College Admission Tests

What you need to know

  • College Admissions tests are very important. You need high test scores to get in to some schools. Other schools award scholarships and other aid based on test scores.

  • There are two standard college admissions test, the SAT and the ACT. Schools accept both. They are different in substance and form and you need to try both to see which one plays to your strengths.

  • The PSAT is a preliminary test that is not reported to colleges but it is important because it gives you information to prepare for the SAT and can help you qualify to be a National Merit Scholar.

  • Some selective schools and programs require or recommend that you to take one-hour tests called SAT Subject Tests or SAT2s in order to be considered for admission.

  • Many schools allow you to apply without submitting SAT and ACT scores. These are called test-optional schools.

The Details

What Tests Do I Need to Know About?

  • What’s the difference between ACT and SAT?

  • Do I need to take the essay part of the tests?

When do I need to take them?

  • Why take both the SAT and ACT?

  • Can I take them more than once?

  • How many times is too many?

Why are they important?

  • Why is the PSAT important?

  • What if I am a terrible test taker?

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What Tests Do I Need to Know About?

PSAT (also known as the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test)
The PSAT is a practice test for the SAT test. It is given in schools in the fall. It is provided by the College Board. Scores are not reported to colleges. The test is given primarily to students in tenth and eleventh grades. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. uses the scores received by students taking the test in eleventh grade to determine who qualifies for the National Merit Scholarship.


The SAT is the college admissions test which is administered by the College Board, the same organization that administers the PSAT. The “new” SAT, rolled out in March 2016, is a redesign of the SAT. It has Reading Test, a Writing and Language Test, a Math Test and an optional SAT essay.

Most students take the SAT during their junior and/or senior year of high school. You can take the test more than once; schools vary in how they will consider multiple test scores. The test is given roughly once per month throughout the school year. In 2017 there will be an AUGUST test for the first time in years. In Idaho it is given for free to juniors during the school day. You can find out more and register for the test at the College Board Website.  Many colleges accept scores on either the SAT or the comparable ACT test (discussed below).
The ACT is a college admission test which is accepted as an alternative to the SAT at almost all colleges. The ACT focuses more on core curriculum knowledge that students have acquired in school. It has four sections: English, math, reading, and science. The ACT also includes an optional writing section. Like the SAT, you can take the test more than once; schools vary in how they will consider multiple test scores. The ACT is given on a regular schedule throughout the school year starting in September. You can find out more and register at the ACT website.

What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT?

There are a number of differences: (1) The ACT has science and the SAT does not; (2) The SAT includes more questions based on higher-level mathematics than does the ACT; and (3) The ACT provides less time for each question than does the SAT.

Learning these differences may give you a hunch about which test will be better for you, but you really do not know until you try. Most experts recommend you take practice versions of each of the tests to get an idea of which is a better fit and to sit for both exams at least once.

Do I have to take the essay?

Both the ACT and the SAT can be taken with or without an optional essay. The number of schools that require or recommend the essay is small, and is dropping. Some schools do not require or recommend the essay subtests but will consider them if they are submitted. You should check the admission requirements for the schools that interest you to see if the ACT or SAT essays are required.

SAT II Subject Tests
The SAT organization also gives separate one-hour tests on individual subjects, including history, English, languages, biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Most colleges do not require them for admission, but some of the most competitive schools in the country (for example, Princeton, Yale, etc.) and some of the more competitive STEM schools do require that students submit their scores in one or more of these tests when they apply. Check the school’s admissions requirements.

The tests are given on many of the same dates as a regular SAT tests. You can find out more about the tests at the College Board Website.. You should check the admission requirements for the schools that interest you to see if SAT IIs are required.

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When do I need to take them?

Take the PSAT in the fall of your sophomore year. This will help your student get familiar with the testing format and gain some experience powering through such a lengthy test. Your student’s score on the test will give you all some guidance as to how he or she should approach the test the next year. (I wrote about that in more detail here.)

Take the PSAT again in the fall of your junior year. For many students this will be another opportunity to get ready for the SAT which will be coming in the Spring. For students who test very well, it may also be an opportunity to shoot for a score that will put him or her in contention for a National Merit Scholarship. (You can read more about that in my other post.)  Only a small percentage of students qualify, but in the Palouse there are national merit scholarships awarded every year, to pretty normal kids. You might be one of them, and if you are, you can get a lot of money for college.

