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What you need to know about college entrance exams

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” - Benjamin Franklin

Why Prepare?

Any student planning on going to college will likely have to take one or more college entrance exams, whether it be the ACT®, SAT®, or Accuplacer®. High scores on these exams will not only affect which colleges admit you, but may also fulfill the basic requirements for introductory courses or earn you college credit.

Preparing for these exams ahead of time helps you become familiar with the exam format, how questions are worded, and identify areas you need to work on  – all of which can improve your score or at least make taking the test less stressful.

What’s the difference between these exams?

English, Reading, and Writing - Redundant?
The English section of the ACT® tests grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics of English, whereas the Reading section will test your comprehension of text. See this ACT breakdown by Study Point for more information on each section.
All three are standardized tests, but test your knowledge in different subject areas:

  • ACT®:  English, math, reading, science and writing (the essay section is optional).
  • SAT®:  Math, reading, and writing
  • Accuplacer®:  Math, reading, and writing.  The Accuplacer test format is also different from the SAT and ACT as it is taken online and your test questions are based on your responses to each question you’ve already answered.
Green Test Prep provides a detailed comparison of the key differences between the ACT and SAT.

Which one should I take?

Either the ACT® or SAT®  is required by most four-year colleges and universities, whereas the Accuplacer®  is more commonly used by Community Colleges as a placement exam, to determine what level of class you should enroll in or if you need to complete remedial coursework before enrolling. Be sure to check which entrance exams are required by each college you’re interested in attending – don’t waste your time or money on tests you don’t need.

When should I take these tests?

Most students take these tests during the spring semester of their junior year.  Some students may take the exam again during the fall of their senior year if they are not satisfied with their scores. However, it is unlikely that taking the test multiple times will improve your score and you may even do worse, so it’s best to  prepare and study for the tests ahead of time to ensure you maximize your score the first time around.

See our Preparing for College in High School checklists for additional important timelines.

How can I prepare for these tests?

The organizations that write and facilitate admission exams provide official test prep resources:

Although the ACT® and SAT provide online resources and tools, these two exams are taken in paper and pencil format, so it’s best to get some practice taking these exams ALSO in paper and pencil format. Books such as The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016 – 2017 and SAT Premier with 5 Practice Tests provide both study strategies and paper practice tests. Psychology shows us that we test better when we study in a similar environment, so take the tests in a quiet room and have someone keep time for you to learn how to pace yourself.

What if I don’t test well?

In the end, the best thing you can do to prepare for these tests is to prepare, try your best, and test with a positive attitude; but, also keep it in perspective – a test score does not determine your future success. If standardized tests are really not your thing, check out the growing list colleges that do not require test scores for admission.
ACT vs. SAT vs. Accuplacer - What you need to know about college entrance exams

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