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Know Your Tests: College Entrance Exams

Know Your Tests: College Entrance Exams

By Kay Peterson, Ph.D.

September 04, 2008

As you prepare for college, you’ll encounter at least one (and probably more than one) of the following college entrance exams:

  • PSAT/NMSQT: Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Assessment Test
  • SAT Reasoning Test
  • ACT
  • SAT Subject Tests (formerly the SAT II)
  • Admissions requirements vary from school to school. Consult your prospective school when deciding which test to take. Learn more about each of the tests here:

    Test: PSAT/NMSQT

    Description: Two 25-minute critical reading sections; two 25-minute math sections; one 30-minute writing skills section. Not used to determine college admissions; intended to help students prepare for the SAT. Same format as the SAT, but shorter – a test of verbal and mathematical reasoning. Score range is between 20 and 80, with 80 being a perfect score. The average score for high school juniors is 49.

    Usually Taken: During your junior year, though you may wish to take it sooner for practice.

    Tips and Strategies: If you do well on the PSAT (and meet additional academic requirements), you may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program (a nationally distributed merit-based scholarship). Only scores from the junior year are used to determine qualification for National Merit Program. For more information visit: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/psat/about.htm

    Test: SAT Reasoning Test

    Description: Comprised of a 70-minute critical reading section, a 70-minute math section and a 60-minute writing section. Scoring on each section ranges from 200-800 points. Scores on the essay range from 1-6 points. Students in the East and West generally take the SAT.

    Usually Taken: Spring of your junior year or fall of your senior year (or both, if you want a practice run).

    Tips and Strategies: The SAT carries a “wrong answer penalty.” If you guess right, you gain a point; if you guess wrong, you are penalized. Eliminate the answers you know are wrong before guessing. You can retake the test to improve your score, but your college will send all available scores to your prospective college, including the results of tests you have taken previously. The SAT does not allow students to send only their latest and/or best scores. For more information visit: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/sat/about/SATI.html

    Test: ACT

    Description: Three-hour exam; 215 questions; measures achievement in English, math, reading and science. The ACT Plus includes a 30-minute writing test. Scores on each section are averaged to create a composite score. Perfect score is 36. Students in the Midwest and South generally take the ACT.

    Usually Taken: Spring of your junior year or fall of your senior year (or both, if you want a practice run).

    Tips and Strategies: Your score is based on the number of correct answers ONLY. If you aren’t sure, take a guess – it can’t hurt you and it could help. Harder questions are worth the same amount as easy ones. Answer the easy questions first and leave the more time-consuming questions till the end.

    For more information visit: http://www.actstudent.org


    Test: SAT Subject Tests

    Description: One-hour test that assesses mastery of a particular field of study. Up to three tests can be required for admissions. Some schools use the SAT II for course placement; others don’t require it at all. Tests are offered in five subject areas: English, Math, History, Science and Foreign Language. Scores are based on an 800-point scale.

    Usually Taken: Soon after you have finished the relevant course work (can be as early as freshman or sophomore year, depending on the school’s curriculum and the student’s progress).


    Tips and Strategies: Entrance requirements vary from college to college. Consult your guidance counselor or college admissions representative to determine which tests you should take. For more information visit: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/sat/about/SATII.html

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