There it is - my test taking calendar that should work for every student. It seems like a lot, but it will be a lot easier if you build the tests (and test prep) into your schedule in advance.

Take both the SAT AND the ACT in your junior year. Some states, including Idaho, offer the test during the school day during the spring. Other states like Washington do not, so students need to go to the SAT or ACT website to sign up for the test.

Why take both?

Because they are different, some students do a lot better on one than the other, and you should take BOTH to see which one will allow you to get your best score. Taking them in the junior year spring will allow you to …..

Take either the SAT or the ACT (whichever one is best) in the summer or fall of your senior year if you need to maximize your score.

Can I take them more than once?

There is no limit on the number of times that you can take the SAT or the ACT. Many students take the test two times or more to get the best score.

How many times is too many?

For college admissions purposes, most colleges place less credit on scores if you take a test more than three times.

How do schools evaluate my scores if I take the test more that once?

Most Colleges use a method called “superscoring,” which means that they make a composite score that combines the highest score you receive on each section regardless of when you took it. Let’s say you took the SAT in April at got a 600 CR and a 700 in Math; and took the test again in September and got a 700 CR and a 500 Math. Your “Superscore” would be 1400 — 700 CR and 700 Math. Many colleges also superscore the ACT, but since ACT’s scoring methodology is complicated, some colleges do not.

You can also take the SAT or ACT later in senior year if you need it to qualify for scholarships or financial aid. Sometimes getting a higher score will qualify you for scholarships or other special benefits (like the Western Undergraduate Exchange).

Take the SAT Subject Tests in May or June of the year you complete the substantive course, so the material is still fresh. The tests are given on many of the same dates as the regular SAT tests. You can take more than one subject test in a day (they are only an hour long), but you can’t combine subject tests with the SAT.

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Why are they important?

For many schools SAT or ACT scores are one of the top two or three things taken into consideration in the admissions process. They may be given more weight than they deserve, just because they are an easy metric to compare from school to school. This means that you should work to get the highest score that you are capable of. Once you do your best, know there will be many opportunities for students like you wherever you land.

For those students who feel sure that their test scores don’t reflect their ability, there are many schools which allow you to apply without them. You can find a list of those “test optional”  or “no-test” schools here. There are great schools you can chose from if you don’t want to rely on your admissions test scores to get in.

On the other hand, though it’s good to know that a bad test score won’t keep a good student out of a great college, it’s still worth trying your best on the college admissions test. That’s because many schools award merit aid based on ACT or SAT scores. Some schools will give you scholarships based on your test scores alone. There are other schools which will take scores into account to bump up an aid package by a few thousand dollars. You can test out the impact of SAT and ACT scores by looking at the net price calculator for your favorite school or college. It will ask you for financial information and will probably ask you for grades and test scores. Try fiddling with the test scores you report to see if it will have an impact on the aid the school is estimated to give if you are admitted. One local mom tried it and she said the impact was huge.

Test scores might also be a factor in determining whether you will qualify for reduced tuition at colleges participating in the Western Undergraduate Exchange. While WUE admissions requirements can change from year to year, some schools limit WUE eligibility based on grades or tests scores or test scores alone. Other schools in WUE do not base decisions on test scores.

PSAT Scores are not reported to colleges, but that doesn’t mean they are not important. The PSAT is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which provides a basis for national recognition and scholarships at many schools. The National Merit organization recognizes top students based on the scores they receive when taking the PSAT test in Grade 11. Students in Grade 11 have a better chance of getting a good score on the PSAT if they are familiar with the test, which is why many students take the test to practice in 10th grade (or even earlier). Juniors who did well on the test their sophomore year should make a special effort to prepare for the test so that they can qualify for scholarships. The PSAT is only given at one time of the year, in October. In Idaho the test is free for sophomores. You can get more information about the PSAT on the College Board Website.

Qualifying for National Merit Scholarships is also a great source for aid for college. Some schools offer “full ride” (free room and board) to National Merit Scholars. Many others will increase a merit aid package to recruit them. If you have a shot at qualifying, then preparing for the PSAT junior year is a great financial decision.