Know the Standardized Tests - SAT, ACT, Subject Tests and APs

September 26, 2021

When pursuing admission to the most selective colleges of repute, your scores on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT play a critical role. And while knowing their criticality could easily make you freak out about these tests, stressing over your scores isn’t ideal

Remember that test scores are nothing but a qualitative analysis of your abilities. Though they may allow you to demonstrate yourself (especially true for candidates who don’t have exceptional academic records), they are only stepping stones in the bigger picture. The best strategy is to be realistic about your chances and accept that you may have to retake the tests quite a few times before you hit your optimal performance.  

The quest for the perfect score

If you’re planning to take a test while setting the perfect score as a benchmark, you may need to reset your goals. When it comes to taking such tests, there’s no such thing as the “ideal” score

Test scores are used to filter out the thousands of applications that schools receive every year. This is just a way of shredding out the students who are not above a basic cut-off score. So having an absolute score will not add an edge to your application. You will still be analyzed as per the acceptable “range” of scores, not an exact number. This means that someone with the minimum score of 33 at ACT and you with a 36 will both make it to the next round if you both fall in the prospective college’s range of acceptable scores.

That’s why instead of running towards perfection, you can do something more productive with your time like pursuing your interests or studying for other tests like the APs; things that will really make you stand out of the long queue of applications.  

Now, while obsessing over a perfect score is not worth it, it’s important to remember that some selective colleges use these tests for much more than filtering. They may use them to analyze your efforts in pursuing things as tricky as perfect scores. So it would help if you remembered that a decent score will always work in your favor (no matter what), but things like extracurricular activities will also convey a lot. 

How Do I Decide Between the SAT or ACT?

When it comes to choosing between the ACT and SAT, it's challenging to come up with a clear winner. Often students spend too much time analyzing, and they still can't come up with a solution. The issue lies in the fact that they let other people's opinion affect their decision making. What might help them is analyzing the fundamental differences between both tests.  

As far as colleges are concerned, there's really no preference on their part. They just want students to perform well in whichever test they choose.

If you're going with an opinion of choosing the easier one, you're out of luck. You need to understand that neither of the tests is going to be easier than others. What might help you is taking a practice test for each. After that, you might able to decide on the one that you felt comfortable with. Even if you went in with hardly any preparation, comparing how well you performed will also help.

The two exams might appeal in a unique way to you. If you have a strong English background, you will undoubtedly develop a liking for the ACT as it is basically 3/4 reading (the science is more like reading passages of scientific nature) and 1/4 math. If you enjoy doing math, the SAT might be the way to go for you. SAT places equal emphasis on the verbal and math sections. If you like solving puzzles and riddles, the SAT becomes an obvious choice for you. But if you prefer questions having a more direct approach, you will want to skip on the SAT and take the ACT. The SAT and the ACT without the essays is around 3 hours.    

To get accepted at my favorite college, what SAT/ACT scores should I aim for?

Strive to achieve a score that is at least between the 25th and 75th percentile of students who are accepted at the college you are applying to. You will find all such relevant data on the Internet about Ivy League and other reputed colleges. If your scores are lower than the 25th percentile, you must strive hard to better your scores so that your application carries more weight. 

Many students will be within the 25th and 75th percentile range with their SAT/ACT scores of the accepted students at their favorite college. Even then, they feel the urgent need to continue to work hard to improve their SAT/ACT scores. However, the reality is that all that extra effort will only fetch marginally better scores.

Do you know that some students who have excellent, near-perfect standardized test scores get left out simply because they have paid scant attention to other salient components of the application? We therefore highly recommend that you allocate as much time as you can to pursuing extracurricular activities and creating an outstanding extracurricular profile. Such a profile will make you stand apart from an applicant who has fantastic scores but hasn’t much to show of what he did after school hours.

