Your Guide to College Entrance Exams

A Note from BestColleges on the Coronavirus and College Entrance Exams

Although SAT testing has been canceled for June, U.S. students have the option to take the test beginning in August. The ACT has announced changes to its schedule and testing policy, but has not cancelled test dates. Additionally, the ACT plans on providing at-home tests as early as August.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students around the world and will require colleges and universities to adjust their admissions standards. Some institutions may even cancel ACT/SAT criteria altogether. Contact your school's enrollment advisor for further details and stay up to date here at BestColleges.

We are also working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of coronavirus on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students.

College entrance exams attempt to measure your math, verbal, analytical, and writing skills. Many four-year colleges and universities use these tests. Certain community and technical colleges also require ACT scores or SAT scores, especially if you plan to enroll in a program that prepares students to transfer to a four-year school.

This guide can help you navigate standardized testing by covering the structures and scoring processes of the ACT and SAT. You can also gain insight into AP, CLEP, PSAT, and TOEFL tests. The guide also provides tips on how to score well on college entrance exams.

Table of Contents

SAT

The Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, is one of two major standardized exams used by postsecondary schools to evaluate the college readiness of undergraduate students. Over 2 million learners take the SAT each year.

For tips on how to effectively study for this important test, consult our SAT Prep Guide.

SAT Overview

Is it required by colleges?

East and West coast schools typically prefer the SAT over the ACT. Some schools also ask students to submit the optional SAT essay score.

What is the format?

The standard SAT spans three hours and is divided into reading, writing and language, and math sections. Students who take the essay test add another 50 minutes to their total time.

When do you take it?

High school students generally take the SAT during the spring semester of their junior year or the fall of their senior year. However, you can take it as early as your first year of high school and as late as your prospective university allows. View upcoming test dates for additional information.

Where do you take it?

Many high schools offer designated testing days where students can take the SAT on site. You can also take this exam at any official test center in the U.S. and abroad.

How much does it cost?

You need to pay $52 to take the standard SAT ($68 to include the essay portion). Registering for an exam date after a deadline incurs a $30 late fee. For more information on costs, consult the College Board.

How should you study for it?

Experts suggest that you should start studying about four months before your test date, dedicating about two hours each week to your studies. Alternatively, you can start studying about 1.5 months before your test date for five hours per week. You can make the preparation process easier by taking advantage of resources like the Khan Academy.

How does scoring work?

Each of the SAT's standard sections is scored on a scale of 200-800. The essay test breaks down into three scores for reading, analysis, and writing — each ranging from 2-8. The class of 2019 earned an average SAT score (excluding the essay) of 1068.

Read our full SAT Prep Guide


SAT Subject Tests

The College Board began offering a series of subject-specific exams in 1937. Today, you may choose from 20 SAT Subject Tests in five broad areas of study: English, history, languages, math, and science. These tests allow you to highlight areas where you excel or make up for lackluster grades on your high school transcript, thereby improving your chances of earning admission to competitive colleges and universities.

SAT Subject Tests Overview

Are they required by colleges?

SAT Subject Tests are typically optional, with students using them to bolster certain areas of their academic record. However, certain postsecondary schools may require or recommend that you submit these scores based on your chosen major.

What is the format?

All SAT Subject Tests span one hour and consist entirely of multiple-choice questions.

When do you take them?

The College Board offers Subject Tests on the same days and at the same locations as the standard SAT. However, not all 20 tests are offered on every test date. Consult this list for specific details.

Where do you take them?

You can take SAT Subject Tests at the same place you sit for the general exam. Find an official testing center near you by visiting the College Board's website.

How much do they cost?

The College Board charges a flat $26 registration fee that enables you to take up to three Subject Tests on a given day. You must pay $22 for each test you take ($26 for each language test with listening). To learn more about fees, go to this page.

How should you study for them?

SAT Subject Tests evaluate your knowledge of 20 specific areas at a high school level. The College Board recommends that you prepare for these exams by taking relevant courses. Companies like Varsity Tutors provide free practice tests.

How does scoring work?

Like the standard SAT, Subject Tests are scored on a scale of 200-800. You can find scoring percentile ranks for the 2017-2019 graduating classes by reading this official report from the College Board.

