Standardized testing for American Universities

Photo credit: Gonzalo Silva,

Guest blog post by Aubry Tedford.

Words like ACT and SAT have been known to strike anxiety, stress, and fear in many high school students. One single test seems to have so much emphasis on college admissions and future careers. These tests are important, but it is also important not to stress over one component of the lengthy college application process.

The first step of preparing for the ACTs and SATs is picking your preferred test. Both tests are held in high regard in the eyes of most college admissions officers (although double checking with your schools is always beneficial), but the tests themselves are slightly different. Most students will excel at one over the other. Taking a practice or mock test for both the ACT and SAT will help determine which better suits you.

Broadly speaking, the ACT is more literal and straightforward, while the SAT is more reasoning and analysis focused. The SAT is a reasoning based test, with less emphasis on rote learning and a stronger focus on deducing answers from the information provided. A practice test can offer surprises on which you’d perform better on. Both tests are relatively equal on skill level but test your skills and knowledge in different ways.

Standardized testing requirements should be considered for students seeking full degrees at undergraduate institutions. (Photo credit: Alberto G).
Standardized testing requirements should be considered for students seeking full degrees at undergraduate institutions. (Photo credit: Alberto G).

The ACT comprises five sections: English, reading, maths, science, and an optional writing section. All the sections are multiple choice, except writing, which is an essay. The ACT is scored from 1 to 36. ACT students receive a score in each section; this is then averaged for their overall score.  Each section is unique:

  • English – focuses on mechanics of the language, such as grammar and sentence structure, and on rhetorical skills like organization and style.
  • Reading – focuses on reading comprehension of given passages.
  • Math – covers algebra, geometry and some trigonometry. You are allowed a calculator, so be sure to bring one to the test.
  • Science – unlike the SAT, the ACT has a science section, which focuses on critical thinking, data representation and research summaries.
  • Writing (optional) – Many schools will require this, although it’s optional. The essay will give a scenario and three perspectives on that scenario. The student needs to give their own perspective and finally compare and contrast their perspective to the three perspectives provided.

The SAT is the other option for students considering college in America. The SAT only has four sections: Reading, math, writing and language, and an optional essay. The SAT is scored on a scale from 400 to 1600. On this test you receive a score in each section that can total up to 1600.

  • Reading – tests student’s vocabulary and reading comprehension.
  • Math – covers arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis. A calculator can be used on some math questions, but not all sections.
  • Writing and Language – tests the ability of students to identify errors, use words in context and to improve sentence and paragraph structures.
  • Essay (optional) – This section is optional, but many schools will also require this. The writing section is based on comprehension of a reading passage.

Whilst choosing a standardized test is a key element, hard work and study is still the most important aspect. The ACT and SAT are just as much about technique and practice as they are about knowledge. Using prep books and taking as many practice tests as possible in test-like conditions will greatly improve performance. This requires self-control and determination, doing the test within the proper time limits, in a no distraction zone. This will help with understanding, time management and test formats.

Preparation is key on test day! To register for a test a student must go online and sign up. On test day make sure you arrive 15 to 20 minutes early. Make sure to bring snacks and water with you! Do not forget to bring an approved calculator. The tests must be done in HB pencil, be sure to bring multiples, as well as an eraser. On testing day bring an official ID and make sure to print your test ticket which you get after registering online.

Once you have taken the test, scores will be released a few weeks later on each test’s website. Tests can be taken multiple times, but there is no research that indicates better test scores after taking the exams twice. Make sure you work backwards from application deadlines to ensure you have enough time to fulfill all (or any) testing requirements. Many schools do not care how many times a student takes a test, but a handful of schools that require a student to submit all their scores. Double check your school’s website if they do require you to submit all scores.

Photo credit: EducationUSA.
Photo credit: EducationUSA.

One last thing to keep in mind is super scoring. A super score is when a school will take your highest score for each section from multiple tests and average that score for the ACT or add that score for the SAT. Not all schools will do this, but you can always find if they do on the school’s website. It is important to note that scores must be in by the time you are applying to schools. Be sure to check the last ACT and SAT test date accepted by admissions offices for each school you are applying to!

The ACT and SAT can be stressful, but also very important to the college admissions process. Keep in mind that most U.S. universities practice the holistic admissions process, so schools will consider your grades, ACT/SAT score, extracurriculars, admission essays, and more.  Study hard and take these tests seriously, but remember to save enough time to pursue your passions.

For any students, parents or school representatives looking for more information on study options in the U.S., please start with the resources available on the Education Advising page.