IvyWise Resources

Withstanding the Time of Tests

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. With more standardized test options than ever before (PSAT, SAT, 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.


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 to determine which test is better suited to your individual abilities. Then, you can prepare a test prep strategy. 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, which gives you enough time to take it again if you’re not happy with your score.

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. The entire test lasts two hours and 55 minutes, or three hours and 35 minutes with the optional writing section.

The SAT has two sections — one that tests reading and writing and another that tests math. Each section is scored out of 800, making your highest possible total SAT score 1600. Each section is divided into two modules of equal length. The difficulty level of the second module is based on how the student performs on the first module. The SAT clocks in at two hours and 14 minutes, but despite the shorter length, more time is allowed per question than on the ACT.

Students are not penalized for guessing on either test. However, we recommend ruling out the wrong answer choices so you can make the best possible guess. Guessing correctly, after all, will help your score.

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. AP exams, which are administered in the first two weeks of May 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 AP exams if their school does not offer the course or if they were not recommended for the course — anyone can take an AP exam.


Comparable to AP coursework and offered in international American school curricula, the International Baccalaureate offers college-level study in multiple subjects. The two-year 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).

Students complete written examinations at the completion of the program, and diplomas are awarded accordingly for those who score a total of 24 to 45 points. Each subject is scored from one to seven points, 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 U.S. 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 your examination dates and scores, as it will enable you to transfer this information directly onto your college applications.

If you need help with test prep or any other aspect of the college admissions journey, IvyWise is here to help. Schedule an Initial Consultation to see how our team of expert college admissions counselors and tutors can help you achieve your academic goals.

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