52 Weeks to College: Week 3

Standardized tests are still a major part of the college admissions process. Read on for everything you need to know...
January 18, 2021

Which Standardized Tests to Take and When

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. (Why? Because we’re admissions coaches, not policymakers.)

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, but there’s a lot of fine print involved. Many colleges that identify as “test-optional” still require standardized tests for certain majors, or 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 test-taking time. If you’re immunized and can take the tests in person, lovely. If you’re not immunized, then taking 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.

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. 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 don’t have your college list completed yet or 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.

    Writing Component or Not? The College Board is discontinuing the writing test starting in June 2021. You will not need to take it for your applications.

  • You may need to take SAT Subject Tests, depending on test-optional policies at individual colleges. You should take SAT Subject Tests only if you are pretty sure you’ll do well on them. Otherwise don’t bother – focus instead on getting a higher score on the ACT or SAT. AS OF JANUARY 19, 2021, the College Board is no longer offering Subject Tests in the United States because of Covid. They are still being offered outside the United States. Check this page for updates. They may resume in the U.S. at some time in the future; right now, that’s unclear.

    A special note to international students: some people suggest that you take an SAT Subject Test in your primary or native language if one is offered. We disagree. These tests are not designed to measure the abilities of a native speaker of a particular language, and admissions officers know that. You should be able to score practically perfectly on these tests, so a high score doesn’t really mean anything anyway.

  • You need to take the TOEFL if your primary language is something other than English or if English is not the language of instruction at your secondary school.

2. How many times should you take the tests?

  • ACT/SAT: If you plan to take the ACT or SAT, plan to take them 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. 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.

  • SAT Subject Tests: There is no superscoring for the SAT Subject Tests, because there are no subscores. You should only take it more than once if it is being offered AND it is safe to do so AND you have reason to believe that you will do better. For example, you have completed coursework that has expanded your knowledge considerably or you have devoted significant time to preparing for the second test.

  • 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

  • SAT Subject Tests: May or June, and August (if offered at all)

  • 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 here 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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