Mention PSAT, SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests to any high school student and you will probably see instant panic! Just the thought of taking these arduous tests can produce a high level of stress and anxiety. The best way to lessen test stress is to learn about standardized tests, decide which tests to take, and develop a schedule for when to take the college admissions tests early in the high school years. Then you should have a plan and a sufficient amount of time for practice and, yes, retakes, if needed.
Let’s start by understanding what the college admission tests are and how they differ.
What is a “standardized test” and how important is it in the college admissions process?
College admission tests are standardized tests that measure all students by one standard. Measuring one student against another by a standard is extremely important to college admission committees because of the ever-increasing problem of grade inflation at many high schools today. A standardized test more accurately compares a student from high school Y in Wyoming to a student from high school Z in Delaware. A standardized test score becomes particularly handy when admissions officers are comparing students from the same high school who have equal grade point averages, as well as the same strength in coursework quality and comparable extracurricular activities. The higher SAT or ACT test score might be the factor that gives admission to one and not the other student.
What are the basic differences between the PSAT, SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests?
The PSAT is essentially an abbreviated version of the SAT— a practice for the real test. All students who plan to apply to college should take the PSAT in both their sophomore and junior years to get prepared for the official SAT. It is especially important to take the PSAT in your junior year not only because it will prepare you for the official SAT, but also because it is used as a National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), however only for juniors! Colleges do not see the score you obtain on the PSAT, except when you have such a high score that you do qualify for the National Merit Scholarships. You have no reason to worry about a PSAT. It can only help you do better on the SAT, and you might be eligible for national recognition!
Most colleges require its applicants to take either the SAT or the ACT for admission. Sometimes you will have no choice; the school will request one over the other. But, if you have a choice, you should know which would be better for you. The SAT is a reasoning test which measures critical reading skills, mathematical aptitude, and writing ability. The ACT is s test that assesses knowledge learned in the classroom: English usage, general reading skills, mathematics through trigonometry, and science. The ACT also has an optional 30 minute writing test which students should always elect to take. For those students who have difficulty taking most standardized tests but have done well in a rigorous curriculum during high school, the ACT might be the better fit. You can find out more about the which test is the better fit here.
SAT Subject Tests are one-hour exams that measure knowledge in a particular subject area. Not all colleges require their applicants take the Subject Tests, but many selective colleges will require students take 2-3 Subject Tests. Students usually will take a Subject Test in math and in one other subject they feel confident about. It may be important to take a Subject Test as early as your sophomore year, especially if you have taken a terminal class—one that is one-time, non-sequential—unlike English which you take every year. If you have done AP Biology in your sophomore year, and you will not be taking it or its sequel again, it’s better to take that subject test then and not two years later. You never know which colleges you may be applying to as a senior pre-med student. You have to try to think ahead.
How can a student decide which test to take? The SAT or the ACT?
Most importantly you must first check the admission test requirements of the colleges that you are interested in. If the college gives you a choice of submitting test scores from either the SAT or the ACT, then you have a decision to make. Which one should you take?
Now that you know the basic differences of each test, think about your facility in taking standardized tests. If you are at ease in a testing situation and find yourself treating the test as a competitive game, perhaps the SAT would be the appropriate test to take. But, if you are one of those students who do not demonstrate his true ability on tests like the SAT but you are at the top of your class, perhaps you should take the ACT. Be mindful of the fact that the ACT is reading intensive so you should be a good reader and a person who enjoys reading.
A good strategy to use in your decision of which test to take is to take BOTH, at least once. That way you can truly tell which test you are most likely to score well on and then concentrate your practice on that test. In addition, you might want to register for an online SAT or Act Test Prep class such as BenchPrep or Method Test Prep which has helped many students improve their performance on the SAT, ACT, and/or PSAT.
In the next article, Timelines for Taking College Admissions Tests, there is a Standardized Test Timeline that will help you better plan and better prepare so you can do well on these tests, reducing your stress at the same time! See when you need to prepare, register, take, and even retake College Admissions Tests.