How to Ace College Entrance Exams (SAT, ACT, PSAT)
tl;dr: Testing for college admissions can be stressful, but don't worry! The SAT, ACT, and AP exams are all different, but with online practice resources, an assessment of your current skills, a test prep strategy, and consistent study sessions, you can be prepared and successful. Make sure to look up the score benchmarks, deadlines, and fees for each exam, and know that some schools have a test-optional policy. Good luck!
Testing can be one of the most stressful aspects of college admissions. Here's what you need to know about the SAT, ACT, and AP exams to make your test-taking journey a little easier.
Entrance Exams 🏫
- Critical reading: Sentence completions, reading passages
- Math: Algebra, geometry, statistics, probability
- Writing: Identifying errors, improving grammar and usage
Length: 3 hours (includes three breaks)
Score range: 400-1600
- Evidence-Based Reading and Writing: 480
- Math: 530
- English: Grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, rhetorical skills
- Reading: Sentence completions, reading passages
- Math: Algebra I and II, geometry, some trigonometry
- Science: Science-based passages presented with graphs, charts, tables, and research summaries
- Writing: Optional Essay, identifying errors, improving grammar and usage
Length: 2 hours and 55 minutes (includes three breaks)
Score range: 1-36
- English: 18
- Math: 22
How to Prepare
- Utilize the wide variety of online practice resources. There are many accessible, free online practice materials (See Resources).
- Complete Questions of the Day. Websites like VaristyTutors Kaplan Quizzes offer SAT/ACT Questions of the Day, which you can take 5-10 minutes to complete in order to keep your practice up, even when you don't have time to study for an extended period of time.
- Make an assessment of your current skills with a diagnostics test. Websites like Khan Academy use diagnostic tests to assess your initial skill level and determine which areas are in need of further practice and focus. Knowing what you need to work on can help you narrow down your scope of practice and more efficiently prepare.
- Develop a test prep strategy. Whether it is flashcards, drawings, writing, or verbal recall, find the prep strategies that work for you and stick to them.
- Be consistent with your study schedule. Layout a study schedule for yourself and stick to it the best you can. Don't beat yourself up if you aren't able to follow it perfectly; just do the best you can to stay consistent and on track.
- Get an accountability buddy or study group. Having someone to study with can motivate you to keep practicing, especially when you start to get distracted.
You can send your scores for free by selecting up to four colleges to send them to by a deadline. If you send your scores after the deadline has passed, you will have to pay a fee unless you qualify for a waiver. If you take the exam multiple times, you are not forced to report all of your scores, but different schools will have different Score Choice recommendations and policies. Many schools will Super Score, meaning they will consider your highest score from each section across all the score reports you send. Be sure to check each school's policy.
Many schools have chosen to remain test-optional. This means that you are welcome to send your score if you feel it demonstrates your abilities, but if you are unable to take the exam or do not want to send your score, it will not hurt your chances of admission. Make sure you're aware of which schools on your list are test-optional.
Placement Exams 🚀
Placement exams can show colleges that you are challenging yourself with rigorous material and that you're ready to take on advanced college coursework. You can use them to demonstrate your strengths in certain subjects, and potentially gain credits or higher placement as soon as you start college. The most dominant placement exams in the US are Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
Advanced Placement (AP)
- AP courses reflect what is taught in top introductory college courses.
- Students take AP Exams at the end of the course, measuring their mastery of college-level work.
- A score of 3 or higher on an AP exam can typically earn students college credit and/or placement into advanced courses in college.
- Students learn rigorous college-level content and skills.
- Most of the nation’s colleges and universities, plus colleges and universities in 24 other countries, grant credit, and/or placement for qualifying AP Exam grades.
- A higher GPA demonstrates rigor and academic achievement in the admission process.
- There are certain scholarships and opportunities only AP students qualify for.
- Spring: Sign up for AP classes at school
- Visit apstudent.collegeboard.org to learn more about AP courses and exams.
- If you don't have a CollegeBoard account, create one.
- October/November: Register for exams
- March: Schools submit any changes to exam registration and students complete exam registration for spring courses
- May: Take the AP Exam
Each exam costs $95, which CollegeBoard uses to:
- Develop, print, ship, and score the exams
- Subsidize teacher training
- Develop classroom resources
Some schools will pay for your AP exams. You may also qualify for Exam Fee Reductions.
AP in College Admissions
- 85% of selective colleges and universities report that a student’s AP experience favorably impacts admission decisions.
- Colleges rank grades in college-preparatory courses and strength of curriculum as the two top factors in the admission decision.
- AP courses tell college admission officials that students are challenging themselves and preparing for the rigors they will encounter in their college careers.
- While taking and doing well in an AP class can help with college admissions, the score you receive does not. AP exam scores can help you receive credit once you are already enrolled in a university, but have little to no impact on your admission decision.
Placement and Credit
- Some colleges award credit hours for qualifying AP Exam grades, which count towards your degree. The number of credit hours can depend on your score.
- Other colleges award “advanced placement." This means skipping introductory courses, entering higher-level classes, and/or fulfilling general education requirements without earning credit hours towards your degree.
- Each college and university has its own policies regarding AP credit and placement. The College Board offers information about AP credit and thousands of colleges and universities here.
- Testing Timeline PDF
- Creating a Test Prep Timeline
- Demystifying the SAT and the ACT
- Using Past SAT and ACT to Improve Your Score
- Taking the SAT/ACT with Accommodations
- FREE Test Prep Resources
- ACT Information
- SAT Information
- National Merit Scholarship Corporation
What to Think About Next 🤔
Where are you on your testing timeline? When is your next test, and how much do you feel you need to prepare for it? Give yourself plenty of time to study, take lots of breaks, and remember to drink water! You got this!