Home » Academics » College Planning » Testing Overview

Testing Overview

Standardized Testing

One of the realities of the college process is that students, at some point, have to take a variety of standardized tests. We try not to let these tests dominate students’ lives, so they are not overemphasized. On the other hand, tests have some importance and cannot be ignored.

At the most highly selective colleges/universities in the US, standardized testing remains an important factor in admissions decisions. A few institutions downplay the importance of scores, and some have eliminated test requirements entirely, but those institutions are still in the minority. Because standardized testing is important at most colleges (regardless of what they may tell you in an information session), it is critical that you understand testing requirements.


In high school, the process starts out with the PSAT (the Preliminary SAT). Students will take this test in the fall of their freshman and sophomore years. Students will take the PSAT again in the fall of their junior year. Although this administration serves as another practice run, the results count for the National Merit Scholarship competition. These scores, however, not sent to colleges. Most kids will take the SAT Reasoning Test for the first time in the fall or winter of their junior year (November, December or January). Many take the SAT a second time later in the spring of junior year (March, May or June), and some take it another time in the fall of senior year (October).


SAT is one of the two major exams associated with college admissions; the other is the ACT. Years ago, the SAT was more commonly taken by students on the east or west coasts, and the ACT was primarily taken by students in the Midwest; now there is no geographic distinction, and colleges will accept either test with no preference. The SAT Reasoning Test was revised and updated in March of 2016. The current version has two sections: evidence based reading & writing and math. There is an optional writing section too. It is administered six times between October and June of every year. One can find out more about the current SAT on the College Board website. A ninth or tenth grader probably does not need to do any formal standardized testing preparation, but online test preparation is available free of charge through the Khan Academy. However, future test scores will be higher if students start to cultivate good academic habits early.

SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests are one hour, multiple choice exams (offered by the College Board, the same company as the SAT) that tests your knowledge of specific academic subject areas such as world languages, math, sciences, history, and English literature. Students can choose which tests to take, if any, and the tests are offered six times per year, on the same dates as the SAT, except in March when only the ACT is offered. Language subject tests include a listening section only on the November exam. Some highly selective colleges require two SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT or ACT. Most colleges don’t require any subject texts, though if you are a strong standardized test taker with solid content knowledge in any of these Subject Test areas, it may be advisable to to have a few strong scores to complement your testing profile. It is important to know whether you will need subject tests (and which tests you may need) as you make your testing plans, so be sure to check the admissions web page of the colleges you are considering. For example, many engineering programs will require applicants to take Math 2 and Physics or Chemistry. Although three subject tests can be taken in one sitting, we recommend that you sit for only one or two at a time because it is difficult to be well-prepared to take three at once.


ACT (American College Test) is an alternative to the SAT and has recently overtaken the SAT as the exam most frequently taken by high school students. It is a content-based test with sections on reading, English, math, science, and writing. The ACT requires students to answer more questions in less time than the SAT, so speed is important. Research shows that the large majority of students do about the same on both tests; however, a small number will do better on the ACT or the SAT, so we recommend students take a practice test of each to see which test is preferable, based on a score comparison and the student’s experience with the test format.

%d bloggers like this: