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College Entrance Exams — What Admissions Tests to Take and How to Prepare

High school students often have many questions regarding college tests. Which tests do colleges care about most? How do colleges use test scores? There are many different tests that high school students can take in preparation for college and college admissions.

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Top 7 Entrance Exams and College Tests

  1. ACT (American College Test)
  2. SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)
  3. SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II)
  4. CLT (Classic Learning Test)
  5. AP Test (Advanced Placement Test)
  6. TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)
  7. GED (General Education Development)

The main college entrance exams are the ACT and the SAT. The CLT is a newer alternative that is accepted by a small number of colleges. Colleges and universities, especially highly selective schools, may also require SAT Subject Tests. International students may be required to include a TOEFL score in their application to U.S. based schools.

How Do Colleges Use Entrance Exams?

College entrance exams are used by admissions counselors to evaluate applicants from different high schools and locations. For example, if an admissions counselor from one of the colleges in the pacific northwest is comparing an applicant from California with a 3.7 GPA to an applicant from New York with the same GPA—are the two students equally prepared, capable and meriting admission? Entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT help answer this question.

How important are test scores?

Some colleges require a minimum ACT or SAT score that applicants must have earned from an entrance exam in order to be admissible. Other schools look at the applicant holistically and utilize test scores as just one piece of the whole picture in making the admissions decision.

Many schools will publish the average SAT and ACT scores of incoming freshmen of the previous year. Knowing the average college entrance exam score for a university can help determine if you are a good candidate for admission at that school.

Colleges can also use test scores in other ways. In addition to qualifying a student for admission, a high test score can also qualify the student for merit-based scholarships. Math and English sections of college entrance exams are often used to place students in the appropriate first math and English classes at the university.

Top 7 Entrance Exams and College Tests

1. ACT (American College Test)

The ACT has four sections of multiple-choice questions (English, Math, Reading, and Science) plus an optional Writing section. The exam itself is 2 hours and 55 minutes or 3 hours 35 minutes with the Writing section. Each section is scored on a 1-36 scale. Your composite score is an average of the four sections with the highest score being a 36. The highest score possible on the Writing section is 12. The optional Writing section does not impact the composite score.

The four sections have the following time limits, with a 10-minute break after the Math section:

English: In this 75 multiple-choice section, students have 45 minutes to show their skills in grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and rhetorical skills.

Math: This 60-minute section has 60 multiple-choice questions. Students are permitted to use a calculator from the list of approved calculators. Students will show their skills in Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Trigonometry and are expected to know some basic formulas as they will not be provided.

Reading: Students will have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions on four passages (10 questions per passage). This reading comprehension test measures the ability to read closely, reason logically about texts, and integrate information.

Science: In the Science section, students have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions. Students read science-based passages utilizing graphs, charts, tables, and research. Students are asked to interpret data, analyze and evaluate scientific information (such as experimental results), draw conclusions, and make predictions.

ACT exams are offered seven Saturdays each year. When you register with ACT online, you will choose your test date and your testing site (often a local high school or college will host the exam). You need to register by the registration deadline for the date you choose, typically about a month prior to the exam. To register, you will need a computer with internet, a credit card or other payment, and a headshot photo. You will also be asked to provide information about your high school courses. Registration takes about 45 minutes.

2. SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

There are two main sections of the SAT. You will earn a score from 200-800 for each section and your total score will be from 400 to 1600. The first section is called Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, and it is comprised of two tests: The Reading test and the Writing and Language test.

The second part of the SAT is the Math test, which has two portions: The Math Test—Calculator and the Math Test—No Calculator. The SAT is a three-hour exam, not including breaks, with an optional 50-minute essay. There is a 10-minute break between the Reading test and the Writing and Language test, plus a five-minute break between the two parts of the Math test.

Reading: This section allows 65 minutes for students to answer 52 multiple-choice questions based on five passages. The passages cover a variety of topics, but you can expect one from literature, history, and social studies, and two from science. The types of questions vary as well. You may be asked to find the main idea of a passage, determine the meaning of a word in context, and determine how the author’s word choice impacts the style and tone of a passage.

Writing and Language: In this section, you are asked to edit writing samples using standard English conventions, such as grammar and sentence structure, to improve sections of passages. You will be asked to improve word choice and to strengthen the argument of a passage. You have 35 minutes to answer the 44 multiple-choice questions in this section.

Math: Students have 80 minutes to complete the SAT Math test, which is divided into two parts. In the “No-Calculator” section, you have 25 minutes to answer 20 questions (15 multiple choice questions and 5 grid-in questions). In the “Math with Calculator” section, students have 55 minutes to answer 38 questions (30 multiple-choice questions and 8 grid-in questions).

