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Placement tests 101

SAT vs. ACT: What you need to know

Placement tests 101

The college admission process may seem like it involves a million steps, but one big jump forward is getting your placement tests underway. The SAT and the ACT are the standardized placement tests required by many colleges and universities. Admissions counselors consider your scores from these tests — along with your grades, course load, recommendations, and extracurricular activities — to make admissions decisions.

Wondering why there are two tests and which you’re supposed to take?  Read on for what you need to know.

An early taste: PSAT and PLAN

Before you take your actual placement tests, there is an early version of both the SAT and ACT that many students take in their sophomore or junior year of high school. 

The PSAT, offered by the SAT, is a multiple choice test that covers math, critical reading and writing. Your junior year scores may qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship Program, a potential source for college scholarships.

The PLAN test, offered by the ACT, covers English, mathematics, reading and science. 

The scores from these early tests have no bearing on your future college acceptance. Taking them simply provides you with an introduction to the testing experience and to help you determine if there is an area you’d like to improve upon before sitting down to take the actual test.

The real deal: ACT and SAT

Colleges and universities that require standardized tests look at your scores from either the ACT or SAT.

The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what you have learned in high school. The test covers English, mathematics, reading, science and an optional writing test. 

The SAT is an aptitude test, measuring your mathematical and verbal abilities. The test covers critical reasoning, mathematics and a required writing section.

In addition, many students also take the SAT subject tests (sometimes called SAT II). These are multiple choice tests that cover only one subject and measure your knowledge in that subject.

So, which should you take?

“Years ago, a student had to take one or another to satisfy a particular school,” says Patrick J. O’Connor, director of college counseling at the Roeper School in Birmingham, Michigan. “But today, most colleges will accept either test.” 

First, look into the schools you’re interested in. “The school’s website [should] clearly indicate their testing requirements,” says O’Connor. “In addition, many schools have become test optional, meaning they make their decision based on grades, strength of schedule, letters of recommendations and essays.” For a listing of test-optional colleges and universities, check out

If your potential schools accept either test, O’Connor suggests taking both to see which one you are most comfortable with, then re-take the one you prefer. However, before taking either test a second time, you can click here to get test taking tips that can help you to be as prepared as possible.

The school will also let you know if they require SAT subject tests, which can usually be in a subject of your choosing.  Even if your target schools don’t require it, if you are very strong in a particular area, you may opt to take the subject test to showcase your talent.

“If you’ll be taking a subject test, do so after you finish coursework in that area,” O’Connor says. “For example, if you took chemistry in your junior year and you want to take that subject test,  schedule it shortly after you complete the course.”

Stress-free testing

Once you’ve figured out which test to take and when, being at your best on test day can make all the difference.

It’s advice you’ve heard a million times, but a good night sleep and a healthy breakfast really is the best way to start off your testing experience.

“The tests are long, so if you skip breakfast, you’re going to be hungry,” says Heather Case, counselor at the Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, IN. “Also bring a (bottled water) and a snack. Don’t expect vending machines to be accessible. No junk; bring something that will give you some protein.” Good choices include: a bag of nuts, a granola bar, or some peanut butter crackers.

Food isn’t permitted at your desk but breaks are included, during which you can go into the hall, have a drink or snack and stretch your legs.

Facing so many questions can become overwhelming, but Case suggests that one way to keep calm is to decide how to react when you hit tough questions. Be familiar with the different scoring methods; the SAT will deduct for a wrong answer while the ACT does not.

“On the SAT, if you aren’t sure of an answer, I tell my students to try to narrow the possible four answers down to two. That gives you a 50% shot if you guess. But if you can’t narrow it down at all, it might be better to leave it blank,” says Case.  “For the ACT, there is no guessing penalty, so a guess gives you a 25% chance of getting it right.”

It’s easy to get too stressed over scores and which tests to take, but keep grounded by sorting out the facts. Then, talk with your parents and counselors to come up with the best plan for you.

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