52 Weeks to College: Week 3

Whether and when to take standardized tests
January 17, 2022

Everyone has an opinion about the standardized tests that are used for admission to many selective U.S. colleges. We do too, but that is not the subject of this blog posting.

As coaches, we know that love ‘em or hate ‘em, standardized tests are still a major part of the college admissions process for many students at many colleges.

It’s true that the list of test-optional colleges continues to grow, and while some are truly test-optional, full stop, with others there’s a lot of fine print involved. Many colleges that identify and market themselves as “test-optional” still require standardized tests for certain majors, scholarship eligibility, international status, homeschooled students, etc. These policies are usually found in fine print somewhere on the admissions websites.

We also don’t know yet what the Covid situation will be by the time you plan to take a test. If you’re immunized and can take the tests in person, lovely. The tests may be too risky, either for you, your loved ones, or others around you. You’ll have to play that by ear.

If you are going to be taking tests, what you need from us is ruthlessly practical advice about how to get the best scores to build credentials that will serve you well when applying to colleges. But we’ll say it again: Your health matters more than these tests. Many colleges won’t require standardized tests at all, if you decide not to take them. Plenty of colleges will be seriously consider you without test scores.

In this post, we’re focusing on which tests to take, how many times to take them, when to take them, and how to prepare for them.


1. Which tests should you take?

The only way to know about college admissions requirements is to do your research. Visit the colleges’ websites and see what their policies are. (And they are fluid! Whatever they were last year might look different this year or next year.)  READ THE FINE PRINT to check whether or not you’ll still have time to take tests, even if the college is otherwise “test-optional” for most applicants. If you want to maximize options, we have this general advice:

  • If you need a standardized test, take the ACT OR THE SAT. You don’t need to take both.

    Which One? Even though the tests are similar, there are some key differences, and you may be better suited to one or the other. The best way to find out which test suits you best is to take practice tests for both and see if you score better on one or the other. Some test prep companies also offer free diagnostic tests.

    Writing Component or Not? The College Board discontinued the writing test in June 2021. Hurrah.

  • The College Board no longer offers SAT Subject Tests. Double hurrah.

  • International students should plan on having to take an English proficiency test (TOEFL, IELTS, or Duolingo) unless they were educated in an English-language secondary school. (US citizens are by definition not counted as international students, even if they are living and are being educated abroad.) Each college will have its own requirements around who must take these tests, and which tests it will accept.

2. How many times should you take the tests?

  • ACT/SAT: If you plan to take the ACT or SAT, plan to take it at least twice and leave room in your schedule for a possible third time.

    Why? Because some colleges permit “superscoring” (the policy of taking your best subscores from multiple tests to create your best composite score), and that favors having taken the test more than once. Not everyone can afford to keep taking the tests, or you might sit them out entirely because of Covid. Adapt this advice to your individual circumstances.

    Do NOT take the tests as many times as you can. just because you can. Most students don’t have the knowledge or skills to perform well until late in their junior (11th grade) year, plus you can only take it so many times between then and when application due dates. Your scores are only likely to improve significantly if you have time (2-6 months) between test administrations to improve.
  • TOEFL: There is no superscoring for the TOEFL, so you should only take it more than once if you have not achieved the minimum score required for admission, or if you have barely achieved the minimum and you have reason to believe that you will do better.

3. When should you take the tests?

We recommend the following schedules for taking the tests, but you can and should adjust this schedule for personal or school conflicts and for the Covid situation. Also, be aware that not all tests are available everywhere and at all times.

  • ACT: April, June or July, and September

  • SAT: March, May or June, and August

  • TOEFL: Early summer (after ACT/SAT), late summer, and early fall (second and third dates if you need/want to retake). Check the TOEFL site for more info.

4. How should you prep for the tests?

You should not take these tests without preparing for them, but HOW you prep for the tests is largely a matter of time, resources, and personal preference.

At a minimum, you should take advantage of the free resources provided by each testing agency and follow the advice we gave in Week 2 on proven strategies for improving scores. If you want to do more prep, then you’ll need to invest in study materials (either paper or online), group courses, or one-on-one tutoring.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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