Standardized Tests for College Admissions: An Overview

There are two main standardized tests used by most colleges, the SAT and the ACT. The SAT is administered by the College Board, a nonprofit organization. The ACT is administered by the American College Testing program. The intent of both standardized tests is to guide college admissions officers in deciding whether students will be academically successful.

Standardized Tests:  SAT Reasoning Test

The SAT Reasoning Test is designed to gauge general ability in: Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. There is also an experimental section which is used to normalize questions for future administrations of the SAT and does not count toward the final score. All scores are multiples of 10 with each section’s score ranging between 200-800. Each major section is divided into three parts with ten sub-sections. The test is timed and will last approximately four hours with breaks. Students are not penalized for guessing, since scores are based on the number of questions answered correctly. The highest score able to be received on the SAT is 1600 (which would be a perfect 800 score on both the math and reading/writing sections.)

Standardized Tests:  SAT Subject Tests

The SAT Subject Tests are comprised of 20 multiple choice questions based on individual subjects. Which standardized tests a student takes is typically based upon the college the student is applying to and sometimes their chosen major. No more than three subject tests can be taken in one sitting, and they cannot be taken when the SAT Reasoning Test is given because they are usually given on the same day. Each individual test is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 though some tests are scored using a curve.

Standardized Tests:  ACT Test

The ACT standardized test was created to be an achievement test based on a general high school curriculum. It is made up of five sections: one each of math, English, reading, writing, and science reasoning. Unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for guessing on the multiple-choice part of the test. The four main tests, math, English, reading, and science reasoning are scored individually on a scale of 1–36. A composite score is given which is the whole number average of the four scores. Each subject test lasts one hour, thus the overall testing time is approximately three hours. The test is scored out of 36.

Standardized Tests:  Which Should I Take?

Most students will fare about the same on both standardized tests; most, but not all. If you are better at figuring things out and reasoning, then the SAT might be more for you. Also, if you have an awesome vocabulary and can figure out heavy text and think analytically, the SAT might be for you.

ACT standardized test takers tend to be fast readers, possibly suffer from test anxiety, and feel at home with advanced math such as trig, conic sections, or logarithms. The ACT does not require as much working memory as the SAT.

Take time to become familiar with the ACT and the SAT standardized tests. Practice tests and workbooks are available at most bookstores so grab a few and get cracking. You will soon discover areas of weakness that require more attention. Practice will also reveal which areas will be easiest for you to make improvement before testing.

Another consideration in deciding which test to take is knowing which test your intended school requires or recommends. Visit their website to find out. All in all, taking both tests is optimal to see which is best for you.

Standardized Tests:  What About Test Scores

Though there is much pressure to take standardized tests and obtain high scores, don’t let that become more than it should. In totality, you are much more than a standardized test score, and there is more to the overall process than just test scores.

Standardized test scores are only one part of the equation. Admission officers typically place anywhere from 0 percent to 80 percent of the whole process upon the test scores. It is very college specific. You might be interested to know that there are awesome colleges out there that are now test optional. You can go to to find out which ones are near you.

Many colleges use the test scores for merit aid, not admission. So if you are testing for admissions only, most colleges care more about good grades and challenging classes than test scores. If you are testing based on wanting or needing scholarships, then retaking tests might be something to consider in order to get the highest scores and thus a possible scholarship.


Jackie, a former public and private school teacher, enjoys homeschooling her 16 year old daughter via Time4Learning's new high school courses and other supplementals. Jackie keeps busy writing study guides, educational articles, and literature units for various online education companies as well as acting as an online marketing consultant. She is a contributing author at 3 D Learners.

May 10, 2013


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