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Guide to College Admissions Tests

Updated on May 22, 2012
Sharpen up those pencils - it's time to get familiar with college admissions tests!
Sharpen up those pencils - it's time to get familiar with college admissions tests! | Source

Basic information about various college admissions tests including the SAT, ACT and SAT Subject Tests

One of the hurdles every student must face when applying to college are the entrance exams. The most well-known are the SAT and the ACT. However, there are other exams involved as well that you might not be as familiar with – the PSAT, the PLAN and the SAT Subject Tests. Read on for a basic over-view of these tests as well as links to additional information and some useful tips.


The SAT is probably the first test that comes to mind when you think of college admissions exams. It is administered by The College Board and has 10 sections which will take approximately 3.5 hours to complete. The test consists of the following:

Writing – An essay written on a provided topic plus two sections of multiple choice grammar questions.

Math – Three sections of multiple choice questions plus some student-generated responses covering algebra & geometry.

Reading – Three sections of multiple choice reading comprehension questions.

The SAT always begins with the essay and ends with a writing section. In between the content can be in any order. Each SAT exam also includes an unscored section which could be math, writing or reading. The College Board uses this section to test out new questions for future exams. Students receive three scores – one for writing, one for math and one for reading. Each score is on a scale from 200 (low) to 800 (high). A perfect score would be 800 on all three sections, or 2400.

The SAT is given in October, November, December, January, March, May and June.

TIP: If your child comes across a section on the SAT that seems really hard, she shouldn’t panic! It might be the unscored (experimental) section. Have her take a deep breath and give it her best shot. Whatever she does, she must not let herself get rattled.


The ACT is another widely accepted college admissions test. It is administered by ACT and has 4 multiple choice sections plus an optional essay which will take approximately 3.5 hours to complete (3 hours if you don’t do the essay). The test consists of the following:

English – 75 multiple choice questions on grammar and writing skills.

Math – 60 multiple choice questions on algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

Reading – 40 multiple choice questions on reading comprehension.

Science – 40 multiple choice questions on interpreting charts and graphs.

Essay (optional) – written on a provided topic.

Students receive a score for each section ranging from 1 (low) to 36 (high). (English has sub-scores for the essay and the grammar which are then calculated together to form the total English score.) The composite, or over-all score on the ACT is determined by averaging the section scores together.

The ACT is given in September (in most but not all locations), October, December, February, April and June.

TIP: There’s no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT so if your child is unable to complete a given section during the allotted time, have her take a couple of minutes before time is up to pick a letter and bubble it in for all the questions she didn’t get to.


High schools administer the PSAT in October of the junior year. The PSAT is a shorter version of the SAT, without the essay. As with the SAT, students receive three scores on the PSAT – one in writing, one in math and one in reading. The PSAT is scored on a scale from 20 (low) to 80 (high). A perfect score on the PSAT is a 240. Almost every 11th grade student takes the PSAT regardless of whether he or she plans to take the SAT. Because the PSAT is a practice exam it is not included on your child’s college applications. However, the PSAT doubles as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Exam and from that standpoint it can be important. To be a National Merit Finalist, a student must score above a certain target score. The target score varies from year to year and from state to state but it is generally somewhere between 210 and 215. Because the number of National Merit Scholarships awarded is very small, the main benefit of the PSAT is to give you an idea of how your student would do on the SAT. To convert your child’s PSAT scores to SAT scores, simply add a zero to each score.

TIP: Wondering whether to worry about preparing for the PSAT? Have your child take a practice exam and see how she does. If she scores close to 210 then she might benefit from doing some prep before the PSAT. If she can boost her score a little then she might become a National Merit finalist. Keep in mind that the PSAT and SAT are very similar so any preparation your child does for one will help with the other.


The PLAN is essentially a shorter version of the ACT that students can take in their sophomore year. The purpose of the PLAN is to give you an idea of how your student would do on the ACT. Students receive a score on each section ranging from 1 (low) to 32 (high). The composite score is calculated by averaging the section scores.

SAT Subject Tests

In addition to the SAT and the ACT, some colleges require students to take SAT Subject Tests. It is important that you review the application requirements for each college that your child is considering applying to in order to determine if any subject tests are needed. As the name suggests, SAT Subject Tests are offered on a variety of specific academic subjects, like Chemistry, French or World History. Some colleges will specify which subject tests they want your child to take. Others will allow your child to choose. SAT Subject Tests are usually offered on the same days as the SAT exam, however you cannot take the SAT and the SAT subject tests on the same day! SAT Subject Tests are scored on a scale from 200 (low) to 800 (high). Students get a separate score for each subject test taken.

TIP: Not sure which SAT Subject Test your child should take? If she is taking any AP classes, then she should take the corresponding subject test. Try to schedule her subject test for May or June so that any work she does to prepare for the AP exam can help her prepare for the subject test as well.


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