Of all the parts of high school that cause confusion, testing easily ranks among the highest. Most countries have one main test related to college admission, and we have many, managed by different organizations, with many acronyms, and to make things harder, many people do not really understand testing, which causes more confusion and stress. Let’s review the tests that matter for college admission and also explore what “test optional” means for those students who opt to not take a standardized test or who applies to colleges that are test optional.
SAT and ACT. These two standardized tests help admission officers predict the probability of how well you will do in college, when reviewed in comparison against your GPA. Both tests have similar sections and ultimately the same purpose. While there are some differences between them, there is no strategic benefit to take one over the other for any reason, for any college, or for any major. How to choose? Take a free practice test of each type and consider which you prefer. Think about how you plan to prepare for the test, and what quality resources like Khan Academy will you use prior to paying for formal test prep. And finally, do not spend a lot of time in test prep until you have nearly finished or have finished taking the content that these tests evaluate. For example, if you have not taken Algebra II/trig, don’t pay for prep yet! Why? It would be like paying for a coach who is only coaching you on the last 5 miles of a marathon, but you are on mile 15.
SAT Subject Tests. These tests cause some confusion because they are, well, called SAT Subject Tests, and therefore get confused with the SAT. Also, many teachers and counselors do not give students or parents a heads up when they are in a class where taking such a test may be a good idea. For example, when you are taking Algebra II/Trig, taking the SAT Subject Test in Math 1 or Math 2 might be good for the month of June, vs. waiting until the next year when you may forget information. How do you know whether to take these tests and which to take? Colleges and universities list on their admission requirements page if they are required or recommended. Once you know, plan the year and don’t try to take all of them during your senior year in the fall since you will be very busy with the application at that point!
AP. Advanced Placement tests are unique because the tests are directly related to the expectations for what you were taught and learned. Why does this matter? The better you do in the class, the more likely you will do better on the test. Use early grades as an indication of how well you are on track for the test. Because many colleges offer course credit or placement, and because admission officers see performance on AP as an indication of your college readiness. If you are able to do well in AP in one or more AP Courses and tests, those results can be important ways of developing a competitive application. If AP is out of reach, not to worry. Just focus on taking the most challenging courses to which you have access and where you can succeed.
Test optional. Some colleges offer a test optional admission program where student are not required to submit test scores from SAT, SAT Subject tests, or in some cases, AP. These colleges feel that in some cases, college readiness is not always correlated with test scores, or they are seeking students who may not perform well on standardized tests but who have other talents and skills that could be adversely impacted by not getting into certain programs. How do you know if test optional is right for you? Develop your college list, and if at least one of those colleges requires certain tests, well, you know what you need to do. Overall, however, most colleges and universities do require standardized test scores. These tests are here to stay because they do help serve a valuable purpose in evaluating skills. While tests should not solely define your future, they can be an accurate indicator of skill and readiness, which can sometimes help you ensure you will be successful in terms difficulty of coursework in college.