How College Admissions Tests Work

Students taking test
College Image Gallery Many universities require students to take a standardized test, such as the ACT or SAT, to apply for admission. See more college pictures.
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Are college admission tests making you anxious? If so, you're probably not alone. More than 1.4 million students took the ACT in 2008, and slightly more took the SAT [sources: ACT: 2008, College Board: SAT Scores]. That's a lot of sweaty palms -- but no need to worry. The process of registering for and taking admission tests is pretty straightforward -- there are not a lot of gimmicks or traps.

You may ask yourself why you're even being put through this agony -- aren't your grade point average (GPA), transcript and extracurricular activities enough? Well, many of the colleges that require an admissions exam will tell you that a standardized test provides extra information, and that all the individual parts combine to convey accurate pictures of their applicants. Also, high school courses are not always equivalent from region to region, so a standard measure that is not specific to one particular school can be more meaningful.


Perhaps that's not convincing enough. There's still some tension in the air. Are you concerned about which test to take: the SAT or ACT? The SAT is considered a general test of reasoning and problem solving, whereas the ACT tests several high school curricular areas. The institutions to which you will be applying will tell you which you need, so should be a relief. And if they tell you that either is acceptable, there are specific questions to ask yourself to help you decide, so no worries there.

What else do you need to know about admissions test? It might help to know how they originated, what they cover, how to take them and what you can do to prepare. If that seems overwhelming, just relax -- this article has the information you need to know. Breathe deeply, and let it all unfold before you, starting with this: Just who exactly conceived of these exams, anyway?



Origins of College Admissions Tests

The College Board, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in 1900. It assists more than 7 million students a year in areas such as higher education preparation, selection, assessment and financial aid, and administrates the following exams:

  • The SAT (informally, the SAT I)
  • The SAT Subject Tests (informally, the SAT II), which are 20 subject-area entrance exams required by some college programs
  • The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT; National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test)
  • More than 30 AP courses and exams, offered by high schools for college credit

In 1926, the College Board launched the SAT (then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test). Currently, ETS, a nonprofit test developer, creates and analyzes the test for the College Board. Since its inception, the SAT has been modified several times due to issues such as:


  • Time limits: During the first decades of the SAT, the test was designed so most students would not be able to complete it.
  • Diversity: In the early days of the SAT, most test takers were young white men, but changes have since been made to ensure that questions are fair for all people taking the test.
  • Over-preparation: The SAT measures aptitude rather than achievement, so test designers make adjustments to discourage practice effects. For example, analogy and antonym questions were once added since practice was less likely to affect those results.
  • Reliability: Designers want to make certain that SAT results are comparable from year to year.

[source: Lawrence]

Although the College Board purports the SAT to be the most "widely used college admission exam" [source: College Board: Home], the ACT's creators claim it is the most "widely accepted college entrance exam" [source: ACT: Accepted]. This test is created and distributed by an organization also known as ACT (formerly, American College Testing), a not-for profit group serving both business and educational needs. Other ACT products include homeschooling materials and assessments, middle school and high school achievement tests and college placement tests.

In 1959, college enrollment was increasing in the United States. American College Testing was founded to devise an alternative to the SAT and serve a more academically diverse applicant population. In the 1990s, ACT expanded to include business assessment and analysis.

A major revision to the ACT test occurred in 2005 with the inclusion of an optional writing test. This was in response to the University of California's (UC) new admissions requirement of a writing sample, since the UC system represents a large percentage of students taking college entrance exams [source: ACT: Writing Component].

That's a little background on the SAT and ACT. Up next, we'll look at details on test format and content.


Structure of College Admissions Tests

The SAT is primarily a multiple-choice exam, so everything -- excluding the written segment -- is machine-scored. Students are allotted 3 hours and 45 minutes to take the exam, broken down into four sections:

  • Critical reading: three subsections on word relationships, reading comprehension and contextual analysis.
  • Mathematics: three subsections on algebra, geometry, measurement and statistics.
  • Writing: three subsections on recognizing errors and creating a developed essay.
  • Unscored section: one segment piloting new questions for one of the three scored sections.

In contrast, the SAT Subject Tests (SAT II) are one-hour exams taken in literature, history, mathematics, science and languages. They are also multiple choice, but some language tests have a listening component.


