Student Life

Standardized Exams: Everything You Need to Know

A student contributor breaks down the types of standardized tests.

Student Contributor, Shreya Thalvayapati

February 28, 2020

Standardized Exams: Everything You Need to Know
SAT, ACT, AP -- know the difference.
Standardized exams are a source of anxiety for high school students across the nation. What exactly are these tests in the first place? A standardized test is any form of test in which all test takers answer the same questions are the same type of questions from a common bank. This establishes a level of consistency that allows for comparison between individual students. An important thing to keep in mind is that colleges use these tests as a benchmark. Meaning that once you reach their benchmark, you are all set. Colleges almost never reject an applicant simply because their standardized test score is lower than other students’. Keep in mind that the benchmark score for a competitive school may be higher than for a less competitive school. There are different types of standardized tests including the SAT, the ACT, AP exams, and SAT subject tests. These are by no means the only standardized tests offered to students but they are the most common among those offered to high school students.
Keep in mind that different standardized tests serve different purposes. The SAT and the ACT are meant to test general knowledge. AP tests and the SAT subject tests hone in on specific subject matters, and are meant to highlight a student’s strengths and interests in their application. Though exams like the SAT and the ACT are able to facilitate comparison between applications, in recent years, many colleges have become “test optional”. Meaning they don’t require you to submit a standardized test score in the application. How does a student know which exams to take? The standardized exams you decide to take often depend on the classes you are taking at school. It is easier to take AP exams and SAT subject tests if you have taken the corresponding classes in school. For instance, a person who has taken AP Chemistry in school is more likely to do well on the AP exam simply because they took a course whose entire purpose was preparing students for the test. Whereas someone who might not have taken AP chemistry is going to have to learn the curriculum themselves in their own time.
There is a flipside to this, however. If you end up self studying for an exam, especially an AP exam, and end up doing well on it, colleges will mark that as a successful independent endeavor. They are more likely to see you are willing to take on challenges and be successful in what you do. The exams you choose to take also depends on your skill level in certain areas. The question of your skill level, in regards to standardized testing, is especially significant when deciding which SAT subject tests you should take. Keep in mind that for a majority of schools in the country, two SAT subjects are recommended, but optional nonetheless. But, a lot of students take them to portray their interests and strengths in the academic arena. If you love Chemistry and are getting a recommendation letter from your chemistry teacher, it is a great idea to take the Chemistry subject test. This will further highlight your love for the subject. Meanwhile, if English has always been your weakest subject, don’t go out on a limb and take the Literature subject test because, chances are you are not going to do as well as you would like. And considering that subjects tests are meant to highlight your strengths, a weak score will do absolutely nothing to better your chances in the admissions process. Analyzing your skill level is also as important as choosing between the SAT and the ACT. The ACT has more questions than the SAT, but those questions tend to be easier. The ACT accesses time management in test taking, while the SAT tests your analitical ability. The ACT also has a science section while the SAT does not.
How to Prepare for Standardized Exams Depending on whether you have 6 months till the exam date, or just two weeks, you should be approaching the studying process differently. Having more time to study may mean revisiting all of the topics and doing in-depth practice for the concepts or topics that you need more help with. On the other hand, having less time to study for an exam may mean solely reviewing topics that you know you struggle with. When you are in a time crunch, it may not be the best option to spend time reviewing topics you already know. Having a detailed study plan will make your preparation more organized! After creating a study plan, gather all of the resources you have. Keep in mind that there are free resources like Khan Academy which offers practice tests and tons of practice questions. If you want to go beyond, you can also purchase prep books. If you can also hire personal tutors, though they can be a bit pricey. Taking practice tests is an important part of preparation. Practice tests can help you learn the structure of the exam so there will be no surprises when you sit down for the actual exam. Timing yourself while taking practice tests will help you pace yourself during the actual exam. For instance, after taking 2 to 3 practice tests, you may find that it is best to complete the multiple choice portion of an exam in 45 minutes and then spend the next 45 minutes working through the writing portion. The single most important thing about these practice tests is to go over your wrong answers afterward. If you get any questions wrong, go through each of the questions and try to understand why you made the mistake and why the correct answer was the best choice. Thinking through each incorrect question will reduce the chances of repeating the same mistake again. Following this step consistently is what allows you to improve your score. It may be tedious but you will thank yourself later when it pays off. Also, don’t be afraid to create study groups with friends! Explaining a problem to someone can serve as a great review practice. Studying in a group also allows students to share ideas. A friend may think of something that you wouldn’t have thought of studying alone! Checking Your Scores Once your scores are finalized, you need to decide whether or not it is worth it to take the test again for a better score. If you didn’t reach the benchmark score of the schools you are applying to, it may be a good idea for you to try again. But keep in mind that standardized exams are usually just a checkpoint, it is not always the deciding factor. Also take into account the number of times you have taken the test already. If you have already taken the test three times and had received a similar score, it is unlikely that you will see a huge jump in your scores on the fourth try. On the other hand, if you have only taken the exam once, you can study efficiently and give it a second shot! If may sound cheesy, but your standardized exam score does not define you. Even colleges are realizing that it is unfair to judge a student’s potential on a couple of hours of test taking. Just study efficiently and give it your best! Good Luck!

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