Grid-in questions are also called “student-produced response questions.”  Instead of choosing the correct answer from a list of options, students must enter the answer they calculated using the grids provided on the answer sheet. SAT describes the areas of math covered in this test as Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, as well as Additional Topics of Math that includes geometry and trigonometry.

SAT exams are offered seven Saturdays each year by the organization College Board®. When you register online, pay attention to the registration deadlines (approximately one month prior to each exam). You will choose the test date and location for your exam, upload a headshot photo and pay the registration fee.

students sitting at a computer lab in library

3. SAT Subject Tests

What are SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Tests are a collection of college entrance exams that focus on individual subjects. These tests can improve your admission credentials, however, not all colleges and universities require or consider SAT Subject Tests in their evaluation of applicants. As you prepare for college admissions, it is important to look at the requirements of each school you are interested in attending. If a college requires SAT Subject Tests, you should choose the subjects that you have recently covered in advanced classes—at honors, IB, or AP level, if possible.

There are 20 SAT Subject Tests, based on high school courses in the areas of history, English, foreign languages, science, and math. Each Subject Test takes one hour. The questions are all multiple-choice and you will earn a score of 200-800. Subject Tests are given six times a year, on the same days and locations as the SAT. However, when you register, pay close attention to the dates, as not all Subject Tests are offered each time.

4. CLT (Classic Learning Test)

What is the CLT?

The new kid on the block of college entrance exams in the CLT. It remains to be seen if it will grow in mainstream acceptance. For now, the CLT is accepted at a small number of colleges—notably Catholic colleges, Catholic universities, protestant Christian schools, as well as some secular liberal arts schools. It offers a slightly shorter exam—just two hours (not counting the optional essay). The CLT is taken online, and scores are reported on the same day.

It’s worth noting that the CLT also allows students to score higher than a perfect 1600 on the SAT or 36 on the ACT, as these scores are comparable to 114 on the CLT. But students can score as high as 120 on the CLT, allowing for greater differentiation among top students.

5. AP Test (Advanced Placement Test)

Many high schools offer AP (Advanced Placement) courses. Content of AP courses must be approved by the College Board®, which is the same organization that administers the SAT and SAT Subject Tests). AP exams are standardized tests taken in May at the completion of each AP course to measure mastery of course content and skills. Scores are on a scale from 1 to 5. Scores of 3, 4, or 5 have the potential of earning you college credit.

Most AP exams are 2 to 3 hours in length. The 38 exams are unique, although the first part of the exam typically consists of multiple-choice questions and the second part consists of free-response questions.

While AP scores are not typically considered college entrance exams, it may be wise to include your scores when you apply to college if you have earned a high score. If your score meets the college’s guidelines for earning college credit, you will want to make sure to have your score(s) sent to the college you end up attending.

6. TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

What is the TOEFL?

TOEFL tests are designed and administered by ETS (Educational Testing Service). This test provides a standardized way to measure the English skills of non-native speakers prior to enrolling in English-based colleges or other educational programs. TOEFL can be taken as a paper-based test but it is largely an internet-based test (TOEFL iBT is the full name of the test). The test is approximately 3 hours in length and has four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. The score range for the TOEFL iBT exam is 0-120. Each section has a scale of 0-30 and the four scores are added together to earn the composite score.

7. GED (General Education Development)

The GED is a credential that can take the place of a high school diploma, allowing a student who did not complete high school to apply to college. A GED is earned by passing the GED test, which covers four subject areas--Mathematical Reasoning, Reasoning Through Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science. The four subjects can be taken one at a time or all at once at an official GED test center.

Registration for the GED test is completed online. The test is $120 ($30 per subject area) and includes two free retakes per subject area. Scores for each subject range from 100 to 200. A passing score of 145 (150 in New Jersey) in each subject area is required to earn high school equivalency. A score of 165 is considered “college ready” and a score of 175 could earn college credit. The GED is accepted in lieu of a high school diploma at most US colleges. Online registration closes 7 days before the desired test dates.

ACT vs SAT - What’s the Difference?

Do colleges prefer the ACT or the SAT?

Both the ACT and the SAT can be used for admission to any college or university in the USA. Some schools require or recommend the optional writing section these tests offer, so be sure to research the requirements of the schools you are interested in attending. It is true that some schools “prefer” one test over the other, but there are official conversion tables that colleges use to translate your ACT composite score into the comparable SAT score and vice versa. While the tests are similar in many ways, there are some differences that can help students determine which test is a better fit.

Math

In the SAT, math makes up half your score. If a student typically does well in the math section, then the SAT may be the best choice. Math is only one-fourth of the composite score on the ACT.

