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ABCs of the SAT, ACT and Other Exams

An increasing number of colleges and universities have dropped or suspended their requirements for standardized test scores. The trend has been growing for several years and accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools temporarily suspended test requirements, while others have made a permanent shift away from admissions testing. Confirm the testing requirements of each school you are considering.

If the school you plan to attend requires test scores, you need to take the entrance tests seriously. At the most basic level, this means doing your work in high school. The courses you take in high school should provide you with much of the information you need to successfully take the test.

The following general tips can help you get through the test and get the results you want:

  • Prepare and study for the test. Even if you don't take a paid test prep course, you can take practice tests that tell you where to focus your studies before exam day. 
  • Schedule the test well ahead of time. The SAT and ACT exams are given on specific dates and times and in locations outside of the high school. You cannot just walk into the test room and sit down. You need to schedule the test, and you are given materials such as an exam ticket certifying you are part of this particular test-taking group.
  • Make sure you have some form of photo identification along with the rest of the required exam materials on exam day.
  • Show up on time. Most test proctors do not allow you into a test room after the test starts. If you are unclear how long it might take you to get to the test center, take a practice run a day or two ahead of time and see how long you should plan for the trip. Then add 15 minutes.
  • Carefully read the instructions on the test booklet and the directions for each test. They are there to help you. Read the question carefully. Sometimes the wording on a question is deliberately designed to be challenging.
  • Pace yourself as you complete the test. You should answer every question, even if some of the answers might be guesses. Many test experts recommend answering the easy questions first and returning to the harder questions.
  • If you have time, go back to review your work. Make sure you have answered every question.

The SAT consists of four multiple-choice sub-sections: Reading, Writing & Language, Math without a calculator, and Math with a calculator. An optional, hand-written essay test is also available but must be selected at the time of registration. The SAT total score scale ranges from 400 to 1600. Each college and university has its own criteria for how it evaluates the scores.

Each April, the SAT is administered to high school juniors by the state of Illinois at no cost to the student. In addition, juniors and seniors who wish to take the national SAT exam can register and pay through collegeboard.org.

The ACT consists of four multiple choice test sections: English, mathematics, science reasoning and reading. An optional, hand-written writing test is also available but must be selected at the time of registration. The scores of the ACT range from 1 to 36. Each college and university has its own criteria for how it evaluates the scores. The ACT also provides information about where a student’s score ranks on the national scoring percentage.

Most educators recommend the ACT be taken in April or June of a high school student’s junior year.

The PSAT is a way for high school students interested in applying for college to practice for the SAT as well as part of qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship Program. It also allows you to gain access to college and career planning tools.

CLEP tests are typically administered at many college campuses throughout the year, including Harper. (www.harpercollege.edu/testing/clep.php) Each institution has its own CLEP policy that determines acceptable passing scores and college credit that can be awarded for meeting those passing scores, so it’s important to be familiar with the desired institution’s CLEP policy before taking the test. Students can register and pay online through: clep.collegeboard.org

Last Updated: 1/4/24