Thursday, December 18, 2014

College corner: Testing 101

From page A10 | September 25, 2012 |

Editor’s note: We are pleased to premier a new monthly column today that focuses on college issues.

Well, it’s that time of year again … high school students are preparing for the dreaded standardized tests. The PSAT, ACT, SAT — a veritable alphabet soup of headache-inducing letters for students and families alike. Setting aside the controversy surrounding standardized tests, let’s just accept that for now they are not going away.

College-bound students need to take several of the following tests to be eligible for college:

* Scholastic Aptitude Test — The SAT tests reasoning and verbal abilities. There are three subtests — critical reading, math and writing — and each counts for up to 800 points for a total of 2400 points.

* Preliminary SAT — This is a practice test for the SAT. The only time PSAT scores count is in the fall of the junior year when scores are used to determine qualification for the National Merit Scholarship Program. This test is coming up (October 17 or October 20). See your high school counselor for more information.

* SAT subject tests – These tests are given on individual subjects to improve a student’s credentials for admission. Which subject test to take depends upon college entrance requirements for each school. Check schools’ websites for more information.  The more competitive the school, the more important it is to take these tests.


American College Testing — The ACT is an achievement test. It more closely resembles a student’s curriculum. A possible score of 36 can be earned on each of five components — English, math, reading, science and an optional writing component (often required by top colleges). These scores are averaged to arrive at a composite score.

Which tests should I take and when?
Virtually all schools accept both tests, so which should a student take? The answer is “it depends.” Certain students are more suited to the ACT while others prefer the SAT. Some trade-offs to consider:

* The ACT tends to have more straightforward questions, but the student has to tackle them in bigger chunks.

* The SAT is broken up into smaller sections and tends to emphasize vocabulary. Writing is required but science is not.

Still not sure? Then it is a good idea to try both if you have the time and the money.

As for how many times to take each test, most students take them once or twice, and according to the College Board there is no evidence to support the idea that taking the SAT more than twice results in significant score gains.

The best time to take each test depends on the student’s schedule and the family’s activities. Many experienced counselors recommend that 11th graders take the PSAT in October, the SAT in March and the ACT in April.  Depending on the results, a student may want to try again at the beginning of his or her senior year and/or work with test prep professionals. Check and to learn more.

A little bit of sunshine
If you are really test averse, there are still colleges out there for you. The website has a list of schools that do not use SAT or ACT scores for admissions. And while the SAT critical reasoning or the ACT is required by all four-year schools with some exceptions, all schools will accept the highest score from either test.

I hope I haven’t tested your patience too much with all of this testing information. Just take heart and remember that there is a college out there for everyone!

— Jennifer Borenstein is an independent college adviser in Davis and owner of The Right College For You. She lives in Davis with her husband and two daughters. Reach her at, or visit



Jennifer Borenstein

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