Standardized Tests

Which tests to take, when, how many times, and how to prep
January 27, 2020

Everyone has an opinion about the standardized tests used for admission to most 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 most students. What you need from us is ruthlessly practical advice about how to get the best scores you can, so you have credentials that will serve you well when you apply to college.

Specifically, you need advice about which tests to take, how many times to take them, when to take them, and how to prepare for them.


WHICH TESTS SHOULD YOU TAKE?

The only way to know for sure which tests are required for admission to the colleges on your list is to do some research. Visit the colleges’ websites and see what their policies are. But if you don’t have your list completed yet or you want to maximize your options, we have this basic advice.

Everyone should 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. If you don’t have time for practice tests, you can do our quick quiz and get an idea of which one MIGHT be better suited to you (however, the quiz is not as predictive as doing the practice tests).

Writing Component or Not? Fewer and fewer colleges require that you take the optional writing component of the tests, but if you truly want to maximize your options, you’ll do the writing just in case you are applying somewhere that requires it.


You need to take SAT Subject Tests if you are going to apply to one of the uber-selective colleges where they are required or strongly recommended.

If they are merely “considered,” you should take SAT Subject Tests only if you are pretty sure you’ll do well on them. Otherwise don’t bother; focus on getting a higher score on the ACT or SAT. A good list of colleges that have required, recommended, or considered the SAT Subject Tests in the most recent admissions cycle is found here.

A special note to homeschooled students: Colleges may have different requirements for you when it comes to Subject Tests. Even if they don’t, taking and doing well on either SAT Subject Tests or AP tests can boost your academic credentials considerably.

A special note to international students: Some professionals suggest that you take an SAT Subject Test in your primary language if one is offered. We do not give that advice. These tests are not structured 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. 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 school.


HOW MANY TIMES SHOULD YOU TAKE THE TESTS?

Our advice about how many times to take the various tests has changed, because admissions policies have changed.

  • ACT/SAT: You should plan to take the ACT or SAT at least two times and leave room in your schedule for a possible third time.

    Why? Because superscoring (the policy of taking your best subscores from multiple tests to create your best composite score) favors having taken the test more than once.

    Well then, why not take it as many times as you can? Because most students don’t have the knowledge or skills to do well until late in their junior year (11th grade), and you can only take it so many times between then and when your applications are due. Plus, your scores are only likely to improve significantly if you have some time (2-6 months) between test administrations to get better.
  • SAT Subject Tests: There is no superscoring for the SAT Subject Tests because you only get one score. You should only take it more than once if 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.


WHEN SHOULD YOU TAKE THE TESTS?

We recommend the following schedules for taking the tests, but you can and should adjust this schedule if you have school or personal conflicts. Also, be aware that not all test dates are available everywhere. For example, the ACT is not offered in July in New York, and no SAT Subject Tests are offered in March for students outside the United States. 

  • ACT: April 2020, June or July 2020, and September 2020
  • SAT: March 2020, May or June 2020, and August 2020
  • SAT Subject Tests: May or June 2020 and August 2020. Note that many language tests are only offered in June or November and that the November date is too late for early admission deadlines. So you must take the tests in June, which means that you would take the May SAT if you are doing the SAT and SAT Subject Tests.
  • TOEFL: Early Summer 2020 (after ACT/SAT), Late Summer 2020, Early Fall 2020 (second and third dates if you need/want to retake). Check the TOEFL site for dates and centers near you.


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 about proven strategies for improving your scores. If you want to do more prep, then you will need to invest in study materials (either paper or online), group courses, or one-on-one tutoring.

  • ACT: Take advantage of the ACT Academy
  • SAT: Take advantage of the Khan Academy prep series
  • SAT Subject Tests: There are less free resources for these, but the College Board does give you practice questions and some study tips here
  • TOEFL: Take advantage of both their free mobile app and their free practice test

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 book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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