Know Your Standardized Testing Options

Learn the difference between the PSAT, SAT, and ACT.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

April 20, 2021

Know Your Standardized Testing Options
Find out what to take and how to prepare.
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 • ACT 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 and PSAT 10

Description: The test is split up into three different sections: reading, writing and language, and math. You'll have 60 minutes to answer 47 reading questions, 35 minutes to answer 44 writing questions/tasks and 70 minutes on 48 math questions. You will not be penalized for wrong answers -- or for guessing, essentially. Also, the PSAT is not used to determine college admissions. Rather, it’s intended to help students prepare for the SAT. Though it has the same format as the SAT, it is quite a bit shorter.
Usually Taken: During your sophomore or junior year. 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 College Board.

Test: SAT

Description: The scoring scale ranges from 200 to 800 for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing; 200 to 800 for Math; and 2 to 8 on each of three dimensions for essay. Essay results are reported separately. The test is split up into three different sections. You'll have 65 minutes to answer 52 reading questions, 35 minutes to answer 44 writing questions/tasks, 80 minutes on 58 math questions, and 50 minutes for the essay.
Usually Taken: Spring of your junior year or fall of your senior year (or both, if you want a practice run). Tips and Strategies: It used to be that the SAT carries a "wrong answer penalty." If you guessed right, you gained a point; if you guessed wrong, you were penalized. Now, you can guess without risking your SAT score. You can retake the test to improve your score. You can also choose which scores to send to colleges using Score Choice – unlike in years’ past when test scores were sent every time you took the test. Get more information on the SAT at College Board.

Test: ACT

Description: The three-and-a-half hour exam measures achievement in English, Math, Reading and Science. Scores on each section are averaged to create a composite score. A perfect score is 36. 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

Colleges Go Test Optional in Response to COVID

Before Coronavirus changed everything, a few colleges and universities were electing to go test-optional because they believed that standardized tests did not provide an accurate representation of a student’s ability. Last spring, however, being a test-optional college became less of a trend and more of a necessity. Testing centers in most areas around the country were closed in addition to high schools everywhere. Today, not much has changed. Many high schools around the country are completely virtual or operating on a hybrid schedule. Testing centers are still closed – or are operating at reduced capacity. Those two factors have made standardized tests less accessible. The circumstances have also inhibited students in being able to properly prepare for these exams. As a result, many colleges and universities are not even considering test scores in the admissions process for the Fall 2021. It is rumored that these changes will be permanent, though there are experts still touting the benefits of standardized testing. They prepare students for the rigor of college academics, and they enable students who may not have the most challenging academic environment in high school to really flex their intellectual muscles. As you embark on the college search, research whether or not each school you’re interested in will consider standardized test scores in the admissions process. It could be that every school you’ve chosen to apply to is test-optional for the time being. If that’s the case, it may not be necessary to take the SAT or ACT. If you do opt to take either or both tests, you can find plenty of expert advice on how to approach studying, preparing for test day, and what to do after the test, right here on Fastweb.

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Kathryn Knight Randolph

Associate Content Editor

Kathryn Knight Randolph is the Associate Content Editor at Fastweb. She has 17 years of higher education experience, working first as an Admissions Officer at DePauw University before joining Fastweb. In b...

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