ACT

First introduced in 1959, the ACT (or American College Testing) assesses a student's college readiness in English, reading, math, and science. Colleges and universities use these scores as common data points with which to evaluate applicants. You can learn how to maximize your performance by checking out our ACT Prep Guide.

ACT Overview

Is it required by colleges?

In general, four-year universities in the Midwest and Southern U.S. prefer the ACT over the SAT. Some institutions may also require you to submit the optional writing score.

What is the format?

The ACT lasts two hours and 55 minutes and breaks down into English, math, reading, and science sections. The optional essay portion takes an additional 40 minutes. With the exception of the essay, the ACT consists entirely of multiple-choice questions.

When do you take it?

You can take the ACT as early as sixth grade. However, most students take the test during their junior year. The ACT is offered every year in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July. You can register for the test through the ACT's official website.

Where do you take it?

Some high schools facilitate ACT testing on site. You may also take the test at any of the official test center locations scattered across the U.S., U.S. territories, and Puerto Rico.

How much does it cost?

The general ACT costs $55 ($70 if you want to include the essay section). You can register after the formal deadline by paying a $30 late charge. Visit the ACT website for more information on fees.

How should you study for it?

You can follow the same guidelines mentioned above for the SAT by studying for about five hours a week starting 1.5 months before your test date. If you retake the test, a good rule of thumb is that you should spend about 10 hours studying for each point you want to gain. The official ACT website offers free prep materials and sells official guides.

How does scoring work?

Each standard ACT section is assessed individually and then combined to form a cumulative score from 1-36. If you take the optional essay portion, you will receive a separate score from 1-12. The average ACT score is 21.

Read our full ACT Prep Guide

ACT vs. SAT

What's the Difference Between the ACT and SAT?

The ACT and SAT assess student college readiness and achievement in primary academic areas. Similarities between the two exams include the following:

Categories

Both tests are content-based. The exams include sections in English and reading, as well as a math section measuring skills in arithmetic, algebra I and II, geometry, and trigonometry.

Optional Writing

The ACT and SAT both feature an optional essay portion.

Vocabulary

Students must figure out the meaning of a word in a sentence based on contextual clues. Due to a recent revision, the SAT no longer features questions requiring students to select the best vocabulary word.

Timed Sections

Each section must be completed within predetermined time constraints.

Duration

Both exams allow roughly three hours of total testing time; the additional essay sections add 40-50 minutes for those who choose to participate.

Number of Multiple-Choice Answers

Both the ACT and SAT now offer four possible answers for all multiple-choice questions. The SAT previously offered five.

No ‘Wrong Score Penalty’

Currently, the ACT and SAT exams only award points for correct answers and do not penalize students for incorrect answers.

Test Availability

Though test times vary by location, both exams are typically available on six dates throughout the year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected some test dates.

Despite these similarities, there are several major differences between the two exams. The ACT measures overall educational development, while the SAT focuses more on testing logic and problem-solving skills.

ACT SAT
Question Delivery The ACT features more challenging questions phrased in a straightforward manner. The SAT often disguises simpler questions by phrasing them in a more convoluted manner.
Mathematics The ACT features more complex questions in the math section and allows students to use an approved calculator throughout this section. The SAT focuses less on advanced math skills, and calculators are not allowed in certain segments of the mathematics section.
Science The ACT includes a science reasoning section with readable passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The SAT does not contain a science component.
Education and Career Planning In addition to general background information, the ACT collects information related to student education and career planning. The SAT does not collect information regarding student education and career planning.
Scoring Each required section of the ACT is scored up to a maximum of 36 points. Final scores represent a composite of all four sections. The SAT features two required sections with a total of 200-800 points possible in each section. Final scores represent the total points earned in both sections; the maximum score on the SAT is 1600.

How Do I Compare My ACT Score and SAT Score?

The maximum score on the ACT is 36, while the maximum SAT score is 1600. Comparatively, each point on the ACT represents 40-50 points on the total score of the SAT. For example, an ACT score of 35 is generally equivalent to an SAT score of 1540-1590.

The average ACT composite score in the U.S. during the 2017-2018 calendar year was 20.8 points. The average total SAT score in 2018 was 1068 points.

Should I Take Both the ACT and the SAT?

Generally, colleges and universities that require standardized test scores accept either the ACT or SAT. Some schools recommend taking both tests and submitting whichever score is higher, whereas others advise against this practice because splitting time studying for two tests may lower your overall scores on both.

