Standardized Testing (A Somewhat Helpful Guide)

School’s out, but experienced students know that summer is simply free time to focus on what we personally want to learn and study. A handful students will attend summer programs, apply to internships, and get summer jobs. However, many students will be using this valuable time to study for standardized tests. (I see you, juniors.)

Often, hearing about standardized testing sets off a stream of questions within ourselves. When’s the next test date? How should I study? Should I worry a lot? What kind of scores do colleges want to see? Well, say no more– this is a guide that (hopefully) answers all of those questions and provides information that will be valuable in your test-filled future.

The ACT

The ACT is one of the two major standardized tests college admissions look at to determine your ability to succeed in college. Currently, both the ACT and SAT are accepted interchangeably by colleges. However, the two tests are different in the types of subjects tested and their format, so it is good to know what to expect from each one.

The ACT is scored out of 36 points. The total is calculated by taking the average among your English, math, science, and reading scores, which are also scored out of 36. The ACT is administered six times a year — in September, October, December, February, April, and May. Most juniors take their first ACT in the spring of junior year, so they can have a summer to study and prepare for a second time in the fall of senior year.

Word on the street is that the ACT is considered easier than the SAT, but this can be both true and false depending on the type of person you are. The best way to test the myth is to try a practice test for yourself. Note: PowerScore Test Preparation has 4 ACT practice tests with answers on their website, which is available for anyone interested.

The ACT tests five different subjects in a span of 3 hours and 25 minutes (four subjects in 2 hours and 55 minutes if you choose not to take the essay portion; however, this is highly discouraged since most colleges require you to take the essay portion anyway). The five subjects are English, math, reading, science, and writing. If all of these subjects are your strengths, then the ACT would definitely seem “easy” to you. However, if you feel that your science is not up to par, then maybe look at the SAT and see if that test is the better option. Whatever you do, play to your strengths.

The SAT

The SAT is the second option of standardized testing and the more commonly taken one with its connection to College Board. This test is offered seven Saturdays a year (usually the first of each month) — in October, November, December, January, March, May, and June.

As of March 2016, the SAT has gone through major changes in its format. No longer out of 2400 points, the test is now out of 1600 points and the essay portion of the exam is no longer mandatory (but the same disclaimer about the ACT essay portion remains relevant). There is also no longer a penalty for guessing. The test is divided into four sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math with Calculator, and Math without Calculator.

Because the test has only been administered twice as of the publishing of this article, there are not too many resources or proven test-taking strategies established for the redesigned SAT yet. Thus, if you want insight on the exam and true-to-testing-day practice exams, you should invest in the Official SAT Study Guide written by College Board. Khan Academy has also recently partnered up with College Board in establishing a new SAT curriculum for students who want the extra help. The website has step-by-step explanations for problems from practice tests that are also provided for your studying needs.

(Edit: I will be self-studying for the new SAT this summer. Keep an eye out for a possible studying guide and review of how to best approach this exam.)

The SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests are one-hour-long tests on one of twenty subjects. Each test is scored out of 800 points. Not all colleges set requirements for subject tests, but many schools highly recommend taking them. Most of the time, these test scores are not counted against you. Good scores simply show your excellence in a specific subject and serve as cherry-on-top highlights to your application.

The twenty types of subject tests available are Math 1, Math 2, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, English Literature, US History, World History, Spanish, German, Spanish with Listening, German with Listening, French, Modern Hebrew, French with Listening, Latin, Chinese with Listening, Japanese with Listening, Italian, and Korean with Listening.

Because there are so many options for these tests, you should approach them the same way you approach the two other major standardized tests — play to your strengths. Because most students will advantageously take the tests with subjects they understand well, most colleges think highly of competitive scores of 700 and above. There are also many study guides available for individual tests.

On testing day, you are given a testing booklet with every subject test available. You are allowed to take up to 3 exams on one testing date (Note: You cannot take the SAT and SAT subject tests on the same day). You can choose whatever order you want to take the tests. Also, even if you only signed up for one or two tests, you can decide on the day of to take an additional test. You will just be billed for the additional test(s) later on. You are also allowed to leave immediately with the proctor’s dismissal after you take your designated tests.

General Testing Insights/Tips (from a Somewhat Experienced Test-Taker)

  1. Practice. A lot. No kidding. It’s obvious, I know, but it’s so overly-stated that almost nobody really follows the advice. There is no sure-fire way to get the perfect score on any of these exams. However, all these exams are designed meticulously and formulaically. They all have patterns in questions and the way they are set up. By practicing, you begin to pick up on these patterns and start to understand how the tests try to “mislead” or “trick” you. Practice also builds confidence, which is never bad in a test-taking situation.
  2. A Word on Review Books. Many review books, such as Princeton and Barrons, are known to have harder tests and practice problems for their Subject Test study guides. This means that you shouldn’t lose faith if you keep on scoring just below your score goal on the practice tests. Just continue practicing and learning from your mistakes. Remember, the only score that matters in the end is the official test score, so don’t let the practice books get you down.
  3. Review your practice tests/questions carefully. After taking your practice tests, make sure you review the questions you get wrong or were unsure of. Whether you just re-do the questions or set up an error analysis table, understand your mistakes so you won’t make the same ones again.
  4. Relax the day before. It’s very tempting to cram the night before the exam, but I highly discourage any of it. If you’ve been studying, great — the information should all be in your brain, so rest it and make sure it’s in prime condition for the next morning. If you haven’t been studying, a night of Starbucks coffee, an unopened study guide, and crossing your fingers will not help. One night won’t make much of a difference. (I show no sympathy because you not studying means you disregarded my entire article. Rude.) If you must, then study for no more than an hour. In the hour, don’t do any hardcore studying, but just review major concepts instead. Also, listen to music to calm your mind. Take some time to read. Just get some rest — you deserve it.
  5. Know your testing center. There is probably not many things worse than getting lost or arriving late on an important test day. To avoid this unfortunate circumstance, make sure you do research on your testing center. What’s the address? Does your SAT testing ticket have specific instructions? Also, arrive a little earlier than the suggested arrival time of 7:45 AM. Schools can be mazes if they want to be, so it’s best to give yourself time to map out exactly where your testing room is. Plus, being early means you get some time to mentally prepare and relax in the cool, morning air.
  6. Finally, when your proctor allows you to begin your test, dominate. Also not kidding here. Mentality is half of the struggle. You need to walk into the testing center with confidence and determination. Tell yourself that you    will ace the test, and 99.9% of the time, you will.

Good luck. Seriously, even after doing everything you can to prepare for these exams, you’ll still need it. A lot of people will tell you that your scores do not define you and that the scores really don’t matter, but in reality, they do — at least they do in the eyes of college admissions. Realize that you can’t change what admission thinks, but you can change how you think and rise above being labeled by a number. If you want to do great things, whether or not you get that perfect score on the SAT Latin test should not affect your dedication to your goal. Yes, essentially these tests can affect your future, but don’t let them control it. That’s your job.

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