How College Admissions Tests Work

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 below.

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More Great Links


  • ACT. "2008 College Readiness Report News Release." August 13, 2008. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "2009-2010 ACT Fees and Services." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "ACT to Offer Optional Writing Component on College Entrance Exam." August 27, 2002. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "Am I Eligible for a Fee Waiver?" 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "America's Most Widely Accepted College Entrance Exam." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "Can I Use a Calculator?" 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "Is Non-Saturday Testing Available?" 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "Practice Questions." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • ACT. "Registration Options." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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  • ACT. "Test Dates in the U.S., U.S. Territories, and Canada." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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  • ACT. "Tips for the ACT Writing Test." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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  • College Board. "College Board Tests." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Full Practice Test." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Getting Your Scores." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Homepage." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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  • College Board. "SAT Scores Stable as Record Numbers Take Tests." August 26, 2008. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "SAT Validity Studies." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Services and Fees." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Services for Students with Disabilities." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Special Circumstances." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • College Board. "Test Dates." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
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  • College Board. "Tips." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • Epstein, Jonathan P. "Behind the SAT-Optional Movement.: Context and Controversy." Journal of College Admission. Summer 2009. (February 11, 2010)
  • FairTest. "Optional List." Winter 2009-2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • Lawrence, Ida M.; Gretchen W. Rigol; and Thomas Van Essen. "A Historical Perspective on the SAT 1926-2001." January 1, 2002. (February 11, 2010)
  • Public Broadcasting System. "The 1901 College Board." 2010. (February 11, 2010)
  • Regents of the University of California. "UC and the SAT." 2001. (February 11, 2010)
  • Slatalla, Michelle. "ACT vs. SAT." New York Times. Nov. 4, 2007. (February 11, 2010)