Standardized Testing: A Somewhat Helpful Guide

With three more weeks left until school’s out, you, as a student, are probably very relieved. However, a small percentage of students are still stressing, discussing tests despite AP testing already being over. No need to be curious; I have the answer: These students are preparing for standardized tests.

Often, hearing or seeing one student stressing about standardized testing sets off a stream of questions within ourselves. This here is a guide that (hopefully) answers all of those questions and provides information that will be valuable in the impending test-filled future.

The ACT

The ACT is one of the two major standardized tests college admissions look at to determine your ability to succeed in college. Currently, both the ACT and SAT are accepted interchangeably by colleges. However, the two tests are different in subjects tested and format so it is good to know what to expect from each one.

The ACT is administered six times a year — in September, October, December, February, April, and May. Most juniors take their first ACT in the spring of junior year, so they can have a summer to study and prepare of a second time in the fall of senior year.

Word on the street is that the ACT is considered easier than the SAT but this can be both true and false depending on the type of person you are. The ACT tests five different subjects in a span of 3 hours and 25 minutes (four subjects in 2 hours and 55 minutes if you choose not to take the essay portion; however, this is highly discouraged since most colleges require you to take the essay portion anyway). The five subjects are English, math, reading, science, and writing. If all of these subjects are your strengths, then the ACT would definitely seem “easy” to you. However, if you feel that your science is not up to par, then maybe look at the SAT and see if that test is better for you. Whatever you do, play to your strengths.

The SAT

The SAT is the second option of standardized testing and the more commonly taken one with its connection to College Board. This test is offered seven Saturdays in a year (usually the first of each month) — in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June.

As of March 2016, the SAT has gone through a major change in its format. No longer out of 2400 points, the test is now out of 1600 points and the essay portion of the exam is no longer mandatory (but the same disclaimer about the ACT essay portion remains relevant). There is also no longer a penalty for guessing. The test is divided into four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math with Calculator, and Math without Calculator. Because the test has only been administered once as of the publishing of this article, there are not too many resources or proven test-taking strategies established for the redesigned SAT yet. Thus, if you want insight on the exam and true-to-testing-day practice exams, you should invest in the Official SAT Study Guide written by College Board.

The SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests are one-hour-long tests on one of twenty subjects. Each test is scored out of 800 points. Not all colleges set requirements for subject tests, but many schools “highly recommend” taking them. The twenty types of subject tests available are Math 1, Math 2, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, English Literature, US History, World History, Spanish, German, Spanish with Listening, German with Listening, French, Modern Hebrew, French with Listening, Latin, Chinese with Listening, Japanese with Listening, Italian, and Korean with Listening.

Because there are so many options for these tests, you should approach them the same way you approach the two other major standardized tests — play to your strengths. Because most students will advantageously take the tests with subjects they understand well, most colleges think highly of competitive scores of 700 and above. There are also many study guides available for individual tests.

General Testing Tips (from a Somewhat Experienced Test-Taker)

  1. Practice. A lot. No kidding. It’s obvious, I know, but it’s so overly-stated that almost nobody really follows the advice. There is no sure-fire way to get the perfect score on any of these exams. However, all these exams are designed meticulously and formulaically. They all have patterns in questions and the way they are set up. By practicing, you begin to pick up on these patterns and start to understand how the tests try to “mislead” or “trick” you. Practice also builds confidence, which is never bad in a test-taking situation.
  2. Review your practice tests/questions carefully. After taking your practice tests, make sure you review the questions you get wrong or were unsure of. Whether you just re-do the questions or set up an error analysis table, understand your mistakes so you won’t make the same ones again.
  3. Relax the day before. It’s very tempting to cram the night before the exam, but I highly discourage any of it. If you’ve been studying, great — the information should all be in your brain, so rest it and make sure it’s in prime condition for the next morning. If you haven’t been studying, a night of Starbuck’s coffee, an unopened study guide, and crossing your fingers will not help. One night won’t make much of a difference. (I show no sympathy because you not studying means you disregarded my entire article. Rude.) If you must, then study for no more than an hour. In the hour, don’t do any hardcore studying, but just review major concepts instead. Also, listen to music to calm your mind. Take some time to read. Just get some rest — you deserve it.
  4. Finally, on the day of the test, dominate. Also not kidding here. Mentality is half of the struggle. You need to walk into the testing center with confidence and determination. Tell yourself that you will ace the test, and 99.9% of the time, you will.

Good luck. Seriously, even after doing everything you can to prepare for these exams, you’ll still need it. A lot of people will tell you that your scores do not define you and that the scores really don’t matter, but in reality, they do — at least they do in the eyes of college admissions. Realize that you can’t change what the admissions think, but you can change how you think and rise above being labeled by a number. If you are meant to do great things, whether or not you get that perfect score on the SAT Latin test does not affect your future greatness. Yes, these tests will affect your future, but don’t let them control it. That’s your job.

Just share it.