The decision to take both the ACT and SAT depends on your specific academic strengths. To make the most of your scores, consider potential advantages you might have by taking one test over the other.

Which Test Should I Take?

If you excel at science …
  • If your math skills (particularly in trigonometry) are more advanced.
  • If your grammar and punctuation skills are advanced.
  • If you have an easier time with multiple-choice math problems.

You should take the ACT.

If you excel at writing …
  • If you can decipher multi-faceted, wordier questions.
  • If your vocabulary skills are more advanced.
  • If you can answer non-multiple-choice math problems with ease.

You should take the SAT.

If you have advanced time-management skills …
  • If you perform well under pressure.
  • If your writing skills are advanced.
  • If your English language skills are advanced.

You can take either test.

If you are still unsure which test is right for you, the Princeton Review offers a free quiz that can help.

PSAT

The PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, is a shortened version of the SAT, which students typically take in 10th or 11th grade. Also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, the PSAT allows you to practice for the SAT and gain National Merit distinction.

PSAT Overview

Is it required by colleges?

No. However, by taking the test, students can participate in the College Board's Student Search Service, which connects them with participating schools.

What is the format?

The PSAT is a multiple-choice assessment that lasts two hours and 45 minutes. Students spend 25 minutes on the math with no calculator section, 45 minutes on the math with a calculator section, 35 minutes on the writing and language section, and 60 minutes on the evidence-based reading section.

When do you take it?

You can take the PSAT every autumn — usually in October. The College Board offers a primary date, a Saturday session, and an alternative option. You may find the 2020 test dates by visiting the official website.

Where do you take it?

You register to take the PSAT at your own high school by speaking with a counselor. If your school does not offer the test, you can take it at a nearby high school.

How much does it cost?

The PSAT costs $17. Your school may pay part of the cost or the entire amount. Fee waivers are available to low-income 11th graders.

Should you study for it?

Because the PSAT is similar to the SAT, you can study for this preliminary test by using the same tools and guides. Khan Academy offers a free practice test.

How does scoring work?

The PSAT is scored on a scale of 320-1250. To qualify as a National Merit Scholar, you need to perform in the top 1% in your state.

AP Tests

Advanced Placement (AP) tests are college-level assessments students can take after completing the relevant high school course. The College Board provides over 35 AP options, including music theory, English literature and composition, statistics, Chinese language and culture, and environmental science.

By earning a high score on an AP test, you can gain college credit, which helps save time and money in the long run.

AP Tests Overview

Are AP tests required by colleges?

Postsecondary schools do not require AP tests as part of the admissions process. However, by earning high AP scores, you can opt out of general education and major prerequisite coursework.

What is the format?

AP tests vary in length, but usually last 2-3 hours. Depending on what exam you take, expect to encounter multiple-choice and/or free response questions. For details on individual AP tests, consult the College Board.

When do you take them?

AP tests are offered each May. You can find specific test dates through the official website. Register for the exam through the My AP online portal and talk to your school's AP coordinator about paying fees.

Where do you take them?

Students typically take AP tests at their high school. If you are homeschooled, contact AP Services.

How much do they cost?

The majority of AP tests cost $94 if you reside in the U.S, U.S. territories, or Canada. They cost $124 if you live anywhere else. You incur a $40 late fee if you order an exam between November 16 and March 13.

How should you study for them?

Because you usually take an AP test after completing relevant coursework, you should already have prep materials handy. Take 1-3 months before the test date to review content, familiarize yourself with the question types, and take a few practice exams.

How does scoring work?

For most AP tests, your overall performance is a weighted combination of individual section scores. You will ultimately receive a 1-5, with most colleges offering credit for a score of 4 or better.

CLEP Exams

The College-Level Examination Program was launched in 1967 as a way for military personnel and adult learners to obtain degrees while maintaining work and family responsibilities. Today, any individual can take one of 34 CLEP exams to earn college credit at more than 2,900 postsecondary schools in the United States.

CLEP Overview

Is it required by colleges?

Like AP tests, CLEP exams are not required by higher education institutions. These exams cover five broad categories: business, composition and literature, history and social sciences, science and mathematics, and world languages.

What is the format?

