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Know Your College Admissions Tests

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Planning to take the PSAT, SAT, or ACT? Feeling stressed out at the thought? Learning more about them will help ease your anxiety.

The PSAT, SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests are the four standardized exams you will likely encounter on your journey from high school to college.


The formal name for the PSAT is a mouthful: Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is typically taken by juniors as a practice test for the SAT. It also qualifies some students to become National Merit Scholarship Finalists, a status highly regarded by colleges.


The SAT is one of two major college entrance exams. The test assesses the academic skills and content knowledge students have acquired in high school. The SAT has two required sections: Evidence-based Reading and Writing, and Math. It also includes an optional essay, which may be required by some colleges. Students have three hours to complete the test plus 50 minutes for the optional essay.


The ACT is the other major college entrance exam. The ACT is two hours and 55 minutes long and examines how well students have mastered a typical college preparatory high school curriculum. It consists of four sections: mathematics, English, science, and reading. A 40-minute writing test is optional but may be required by some colleges.

The SAT Subject Tests

There are 20 SAT Subject Tests. Subjects tested include English, history, foreign languages, mathematics, and science. Some colleges, especially highly selective ones, require students to submit Subject Test scores for admission. Other colleges only recommend submitting Subject Test scores or will review them if submitted. These tests show colleges your academic strengths and interests.

How Colleges Use Your Scores

It's not always easy to compare the grades of students attending different high schools. These tests give colleges another measure of your academic skills and your readiness for college-level work.

Colleges may also use test scores to:

  • Find desirable candidates, and invite them to apply
  • Award scholarships as incentives to enroll
  • Help place students in college classes that are appropriate for their skill level
  • Award college credit

Strong test scores won't guarantee your admission, and weak test scores won't necessarily disqualify you. But strong test scores will support the rest of your application. And high scores relative to other applicants will help keep your application in the running, particularly at highly selective colleges.

Testing Tips

  • Take the SAT and ACT late in your junior year so you have time to prep.
  • Take the test(s) again early in your senior year if you want to improve your scores.
  • Pay attention to sections of the test where you did well. These might signal possible directions for a major.

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