In-Depth Guide

How to Prepare for College Admissions Exams


Many students in their junior and senior years of high school find entrance exams to be one of the most trying aspects of the college admissions process. In truth, it’s one of the most important tests in your college career — even though you’ll take it long before college even begins. All U.S. students must take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Test (ACT), both of which largely determine where you can go to college. It’s stressful for sure, but a bit of preparation for these milestone exams can go a long way.

The SAT is considered the first standardized college admissions test. Prior to its introduction in 1901, aspiring undergraduates had to take separate enterance exams at each college they hoped to attend. The SAT gauged all areas of academic preparedness and evolved over the years to eventually become the scholastic rite of passage we now know today.

By 1959, some academics felt an alternative to the SAT was needed to assess a student’s ability to perform in college. A new test, the ACT, was designed and implemented largely in the Midwest. For a number of years the SAT was the standard exam at schools on both coasts, while the ACT primarily served students in the middle states. As of 2007, all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT, so students can choose which one to take.

The SAT: Design, Scoring and Study Tips

The SAT is a reasoning test that measures one’s ability to demonstrate general knowledge under pressure. The three hours and 45 minutes of testing time is divided into math, reading, and writing segments, with each segment broken into 10 sections of mostly multiple-choice questions. The writing segment contains a short essay. Students complete one section at a time under strict time restrictions, and are not allowed to return to earlier segments once they are completed.

Each of the three divisions (math, reading and writing) has a maximum score of 800, bringing the maximum SAT score to 2,400 points. Questions in all sections are divided by level of difficulty. The first third are the easiest, the second third are harder, and the last third are the most difficult. Focus your allotted time on the first two-thirds of each section, where you are most likely to answer correctly. Don’t get bogged down with a difficult question, and don’t just guess blindly. Not answering a question doesn’t count against you, but answering a question incorrectly does – you lose a quarter of a point – so skip questions if you have no idea what the answer may be.

The multiple-choice questions included in the English segment ask SAT takers to identify grammatical mistakes, improve sentence structure, and demonstrate reading comprehension. The segment uses reading passages that cover a wide range of subjects, including science, history, and the humanities. While most of the mathematics section is multiple-choice, several ‘grid-in’ questions (which ask students to solve a problem and input their answer in a designated ‘grid’ area) are included. Most of the math questions deal with algebra or geometry; be sure to review basic calculator operations for the common problems to save time on test day.

Unlike the math and reading segments, the writing segment includes a handwritten essay in addition to multiple-choice components — and for this reason, many students consider it to be the most stressful aspect of the SAT. To maximize your allotted 25 minutes of writing time, quickly use your test booklet as scratch paper and construct an outline. You’ll be given a prompt that requires you to choose an argument; choose one you can easily defend in just five paragraphs. The prompt is likely to be very general, but scorers are looking for specific information. Use references to science, literature, or current events to make your point. State your thesis in the first paragraph, and acknowledge the opposing view in your concluding paragraph.

Other best practices to follow prior to this important exam include:

  • Be on time. If you’ve never been to the testing site, allow yourself an extra half hour to find it and be comfortably seated when the test begins.
  • Take extra no. 2 pencils and calculator batteries
  • Go to bed at a decent hour the night before
  • Eat a healthy breakfast with plenty of protein for energy
  • Manage your pace as you test in each section. For example, sentence completion questions may be answered more quickly than others, so finish those first.
  • Focus on one reading passage at a time and complete all questions before moving to another passage
  • Know your grammar; some high school classes do not cover these basics.
  • Take timed practice tests, in order to truly simulate the testing environment. The more you practice, the better prepared you will be.

The ACT: Design, Scoring and Study Tips

The ACT is designed to measure a student’s grasp of his or her high school education. The exam’s content is structured in large chunks by subject area:

  • English: Five essays along with 75 questions regarding grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.
  • Math: 60 multiple-choice questions on pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, and geometry.
  • Reading: Four 750-word passages with 10 questions to test reading comprehension.
  • Science Reasoning: Various graphs, charts or summaries, along with forty questions asking you to interpret the material. Particular scientific knowledge is not being tested, but the ability to interpret scientific data.
  • Writing (optional): An original essay written from a test prompt. If you do not take the writing portion of the test and later apply to a college that requires it, you’ll have to take the entire exam again.

Not including the writing segment, the entire test takes just under three hours. Raw scores from each subject section are averaged for a total possible score of 36. To earn an above-average score, you need to correctly complete about 60% of the exam questions.

All questions are multiple-choice. The ACT does not deduct points for incorrect answers, so answer every question. The exam is designed to be too long to complete in the allotted time, so it is unlikely you’ll finish each segment. Your proctor can announce a one-minute warning before a timed segment is over; use that time to fill in all the remaining bubbles on your scoresheet. This exam is also intentionally designed with questions that take too long to answer; if you find yourself stuck on a question, make an educated guess and move on.

Is One Better than the Other?

Although four-year colleges accept both exams as part of the admissions process, the two tests have some significant differences. The SAT is thought to be a better test for students with skills in language arts because it requires an extensive vocabulary and advanced reading comprehension skills. Alternatively, the ACT may be friendlier test to left-brained thinkers; it contains more advanced math and a science section. If you have the choice of the two exams, it makes sense to take the one that plays to your particular talents.

College admissions exams have a notorious reputation among high school students, but the SAT and ACT can be very positive for young people who diligently prepare. An impressive score can increase your college and university options, qualify you for more scholarship opportunities, and — most importantly — build positive, productive study habits that will serve you for years to come.