For the machine-scored questions, correct responses are worth one point, responses left blank are not counted, and there is a one-quarter-point deduction for a wrong answer to discourage guessing. For each section, the total score is transferred to a scale score, providing continuity among different sections and versions of the test. Each section of the SAT test receives a score from 200-800. The average score for each section is 500. The three sections are then totaled to obtain a composite, with 2400 being the top score [source: College Board: Tests].

As with the SAT, the ACT consists primarily of multiple-choice questions. The ACT is shorter, however: Students have 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete the exam. It covers four curricular areas, plus an optional writing section:

  • English: correct usage and application
  • Mathematics: reasoning, algebra, geometry, trigonometry
  • Reading: comprehension and analysis of passages
  • Science: interpretation and analysis of information, reasoning and problem-solving
  • Writing: selection and defense of an opinion on a given topic (additional 30 minutes allotted)

The correct scores are counted with no deduction for wrong answers. Like the SAT, the raw score is converted to a scale score. The final ACT score is a composite from 1-36, based on the average of all four of the tests [source: ACT: Understand]. In 2009, the average U.S. ACT score was 21.1 [source: ACT: Selections].

Now that you know what's on the test, let's find out how to get you into the test site.


Logistics of College Admissions Tests

So what's the registration process for an admissions exam? First, resign yourself to sacrificing a Saturday morning sleep-in. There are only a few strict exceptions that allow non-Saturday testing, such as religious reasons [sources: College Board: Special Circumstances, ACT: Non-Saturday].

Getting up on a Saturday might be hard, but for most students, SAT or ACT registration is simple: you can complete it online [sources: College Board: Register, ACT: Registration]. There are a few special circumstances that require mailed-in registration:


  • You're younger than 13.
  • You want to pay by check or money order.
  • It's the first time you're applying for a non-Saturday test.

Paper registration forms can be requested from the respective Web sites or obtained from high school guidance offices. Schools will also need to provide documentation if you are eligible for testing modifications, such as additional time [sources: College Board: Services, ACT: Services].

How much will you be paying? The tests vary a bit: It's $45 for the SAT, $32 for the ACT and $47 if you take the ACT plus writing. Registration can be completed several months ahead of the test date until about a month before. Extra fees are added for these reasons:

  • Late registration.
  • Same-day registration, if there are any open spaces.
  • Sending scores to extra colleges (more than four institutions).
  • International test sites.

Some students may be eligible for fee waivers; these are granted through an applicant's school, not through the test developers. You should obtain information from the school's guidance office [sources: College Board: Waivers, ACT: Waiver].

OK, now you've registered, and the big day is fast approaching. What do you need to take with you? Both tests have similar requirements:

  • Admission ticket.
  • Photo ID (must be government- or school-issued, such as a driver's license, passport or school ID)
  • Number 2 pencils and eraser
  • Permissible calculator (Graphing or scientific models are acceptable, but there are forbidden calculators. Check the detailed information on the Web sites.)

[sources: College Board: Test Day, ACT: Calculator]

You won't be allowed to take notes, pens, rulers, a cell phone, a camera, a BlackBerry -- or most any type of digital or electronic equipment -- into the test room.

Now that you know how to register for the test, you'll need to decide when to take it. No need to stress about that, either. Read on.


Timelines for College Admissions Tests

Female student studying at computer
To set a timeline for yourself, visit the test makers' Web sites to see on which dates the exams will be offered.
Bruce Laurance/Getty Images

When is the best time to take your college admissions test? There's no one answer that fits everyone, but specific questions can help.

An essential question: What's the cutoff date for applying to your institutions? Your SAT scores are accessible online about three weeks after testing, and they're sent to colleges then, if you request. ACT results arrive through the mail three to eight weeks after testing if you've taken the four-section test. If you complete the writing portion as well, expect to receive the entire results in five to eight weeks. Take these deadlines seriously -- if colleges don't receive your scores on time, they may not consider you despite an impressive GPA or extensive extracurricular activities [sources: College Board: Scores, ACT: When].


Next, you must figure out where you want to take the exam and when it's being offered. Although both tests are given several times each year, not all testing dates are available at all sites. Check the tests' Web sites for specific dates in your area.

