Are you ready for college admissions testing? There are literally dozens of standardized tests available to college-bound students, all of them with confusing-sounding acronyms. It can be pretty tough to figure out which tests you need to take, which tests you should take, and which tests you can skip. We’re here to help.
For the majority of college-bound students, there’s really only one test that you’ll NEED to take: the SAT or ACT. There are plenty of schools that have gone test optional where you might be able to submit other materials (usually other test scores). Most top-ranked four-year colleges still require that students submit either the SAT or the ACT.
Always check the testing requirements at the schools where you’re applying to. Many schools require additional test scores, and you need to be prepared.
Students intending to apply to selective colleges should go beyond the SAT and the ACT to include AP exams or IB exams in their college admissions timeline.
- AP Exams: Colleges look for students who take really tough classes, and at most high schools, this means AP classes. In order to earn college credit for the classes, students need to earn high AP exam scores. While these scores don’t generally play a role in admission, they’re still definitely worth taking. After all, why put in the effort of an AP class without getting the college credit for it?
- IB Exams: Like AP exams, these are cumulative end of year tests that may qualify you for college credit. These tests are part of the International Baccalaureate program and are required to earn an IB diploma. The IB program is less commonly offered than AP classes, but like AP classes, participation in IB demonstrates the desire for academic challenges.
And then there are the tests that offer some really valuable practice. These tests include the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT/NMSQT. In addition to valuable practice, the PSAT/NMSQT is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. Only the top 1% of test-takers receive this prestigious award. For students who qualify, competition in the National Merit Scholarship program can be a big bonus on a college application.
When to Test
Once you figure out which tests to take, you need to figure out when to take them.
- Practice tests: 9th grade through fall of 11th grade
8th/9th and 10th graders take the PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10 respectively. Juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT in October that year.
- AP Exams: May after completing the course
Students take the AP exams each May after finishing the corresponding course.
- ACT/SAT: Spring of 11th grade through fall of 12th grade
Students can take the ACT or SAT on any test date, but it’s best to wait until spring of junior year. Colleges want to see scores that are fairly recent and waiting ensures max scores. Taking the test for the first time in spring of junior year also allows you several chances to retake the test before college applications are due in late fall or winter.
Plan for the college admissions test
Prepping for any one of these tests is a marathon, not a sprint. Students should plan to spend anywhere from four weeks to more than three months on test prep in order to maximize their scores. Check out the table below for a quick reference guide on college admission tests.
|PSAT 8/9 or PSAT 10||8th and 9th grade students (for the PSAT 8/9) or 10th grade students (for the PSAT 10)||Practice for the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT||Offered on specific dates by the student’s school||None – this test is usually used for diagnostic and progress assessment purposes|
|PSAT/NMSQT||11th grade students||Compete for the National Merit Scholarship||October of 11th grade||3+ months – students who hope to be competitive should dedicate several months to PSAT prep, which will then help them get ahead on SAT prep|
|SAT||11th and 12th grade students||Used for college admissions||Offered throughout the year (usually in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June) – recommend taking it spring of junior year and again fall of senior year||3+ months – Many students spend up to a year or more preparing for this test because admissions test scores are among the top three factors in college admission decisions|
|ACT||11th and 12th grade students||Used for college admissions||Offered throughout the year (usually in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July) – recommend taking it spring of junior year and again fall of senior year||3+ months – Many students spend up to a year or more preparing for this test because admissions test scores are among the top three factors in college admission decisions|
|IB Exams||11th-12th grade students||Administered by your school at the end of the year.||Dates determined by your school and the IB program.||2+ months – These tests are cumulative, so they cover an entire year (and sometimes more) worth of material. Long-term projects are also part of these assessments, so plan to spend a lot of time on prep.|
|AP Exams||9th-12th grade students||Most students take these after completing the relevant AP course; colleges award credit based on AP exam scores, although score cutoffs and credit policies vary widely from college to college||Offered during a two-week window in May of each year||2+ months – AP exams are rigorous and in-depth, so they require a great deal of preparation|