Standardized Testing: Pros and Cons of the SAT, ACT, and GRE

Many schools don't require you to take the SAT, ACT, or GRE. But should you? Learn more about the pros and cons of standardized testing.
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Ben Paris is an elite tutor and test prep expert with over 25 years of experience. He is a former curriculum director for Kaplan Test Prep and has created industry-leading and award-winning test preparation courses. Ben has published essays in Inside...
Updated on November 2, 2023
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Hannah Muniz is a senior editor with BestColleges, specializing in college planning, test prep, student life, and sponsored content. She previously worked as a freelance writer, composing articles on the SAT/ACT, higher education, language learning, ...
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  • Standardized tests allow schools to compare the skills of students from different academic backgrounds.
  • The SAT and ACT are used for undergraduate admissions, while the GRE is used for graduate programs.
  • Strong scores can help you gain admission, avoid remedial classes, and earn scholarships.
  • However, preparing for standardized tests takes time and money, and many applicants' scores are too low to help them.

Colleges and universities use standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE to help figure out who will succeed in higher education. The SAT and ACT are used for undergraduate admissions, whereas the GRE is used for graduate programs.

Recently, many colleges and graduate programs have gone test optional, meaning applicants don't need to submit test scores to get in.

But even those schools typically accept test scores if applicants want to submit them. So, the question is: Should you take one of these tests?

Read on for the pros and cons of standardized testing and why some applicants are better off not taking these exams.

Pros of the SAT and ACT

  • A good SAT or ACT score can help you stand out in the applicant pool. GPA and other factors matter, but people go to different schools and take different classes, and that makes it hard to compare GPAs fairly.

    In contrast, SAT and ACT scores mean the same thing no matter when and where you take them. They're the same tests for everyone, so strong scores are evidence that your skills are better than those of your competition.
  • A good score could help you avoid remedial courses. Every year, thousands of college students take remedial reading and math courses. Passing these courses doesn't earn you any academic credits, and you need to pass them to move on to credit-bearing courses.

    You can avoid these remedial courses by passing a placement test at your college. But at many institutions, a good SAT or ACT score can also help you bypass those courses and enroll in the classes you want. In this way, a good SAT or ACT score could save you thousands of dollars and years of effort.
  • Test scores can factor into merit-based aid decisions and scholarships. If you do well enough on a standardized test, you could qualify for better merit-based financial aid from your college. Also, some state programs and private scholarships are partially based on SAT or ACT scores.

Cons of the SAT and ACT

  • A bad SAT or ACT score calls attention to your weaknesses. Lots of people have real weaknesses they'd prefer to keep buried. The SAT and ACT can help you advertise your strengths, but they can also expose your skill gaps. If your scores are low, you might look unprepared for college-level work.
  • It costs money to take these tests and report your results. Although fee waivers are available for those with demonstrated need, you can easily spend a few hundred dollars if you need to take the test a few times and report your results to several colleges.
  • Preparing for the SAT and ACT can get expensive. There are plenty of free or inexpensive self-study options, but enrolling in a test prep class is more of an investment. While private tutoring can be highly effective, paying an expert to teach you on a per-hour basis is usually more expensive.

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Pros of the GRE

  • A good GRE score can show you have essential skills. The math and verbal skills required to do well on the GRE are important for many graduate programs. Engineering and computer science programs, for example, will look for strong Quantitative scores, while literature programs will focus on your Verbal performance. And writing skills are important everywhere.
  • The GRE compares you to others. It's hard to compare students with different GPAs, essays, and recommendations — everyone's academic experience is different. But everyone takes the same GRE, allowing admissions committees to determine where your skills place you in the applicant pool.
  • The GRE could help you earn scholarships. Some programs offer more merit-based aid for applicants with high GRE scores. Good scores may also help you with outside scholarships.

Cons of the GRE

  • A low GRE score can hurt your chances of admission. If your scores are lower than those of typical applicants, your GRE score could hold you back.
  • In many programs, the GRE may not matter much. Programs that don't require the GRE may not care about your score, no matter how strong it is. Lots of programs don't have competitive admissions, and even a top score won't help you get in when basically everyone who applies gets accepted.
  • Doing your best on the GRE is an investment of time and money. Registering for the test will typically cost about $220, and there are also charges for rescheduling and changing your test center. Test prep can be expensive and time-consuming. The GRE tests a lot of challenging vocabulary and math concepts you may not have practiced since high school. You can improve your skills, but it won't be easy.

Should You Take a Standardized Test for College?

Many schools are test-optional, so if you want to avoid taking the SAT, ACT, or GRE, you probably can. But should you?

First, find out if any of your target schools require one of these tests.

Then, take a practice test to see if you're likely to score high enough to get in. If you're applying to competitive programs and do well on the practice test, investing in test prep could be a wise move.

But if you're pretty much guaranteed to get in anyway or aren't likely to do well on the exam, avoiding the test altogether may make more sense for you.

Ultimately, consider taking a standardized test if:

  • It's required by some of your target programs.
  • Admissions are competitive, and you need a way to stand out.
  • You're likely to do well enough to stand out in a positive way.

Frequently Asked Questions About Standardized Testing

Does standardized testing actually help students?

Students who earn strong scores on standardized tests can improve their chances of admission, avoid remedial classes in college, and qualify for more merit-based aid. Students with low scores may have a harder time getting admitted into colleges and graduate programs and can look unprepared to succeed.

Has standardized testing improved student outcomes?

Whether standardized testing has improved student outcomes remains controversial. Schools use standardized tests to help them predict who will succeed. Those who think the tests measure relevant skills typically believe the tests serve a valuable purpose in education. However, lots of people disagree, believing the tests are an unfair barrier and discriminate against disadvantaged students.

What do colleges sometimes use instead of standardized testing?

Many colleges use grades, essays, letters of recommendation, and work experience as factors in the admissions process. Test-optional programs believe they can learn everything they need to know about an applicant without relying on standardized test scores. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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