Let’s suppose there is a student with an SAT/ACT score in the 70th percentile and she has two options – she either studies hard over the next few months to better her test scores to the 75th or 80th percentile of accepted students at her favorite college, or she opts to spend that time pursuing an extracurricular activity. Since she has worked hard all through high school to set herself up as a fashion blogger, she can utilize the time to arrange a charity function to assist the underprivileged girls at high school procure dresses for the prom that they will all attend. When she selects the second option, this student will show her dedication to her claim to fame – fashion. At the same time, she will also establish that she is capable of leaving a lasting impression on her community. These two takeaways are far more significant to the college admission staff than a marginal enhancement in her SAT/ACT score.  

SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subjects Tests are often recommended by many, but they are optional. While college boards might want applicants to appear for them, they also understand that not all students will take these tests. Also, most students might not even be aware of them until they submit their applications. If you aren't able to appear for these subject tests, you can make the college admission panel aware of the reason by specifying the information in your application form with a short paragraph.

Subject tests might be optional, but they sure are important. They're often suggested to students if that's not too much for them considering the financial aspects. Many colleges and schools might use these tests o analyze your application even if it's not a requirement.  

If possible, take at least two Subject Tests. The reason is that some highly selective colleges might want to see these scores in your applications. Don't be surprised if some of them mandate it; it's entirely up to them. Some students might also view these as parameters to stand out, and rightly so.

If you're beginning your college application journey, you should certainly look into taking Subject Tests as early as your freshman summer. Maybe you can choose subjects like Bio or World History in your freshman summer, and once you do well in those classes, get SAT Subject test study material to prepare for these tests. f you're able to take them early in your high school career, it might clear your path down the line when it comes to a quality college education. Be mindful that you can take up to three Subject Tests on the same day, but that doesn't allow you to appear for Subject Tests and the regular SAT for the same session.   

Test Prep Tips

We have one of the best free resources for SAT and ACT prep. We provide exclusive and detailed strategies and videos covering each aspect of the SAT or ACT.

Additionally, for the SAT, you can consider Khan Academy and the SAT reddit as a useful resource to guide you in the right direction. For the ACT, you can head to the official ACT website.      

Take a look at these essential tips that will help you in preparing for these critical tests.  

  • If you particularly struggle with the reading section, you should practice reading as much as you can. Get your hands dirty with anything you can find, be it Literature, fiction, newspaper, science fiction, or Fantasy; all will help you get high scores in the verbal section.  
  • Developing strong skills for the verbal section will also help you in general with your exams. Remember, the key to answering correctly lies in the fact that you read and understand the questions well.
  • Make sure you take ample tests to prepare adequately for your preferred test. Put aside all your distractions like phone and other accessories that might divert your mind. Train yourself to stay focused for long durations, and don't let events surrounding you affect your determination.
  • You can time yourself across the different sections to better pace through the test.
  • While analyzing your practice scores, focus on the answers you get wrong. Try to analyze was its lack of preparation or other factors like time scarcity that led to such mistakes.    
  • Work hard while you have the time, but allow yourself at least a week off before the final test. You wouldn't want your mind to be filled with distracting thoughts when appearing for the examination. Indulge in activities that you enjoy in your leisure time and reach a healthy, peaceful mental state as the test approaches.

Wrapping it up

While good scores increase your chances of getting accepted to a great college, there are a few things you should keep in mind while applying. In case you’re planning to take the SAT or ACT, don’t only rely on your scores in them. Consider all the other factors and elements of the application as well, and don’t be shy of playing them up a bit if needed. You should focus on submitting a strong application that the selection committee just can’t resist. So don’t forget to leave out your high school grades, essays, letters of recommendation, and test scores. There is no way a good college will judge you just on the marks of your test scores, except for some state schools that may use them for auto-admission.

More Topics

All Topics

Free College Essay Guide

  • Strategies required to write a stellar college essay
  • Exploration Worksheets to help you brainstorm
  • 3 Exemplar Personal Statements
  • Framework to help you Audit your College Essays
Download the College Essay Guide