Now you need to be introspective. Honestly, you probably already know how you tend to perform on standardized tests. How well do you think you'll do here? Can you sit down and breeze through a test, or are you easily stressed? If you think you'll turn into a bundle of nerves, you may want to consider taking the test as a junior, then retaking it early in your senior year. This strategy may allow you to do the following:

  • Reduce the pressure on your test date because you have a back-up plan
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses and learn how to focus future preparation
  • Send colleges only your best total score from a single exam date, even if you take the test several times. (This must correspond to your college's policy, however. Some institutions want results from all tests you've taken, though the College Board asserts that most colleges consider a student's top score only, even with multiple submissions.)

[source: College Board: Score Reporting]

Many students decide to take admissions tests twice and do somewhat better the second time, although it's unusual to see radical changes. If you want, you may take either test a total of 12 times. There are no age or grade restrictions, so evaluate your personal situation.

If you are interested in taking an SAT Subject Test, plan ahead. You cannot take it the same day as the basic SAT, nor can you take more than three Subject Tests in one day.

Once you've chosen your test date, what can you do to prepare for it? Read on to find a few suggestions.


Preparing for College Admissions Tests

The SAT is an aptitude test, predicting your ability for future learning, whereas the ACT is an achievement test, measuring what you've learned so far. There are parallel ways to prepare for either test, depending upon how much time, money and effort you want to put in:

  • Pretests: Many high schools offer the PSAT/NMSQT once a year in October. It provides insight into skills needed for the SAT, and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation offers scholarships based on the results. ACT offers schools the opportunity to administer PLAN to 10th-graders. It has multiple purposes: predicting ACT scores, assessing achievement levels and helping you plan for the remaining high school years and beyond.
  • Developer's materials: Both the College Board and ACT offer free daily test questions and sample practice questions on their Web sites. There are also online courses and hard-copy study guides available for purchase.
  • Commercial materials: Prep courses are offered online and in person from many sources, such as Kaplan and Sylvan. There are also numerous study guides published, such as Barron's, McGraw-Hill and the "Dummies" series.

There are general test-taking tips that are appropriate for many exams:


  • Acquaint yourself with the format and subject matter of the test you're taking.
  • Answer the easy questions first; you can return to tough questions later if there's time.
  • Rule out as many responses as you can for multiple-choice questions. What do you know for certain is a wrong answer?
  • Keep track of the time -- don't get stuck on one question.
  • Read carefully. (This seems like a no-brainer, but it's essential.)

No matter how prepared you are, you still have options as to which test you're going to take. Don't agonize over this choice -- read on to look systematically at the pros and cons of each option.


Choosing an Admissions Test

When choosing a college admissions test, you should, first and foremost, determine the requirements for the institutions you're applying to. What do they want? SAT? ACT? Either? Neither? The decision may already have been made for you. If you do have choice, that means you get to select the test that suits you best. For instance, you might consider:

  • Length of test: How long can you concentrate? The SAT is almost an hour longer, but only one-half hour longer if you take the writing section of the ACT. Is this a concern for you?
  • Type of test: The SAT asks you to apply your reasoning and problem-solving skills in reading, mathematics and writing. The ACT is based on the high school curricular areas of English, mathematics, reading and science (with writing optional). Which addresses your strengths better?
  • Pretest: Did you take both the PSAT and PLAN? On which did you score higher?
  • Academic style: Do you work really hard in your classes? If so, you might do better on the ACT, which is content-driven. Are your reasoning abilities better than your grades? You might consider opting for the SAT.
  • Data: Take a practice test on each of the Web sites, which might help you decide which test best illustrates your strengths.

[source: Slatalla]


Another point to consider is that some institutions don't require admissions tests at all. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, lists 830 U.S. four-year institutions that do not require SAT or ACT results for admission. A fundamental reason for eliminating the requirement is the applicant pool: There are concerns that reliance on test scores limit the number of minority, low-income and female candidates since their test scores are often lower [sources: FairTest, College Board: Validity].

Even if schools demand that you take an admissions test, some are permitting variations, such as requiring only SAT Subject Tests. In 2009, more than 30 of the top 100 Liberal Arts Colleges (compiled by the U. S. News and World Report) had alternative requirements [source: Epstein].

You now have the information and resources you need to make informed decisions about the primary college admissions tests. It's going to be up to you to stay calm and focused if you decide to take one of the exams.

If you want to learn more about the SAT, ACT and getting into college, explore the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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  • ACT. "2009-2010 ACT Fees and Services." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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  • ACT. "Am I Eligible for a Fee Waiver?" 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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