Many U.S. colleges require that undergraduate and graduate students submit standardized test scores as part of their application packages. Standardized tests provide a consistent way for a college to evaluate you and sometimes even help you choose the right courses.
For information about which tests you should take, talk to your high school or college academic counselor, or to the admissions offices at the colleges you are interested in attending. In the meantime, here’s a summary of most standardized tests.
Tests for Undergraduate Programs
Most colleges require you to take one of the most common tests, the SAT or the ACT. Check with the colleges you plan to apply to for their testing requirements.
Most community colleges have open enrollment and don’t require standardized test scores. However, they will usually require placement tests. SAT or ACT scores may exempt you from placement tests. If you want to enroll in a selective program at a community college (nursing, computer science, law enforcement), then standardized test scores may be required. Later, if you transfer from a community college to a university or another school, test scores may be required.
The SAT measures your ability rather than knowledge. The 3 ¾-hour test contains three sections: writing, critical reading, and math. Most of the questions are multiple-choice.
Some colleges may also require you to take an SAT Subject Test. SAT Subject Tests measure your knowledge in specific subjects within five general categories: English, mathematics, history, science, and languages. Specific subjects range from English literature to biology to Modern Hebrew. SAT Subject Tests are primarily multiple-choice, and each lasts one hour.
Both the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are offered several times a year at locations across the country. The College Board provides detailed information about the SAT and SAT Subject Tests, including information about preparing to take the test, what to take with you on test day, and understanding your scores.
Like the SAT, the ACT is accepted by almost all colleges and universities. But instead of measuring how you think, the ACT measures what you’ve learned in school.
The ACT consists of four multiple-choice tests: English, reading, mathematics, and science. If your college requires a writing test, you can take the ACT Plus Writing, which includes a writing test in addition to the other four tests. These tests are offered several times a year at locations (usually high schools and colleges) across the country.
Check out detailed information about the ACT, including preparing to take the test, what to take with you on test day, and understanding your scores.
Other Common Tests
Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT)
A good way to practice for the SAT tests. Students typically take the PSAT in their junior year of high school. The test also serves as a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s scholarship programs. The PSAT measures skills in critical reading, mathematics, and writing. Check out detailed information about the PSAT, including preparing for the SAT and qualifying for scholarships.
Advanced Placement (AP) exams
You usually take AP exams after you’ve completed an AP course in the relevant subject at your high school. A good grade on an AP exam can qualify you for college credit and/or “advanced placement” in that subject in college. For example, if you score well on the AP English Literature exam, you may not have to take the college’s required freshman-level English course. If you are interested in taking an AP class at your school, talk to your high school counselor.
Most AP exams last two to three hours, and include essay questions and possibly multiple-choice questions. The tests are offered each spring. Each test is offered only once, with a makeup day a few weeks later. Check out detailed information about AP exams, including courses and exams.
College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)
CLEP gives you the opportunity to earn college credit in different subjects by taking exams. Not all colleges offer credit based on CLEP tests, and different colleges offer different amounts of credit for the same test, so do your research before committing to an exam. Your best source of information is your college. Check out detailed information about the CLEP, including getting college credit for what you already know.
The IB is a two-year curriculum designed for college-bound high school students. It is accepted by hundreds of colleges and universities in the U.S. and can help you earn college credit. Ask your high school counselor if your school offers the IB.
Preparing for Tests
Success Strategy: Prepare, Study, Repeat
To take these tests, you should be armed with more than a No. 2 pencil. Both SAT and ACT testing organizations offer lots of resources to help you prepare and study. Both also offer preparatory tests you can take early. Your local library and bookstore have books that can help you prepare. And if you don’t do well the first time, don’t panic—you can retake the tests to try to raise your score.
Get Help to Pay
These tests all require registration fees that can vary depending on the test options you choose. Check with your high school counselor to see if you qualify for a fee waiver.
Tests for Graduate Programs
Just as with undergraduate admissions, graduate school applications usually require standardized test scores. The test(s) you’ll take depend on what type of graduate degree you’re seeking. Check with the schools you plan to apply to for information about required exams.
Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)
Many students planning to attend graduate school take both the General and Subject GRE tests.
The GRE General Test measures your verbal, quantitative (mathematical), and analytical writing skills. It is offered throughout the year at specially equipped testing centers (some on college campuses). The test runs approximately three hours.
GRE Subject Tests measure your knowledge in specific subject areas. You usually take a Subject Test related to your undergraduate major. Subject Tests are given three times a year: in October, November, and April. Offered on college campuses, the tests usually take 3 ½ hours to complete.
Learn more about the GRE tests, including how to register and how to prepare.
Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is required by nearly all law schools approved by the American Bar Association. The test is offered four times a year, usually at hundreds of locations around the world. The LSAT measures aptitude rather than knowledge, and is designed to indicate your readiness for success in law school.
The LSAT consists of
- a reading comprehension section,
- an analytical reasoning section,
- a logical reasoning section, and
- an unscored section, commonly known as the variable section, which is used to test new questions or new test forms.
You’ll be given a 35-minute writing sample section at the end of the test. Your writing sample is not scored, but copies are sent to all law schools to which you apply. The LSAT takes about four hours to complete. Get more information about the LSAT.
Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is primarily a multiple-choice exam that tests your knowledge of science as well as skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking, desirable for success in the medical profession. The test is made up of four sections: verbal reasoning, physical sciences, biological sciences, and writing. You will provide essay responses to questions for the writing sample section.
The MCAT is given at various times throughout the year at hundreds of test centers around the U.S. You should expect to spend more than five hours at the testing center; short breaks throughout the session are included. Learn more about and register for the MCAT.
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
If you’re planning to apply to graduate management programs such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program, you’ll likely be required to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). The three-section test measures your skills—verbal, mathematical, and analytical writing—rather than knowledge. Actual testing takes approximately four hours; short breaks are given between sections. The test is offered at centers across the country, and each center has its own schedule. Make a test appointment and prepare for the GMAT.