Most CLEP exams take 90-120 minutes and consist entirely of multiple-choice questions with five possible answers. Some of these tests require you to write answers, to which you will receive separate scores.

When do you take it?

The College Board offers CLEP test dates each month at locations across the United States. After obtaining a registration ticket, you have six months to take the exam.

Where do you take it?

You can take CLEP exams at any one of the roughly 2,000 civilian and military testing centers. The College Board offers a searchable database you can use to find nearby locations.

How much does it cost?

All CLEP exams cost $85, which you can pay online through the official College Board website. After completing registration, you should contact a local testing center to confirm a date and time to take the test.

How should you study for it?

You should spend at least 20 hours studying for your CLEP exam. Through Modern States, you can sign up for free preparation courses. The College Board also offers online resources and practice tests.

How does scoring work?

Computers score multiple-choice questions on the CLEP exams, while two or more English professors evaluate essays. You will receive a cumulative score from 20-80. Each college maintains its own CLEP policies. You usually need to earn at least a 50 to receive credit.

TOEFL

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a common entrance exam that non-native speakers must take to attend colleges and universities in English-speaking countries. You may also need to submit TOEFL scores when applying for study abroad programs or international employment. Rather than testing conversational/casual English, the TOEFL assesses a student's competencies in formal, academic language and college-level vocabulary.

TOEFL Overview

Is it required by colleges?

The majority of higher education institutions in the U.S. require the TOEFL or IELTS for students hailing from countries where English is not a major language. Confirm your school's English language requirements with an advisor.

What is the format?

The TOEFL includes reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections. The first two sections feature multiple-choice questions. The last two sections include independent and integrated tasks that test your ability to understand English and formulate your own thoughts on a particular subject.

When do you take it?

You can take the TOEFL on 60 days throughout the year at authorized testing centers worldwide. Pick a test date that is at least 2-3 months before your application deadline. To register, visit the official Educational Testing Service (ETS) website.

Where do you take it?

You can take the TOEFL at any authorized testing center. Use this search tool to find upcoming test dates and locations near you.

How much does it cost?

The cost to take the TOEFL is usually $200. You will pay an additional $40 for registering late and another $60 to reschedule your exam date. Consult this table for additional fee information.

How should you study for it?

In general, you should spend two months preparing for the exam. The official ETS page and websites like Magoosh offer free practice tests.

How does scoring work?

You will receive four scaled section scores (ranging from 0-30) and a total score (ranging from 0-120). In 2017, the average overall TOEFL score was 84. You can view how the data breaks down by reviewing the official ETS report.

Do All Colleges Require Entrance Exams?

Entrance exams like the ACT and SAT provide streamlined and data-supported means for colleges and universities to evaluate your academic capabilities. However, higher education increasingly eschew standardized testing, opting for more holistic methods of student evaluation. This opt-out movement continues to gain momentum as concerns over the effectiveness and equity of college entrance exams grow.

Students who want to bypass standardized testing often enjoy a variety of options.

Today, students who want to bypass standardized testing often enjoy a variety of options. To recruit a diverse array of learners, online colleges generally do not require entrance exams. Learners who want to enroll in campus-based programs should seek out test-flexible schools. In lieu of test scores, these institutions may allow applicants to prove academic preparedness through factors like professional experience and leadership accomplishments.

Online Test Taking

Many entrance exams, including the SAT and CLEP, allow students to complete the entire test on a computer at a designated location. Online test taking will continue to evolve as these companies seek to decrease operational costs by eliminating the need for testing centers and on-site proctors.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, standardized test companies are scrambling to provide remote options. The College Board is currently working on several online SAT tests, although they have decided to delay plans for an at-home digital SAT. However, the ACT still plans to let students take the test at home should widespread quarantine measures remain in effect in the fall of 2020.

Adaptive Test Taking

Sometime in the future, college entrance exams may move toward computerized adaptive testing. The quantitative and verbal sections of the GMAT and GRE already use adaptive testing.

With adaptive testing, each student essentially takes a different test.

With adaptive testing, each student essentially takes a different test. Every answer a student provides influences the subsequent question. If an answer is correct, then the test moves on to a more challenging set of questions. Alternatively, if an answer is wrong, the test holds off on asking the student harder questions.

Adaptive testing can better gauge a student's abilities. Each student's final score measures not only their correct answers, but also the particular items the student answered right or wrong.

