How College Admissions Tests Work

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.