test is right after you have finished your coursework in that subject. This will ensure that the material is fresh in your mind and allow you to focus on the test at hand, as opposed to saving all tests for junior year, which can be overwhelming. Some schools require certain subject tests (usually related to your intended major), while others will stipulate a required number of tests in subjects of your choice, and for others still they are optional or “recommended.” Creating a testing schedule is essential when it comes to the SAT Subject Tests. Not all tests are available on each testing date and you may only take up to three SAT Subject Tests on a given date. Plus, you cannot take any SAT Subject Tests on the same day that you take the SAT. Each Subject Test is scored on a scale from 200-800. There are 20 different Subjects Tests in five different subject areas including English, history, mathematics, science, and languages.
Advanced Placement (AP)
In Advanced Placement (AP) classes, students are given the opportunity to study college-level work in 30+ different curricular areas. While AP exams are not required for college admissions, they are an increasingly common and competitive factor in representing academic dedication and intellectual challenge. Like the SAT Subject Tests, AP exams (administered in the first two weeks of May of each year) should be taken immediately following coursework in a specific subject. If you are successful (usually meaning a score of “4” or “5”) on these exams you can earn credit for a college class based on your score (and the school’s individual policy). AP exams also offer score choice, meaning that if you are unsatisfied with a score, you are not required to report it to the colleges on your list. Many students decide to self-study for the exams if their school does not offer the course or if they were not recommended for the course – anyone can take an AP exam.
IB and TOEFL
Comparable to AP coursework, and offered in international American school curricula, the International Baccalaureate offers students college-level study in multiple subjects. While with AP courses and tests students prepare for a specific exam in a single focused subject (and can take as many or as few of these courses and exams as they want), the IB diploma program consists of six courses in six different subjects (three higher level subjects and three standard level subjects), as well as three core requirements (the extended essay, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and creativity, action, service (CAS)). Spread over two years, at the completion of the program, written examinations are completed and diplomas are awarded accordingly for students who score a total of 24 to 45 points. Each subject is scored on a one to seven point scale, with up to three additional points awarded for combined results on the extended essay and TOK, and satisfactory participation in CAS. Many colleges grant credit (each point translates to a college credit hour) for completing the IB program, or will waive the requirement of lower-level core courses.
In addition to standardized testing required for admissions consideration, international students may also need to take the TOEFL (Testing of English as a Foreign Language). If you are planning to study in the Unites States, Canada, United Kingdom, or other countries where English is the primary language of instruction, you should read each college’s application materials carefully to determine its individual requirements. Some schools will determine your English proficiency solely on the basis of your SAT or ACT score, while others will want to see the TOEFL in addition to these other tests. The TOEFL exam consists of a mixture of fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, and essay-style questions and can be taken online at accredited testing sites throughout the world. The internet-based test is divided into four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing, each scored on a scale from one to 30. There is no passing or failing score on the TOEFL, and each individual institution sets their own score requirements. Most US colleges are looking for a score of 100 or better on the TOEFL.
Test scores are never the only criteria considered for admission, but they are one of the “hard factors” (in addition to grades, courses, and class rank) that admissions officers consider to determine if you can handle the academic demands at that particular school. Remember, classroom ability does not necessarily correlate to standardized test-taking ability. Taking practice tests several times before the exam under realistic testing conditions will help you feel comfortable and confident when faced with the real thing. Remember to keep track of all of your examination dates and scores, as it will enable you to transfer this information directly onto your college applications. Sharpen those number-2 pencils (and your test-taking skills) and best of luck from all of us at IvyWise!