Given that adaptive testing bases the next question on the previous answer, a student cannot skip or bookmark a question and return to it later. When students are stumped on a question, they should take time to figure out the answer. While a quick guess could end up being correct, it could also lead to more difficult questions.

How to Study for College Entrance Exams

To prepare for college entrance exams, you can use a variety of tools, many of which are free. Check for resources in your community, especially at local libraries where you can borrow ACT and SAT prep books. High schools benefit from their students' strong performance on standardized tests and often provide review sessions and peer tutoring.

Websites like Khan Academy and Test Prep Practice enable you to access tutorials, tips, and practice tests online. You can also access free practice tests through the College Board's website and other official test sites. If you want to pay for dedicated support, popular test prep companies include The Princeton Review and Kaplan.

What to Expect on Test Day

The following section covers a few tips you should follow to effectively prepare for test day, including what to do the night before and what to bring the day of.

Things to Bring With You
  • Printed admission ticket and photo ID
  • Approved calculator
  • Two No. 2 pencils
  • Water and snacks
Things to Leave at Home
  • Cell phones
  • Unapproved calculator
  • Highlighters and colored pens
  • Books, pamphlets, dictionaries, and other prohibited materials

Test Day Schedule

Planning ahead for your exam is very important. Following a detailed itinerary for your test day (beginning with the night before) can help you alleviate stress and head into the exam with confidence. We have included a model schedule below to help you plan for your exam.

The Night Before

A good night's rest is essential before you take your exam. Sufficient sleep is linked to focus, energy, stamina, and cognitive abilities. Ideally, you will have studied for weeks leading up to the testing date and you will not need to cram the night before your exam. Be confident in your exam prep and try to relax the evening before your exam.

Dos
  • Go to bed at a reasonable time
  • Set at least one alarm
  • Relax
  • Get everything organized the night before
Don’ts
  • Stay up late
  • Take sleeping aids (unless part of your normal routine)
  • Study for the exam
  • Wait until the morning to get organized

Morning of the Test

If you have organized everything (e.g., clothing, car keys, and directions to the testing center) the night before your exam, then the morning of your test should be fairly relaxed. Check all of your testing equipment before you leave the house. Eat a well-balanced meal that will not upset your stomach and limit your coffee intake; caffeine can cause added anxiety.

Dos
  • Get up at a reasonable hour
  • Check your exam materials
  • Eat a healthy breakfast and limit your caffeine
  • Relax and leave the house with enough time to arrive at the testing center a few minutes early
Don’ts
  • Get up too early
  • Leave the house without ensuring your materials are in working order
  • Eat or drink anything you don't normally consume
  • Cram or leave the house without sufficient travel time

Upon Arrival

Plan to arrive at the test site by 8 a.m. at the latest. Once you arrive, present your admission ticket and (if applicable) ask where you can store your bags. Wait to be seated by a test supervisor. The test will begin between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. The test supervisor will give verbal instructions once it is time to get started.

After the Test

Congratulations! Do not overthink your performance. Follow the test coordinator's instructions, pack up your belongings, and head home (or out to celebrate). Be sure to check your online account in the days following your exam to see if your scores have been posted, and contact the testing organization if you think there might be an error or discrepancy with your results.

Comparing Scores

On top of your cumulative score (1-36 on the ACT and 400-1600 on the SAT), you should figure out your percentile rank among your test-taking cohort when determining your overall performance. The College Board offers a comprehensive guide to understanding and comparing your score. The ACT also publishes reports to help you analyze your performance in relation to your peers.

In general, you want to score in the upper end of your prospective school's percentiles. Most colleges publish a 25th-75th range to reflect the test score distribution of the incoming class. Half of the admitted students scored between these two numbers, while 25% scored above and 25% scored below.

Should I Retake My Exam?

You can retake any of the exams discussed in this guide, although there may be some restrictions regarding how often you can retake a test within a period of time. For example, you cannot take the TOEFL more than once within a three-day period.

The College Board recommends that you take the SAT at least twice, planning carefully around deadlines.

Students who retake a standardized exam generally perform better on their second try because they have experience with the content and test-taking process. Because retakes are common, colleges and universities almost always use your best scores. Some schools even practice superscoring, taking the best results from individual test sections, even if they were earned on different dates.