Test Times

The SAT may be better for students who struggle with running out of time on exams. The SAT averages 48 seconds for each Writing and Language problem, while the ACT allows for only 36 seconds per question. The SAT allows 75 seconds for each reading problem and 83 seconds on average for each math problem, while the ACT allows only 52.5 seconds per question in the Reading section and just 60 seconds each in the Math section. If a student can focus well and work quickly, the ACT can be a great fit.

Calculators and Math Formulas

The ACT allows the use of calculators for the entire math section. The SAT has two math sections: one which allows calculators and one which does not. The SAT provides a reference sheet that contains some of the formulas needed, specifically geometric math formulas and three math laws. The ACT does not provide any formulas; students need to remember them. 

Essay Content: Understanding the Argument vs Making the Argument

The optional essay section on the ACT requires you to read a short passage about an issue, then write an essay analyzing the different points of view—while also making the argument for your own opinion.

The optional SAT essay requires you to use evidence and reasoning to analyze the argument used by the author of a passage. Students are directed to avoid offering an opinion on the issue. In the SAT essay, you only need to demonstrate an understanding of the argument.

students studying in library with laptops

How to Prepare for College Entrance Exams

If you are in high school, it is not too early to start preparing. By junior year, you should have a good idea how to prepare for college and how to choose a college. The first step to prepare for a college entrance exam is to choose which exam you are going to take.

Most students find that if they take an ACT practice exam and an SAT practice exam (you can find practice exams online or from your school counselor), score them, and compare the scores, there is a clear choice for which exam is a better fit. If you score about the same on each practice exam, ask yourself if you prefer one test over the other and focus on the test you like best. Alternatively, if you took the PSAT exam, and also a preACT exam or ACT Aspire, you can use your test scores from these practice tests to help you choose which college entrance exam is best for you.

Although the best preparation for a college entrance exam is to take challenging high school classes and apply yourself to your schoolwork, it is also helpful to prepare for your ACT or SAT using a test prep program. You can pay a lot of money for the expertise of a tutor or test prep center, and the benefit of the individual expert help will maximize your time spent on test preparation.

There are more affordable ways to study for your entrance exam. You can buy an official test prep book from ACT or SAT. The book will include practice problems and test-taking tips to help you review your knowledge, learn important rules and common types of questions, and help manage your time on exam day.

You can also practice for free online. SAT has partnered with Kahn Academy to provide free online SAT exam preparation. ACT recently released ACT Academy, a free online test preparation resource. When practicing for entrance exams, self-discipline is key. If you are close to your exam date, schedule a regular time each day to practice testing.

Many students plan to take the ACT or the SAT multiple times. Students often find that they can improve their scores after learning from the first experience. Since it is advisable to complete your testing by the end of your junior year, it may be wise to register for your first exam at the end of sophomore year or by early spring of your junior year. If you are only going to take the test once, plan for one right at the end of junior year. This can help minimize the chances of forgetting something important during summer vacation.

Final Tips on College Entrance Exams

Don’t wait until the last possible test date to schedule your college entrance exam. Things can happen—for example, you may catch a cold and not be at your best. As you develop your list of preferred colleges, keep track of their admissions requirements and any information about how they evaluate test scores. Many colleges require that your test scores be sent directly from the testing agency (from ACT or SAT), while other schools will accept a test score if it is listed on your official high school transcript.

When you register for an ACT or SAT, you can choose to send your score to four colleges for free. Take advantage of this offer, unless you’d rather wait for the results. To send your score to a university, log in to your ACT or College Board account and order your test scores sent to the schools that need them. You may need to pay a fee for each score report. If you wait until the last minute and need the scores “rushed” you will be an additional fee for that.

Some colleges will “superscore” if you took the ACT or SAT multiple times. For the ACT there are four sections that make up the composite score but a superscore takes the highest score for each section (for up to 4 different test dates) and creates a new super composite score. If you’re interested in a college that superscores, it makes sense to take the entrance exam multiple times.

Remember to bring what you need on test day and avoid bringing any restricted items. You will be dismissed from the testing if you do not follow the policies and procedures (such as having your phone ring during the exam). Don’t bring a brand-new calculator—bring one you know well and make sure the batteries are going to last through the exam. Finally, get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast before the test.

College entrance exams are an important part of the college admissions process. These standardized tests help schools evaluate applicants from a variety of educational backgrounds. As you narrow your list of preferred colleges, research each school’s testing preferences and requirements. If a college accepts both the ACT and SAT, you can choose the test that best suits your skillset. Evaluate your strengths and your performance on practice exams to help you decide between the ACT and SAT tests. With proper planning and preparation, you’ll be ready to perform your best on test day.