By the time you’re a senior in high school, you’re probably understandably so sick of standardized testing. We don’t blame you — studies show that students take about 112 mandatory standardized tests from pre-kindergarten through high school, and that doesn’t include any college entrance exams, practice tests, or advanced placement (AP) tests. But if you envision yourself applying for and ultimately enrolling in college, we’ve got some bad news for you: there are a few more left for you to conquer! And, arguably, they’re the most important ones yet.
Your college entrance exams are hopefully among the last standardized tests you’ll have to take in your schooling career, but they are worth some extra attention and effort. The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), the American College Test (ACT), and others are required by most institutions of higher education for application, and they serve an important purpose. They help admissions offices assess your college readiness and academic skill. Scoring well can land you a spot at a good school and also help you earn merit-based college scholarships.
But since there are a few different tests out there, how do you know which one to take? We’ll cover everything you need to know about the most common college entrance exams and help you determine which one to take for your unique academic goals.
The Two Big Players
The two most common college admissions tests are the SAT and ACT, both of which are usually taken during the senior year. And most schools use these test scores as a factor in admissions decisions. In fact, The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that only five percent of four-year, regionally-accredited colleges do not place any importance on one of these two tests (although it’s important to know that not all colleges accept both).
The SAT is administered by the not-for-profit organization CollegeBoard and has been in practice for over 120 years. The ACT has been administered by the nonprofit organization ACT for over 60 years. Here’s how the two big players compare:
Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)
- Reach: More than 2 million students took the test in 2018, tends to be more popular on the East and West Coasts
- Areas: Reading, writing, critical reading, mathematics, and an optional essay portion
- Test Time: 3 hours (without essay) or 3 hours, 50 minutes (with the essay)
- Scoring: 200-800 per section, total of 400-1600 with separate scoring of 2-8 for essay
- Cost: $49.50 or $64.50 with essay
American College Test (ACT)
- Reach: Almost 2 million students took the test in 2018, tends to be more popular in the Midwest and South
- Areas: English, math, reading, science, and optional essay portion
- Test Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes (without essay), 3 hours, 55 minutes (with the essay)
- Scoring: 1 to 36 for composite and sub-score, 2 to 12 for writing
- Cost: $52 or $68 with essay
PSAT/NMSQT and PreACT
Both the SAT and ACT have practice versions, which are commonly taken during the sophomore or junior year. The practice version of the SAT is known as the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), and it serves two key purposes — to help determine a student’s eligibility and qualification for college scholarships and to help students practice for the test. The PreACT is similar and also allows students to share information with colleges and scholarship agencies for potential funding opportunities.
Which One Should You Take?
The most important thing to do when deciding which college entrance exam to take is to determine which exam your college of choice requires or prefers. If you plan to apply for multiple colleges or your school of choice doesn’t have a preference, the best thing you can do is to take both tests. The idea is to submit your very best scores and highlight your academic prowess, so you may also consider taking practice tests for both the SAT and ACT first to figure out which one is best suited to your skillset. One more thing to know: only the ACT has a science portion, so if that’s your forte, plan to take the ACT.
Do You Need Test Scores for Community College?
Planning to head to community college or pursue an associate’s degree? You may not have to take any formal college entrance exams. However, if you plan to use community college as a stepping stone to a four-year institution — such as if you plan to pursue an associate of arts (AA) degree and then go on to achieve your bachelor’s — your test scores may matter down the road. Always check with the school where you plan to enroll before determining which, if any, entrance exams to take.
One final piece of advice: Don’t stress! Yes, these tests matter, but they’re not everything. Your grades, extracurriculars, and essays also come into play. And remember, you’ve been unknowingly preparing for these exams for your entire life, even if you never planned to go to college. Studying and taking practice exams will help ensure that you score high enough to land admission at your top-choice school.