College Counseling Corner: Standardized testing – what and when

By Sarah Soule

In the coming weeks and months, area high school seniors will be taking the SAT, ACT, and the SAT subject tests in preparation for the college admissions process. Students often wonder what to expect on these tests and how the three tests differ and which ones they should consider taking. Students are encouraged to speak directly with their college counselor in order to determine which tests they should take and when. The following websites are filled with helpful additional information: and

The SAT has three sections: critical reading, mathematics, and writing (which includes an essay section). The entire test lasts just under four hours. Each of the first three sections is scored on a 200-800 basis and the essay is scored on a 2-12 rating. Until just a few years ago, the critical reading section was known as the verbal section. Students are asked to review short and long reading passages where the student’s comprehension skills are tested.  This section of the SAT is 70 minutes long and there are two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section.

The mathematics section is also 70 minutes long, and like critical reading, consists of two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section. The content includes algebra and functions, geometry, statistics and probability. It is possible for students to use calculators while taking the SAT, although it is not necessary. It should be noted, though, that the College Board encourages the use of a scientific calculator when taking the SAT.

The writing section is 60 minutes long and the primary content focuses on grammar usage and the choice of words in specific sentences. Multiple-choice questions make up 35 minutes of the test, and the remaining 25 minutes focus on the student written essay.  The essay is read, reviewed, and scored by two qualified readers who are high school English teachers and college professors. Each one scores the essay on a scale of 1-6 and the scores are totaled to a combined score. Students should know that colleges can (and occasionally do) download the essays written during the SAT when a student applies for admission. Not all colleges do this, but some make the SAT essay part of the college application process. Please note, though, the SAT essay is not a substitute for the actual admissions application essay.

The College Board offers numerous subject tests in specific academic content areas and they are divided into five areas: English, history and social studies, mathematics, science and world languages. Some colleges call for their applicants to take specific subject tests as part of their requirements for admission and usually students can take tests of their own choosing. Students should take subject tests that are appropriate for their level of study and in areas of specific interest. The tests do measure a student’s level of achievement in that particular area of content. Like the SAT, the tests are scored on 200-800 scale.

The ACT is different from the SAT in that the essay is optional and that there is a science section. Like the SAT, it also includes English, mathematics and reading. The ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36, and students receive a final composite score. The test, without the essay, is three hours. With the essay it is 3 hours and 45 minutes long. One of the biggest differences, in addition to there being a science section, is that on the ACT test, students are not penalized for guessing randomly, where as on the SAT there is a penalty for doing so. There are 75 questions in the 45-minute English section which involves rhetorical skills. The mathematics portion is 60-minutes, has 60 questions, and revolves around math through pre-calculus and students can use calculators.  A 35-minute long reading section highlights reading comprehension and the science section is 40-minutes long and focuses on analysis, evaluation, problem solving, and the natural sciences. The writing section is 30-minutes and is optional; students are asked to respond to a prompt and write a short essay.

Students and parents are encouraged to review the websites for the ACT and SAT to learn more about the two tests. Typically, juniors take either the SAT or the ACT for the first time in the spring, along with the subject tests if they opt to do so. It makes the most sense to take the subject tests at the time the academic coursework is current. Please be sure to consult with your guidance counselor if you have questions about registration or which tests to take or how to sign up. Students who have financial need may potentially qualify for a fee waiver and one can be requested from your guidance counselor.

Prior to taking the SAT or ACT, it’s strongly recommended that you get a good night’s sleep and go into the test feeling rested and prepared. Students should take the ACT or SAT at least once in their junior year and then again as a senior. Colleges always consider an applicant’s highest scores from whichever test date when reviewing an application! Good luck!

Sarah Soule is an independent educational consultant and advises individual students on the college admission process. She is also the Director of Admissions and College Counseling at the Vermont Commons School in South Burlington. Sarah has worked in the field of admissions and college counseling for over 30 years.

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