Standardized tests: Which ones? When? How many times?
The primary college admissions standardized tests are the SAT Reasoning Test and the ACT. Some institutions ask for one, some ask for the other, and some will accept either or both. Also keep in mind that some of the schools you are considering may require one or more SAT Subject Tests, which are focused on particular areas. Some institutions will also ask for the ACT Writing Test. These requirements will be indicated on the institutional websites.
The SAT Reasoning Test has a writing component at each testing. The ACT Writing Test, however, is optional, but it is administered in conjunction with the regular ACT, adding an additional half hour to the testing time. You don't have to take the ACT Writing Test unless the institutions to which you are applying ask for those results. The Writing Test is offered at all ACT sittings in the U.S., but not internationally. If you are at an international location and need the ACT Writing Test scores, check the ACT test schedules to determine when those Writing Test sessions will be offered.
Students needing SAT Subject Test scores may take up to three Subject Tests at any one sitting. The SAT Subject Tests take about an hour each and must be scheduled on a separate day from the SAT Reasoning Test. (To clarify, the SAT Reasoning Tests and the SAT Subject Tests will be offered at a test site on the same day, but a student registered for the SAT Reasoning Test cannot also take any Subject Tests on that day, as they take place at the same time.)
Students tend to feel that they do better on one test than the other because of the way the tests are structured, but when comparing scores of students who took both the SAT and the ACT, I found that the results were essentially equivalent. I recommend that students take each of the tests at least once, however, in order to have at least one score from each test available for their applications. The SAT Subject Tests may also be taken more than once.
Since it costs money to register for these tests, it makes sense to plan carefully, but I have found that students do tend to achieve better scores when they take the tests at least twice. The improvement undoubtedly has partially to do with becoming familiar with the test administration procedures and learning to cope with the stress of the timed testing situation, developing a strategy for effective pacing. Improvement is also likely if the student recognizes his/her areas of difficulty and institutes a plan for more focused study in those areas before the second testing. Some students plan to take the tests three times each, but this can become counter-productive (overkill, maybe). It really depends on the student, his/her goals, his/her attitude toward the testing, and what kind of preparation is being done.
Assuming that a student has decided to take both tests and plans to take each one twice, I would suggest that he/she take one SAT and one ACT toward the end of the 11th grade. At that time, he/she will have finished or almost finished that year's high school studies so that the possibility of doing well on the tests will be greater. Perhaps the student has already been doing some kind of standardized test preparation, but the results on the tests taken at the end of the 11th grade will give him/her a chance to analyze where his/her strengths and weaknesses lie, so that more focused test preparation can be done over the summer. As mentioned above, taking the test at this time will also familiarize the student with testing procedures, thus potentially making the second testing a smoother experience.
The student should then plan to take both of the tests again in the fall of the 12th grade. Registering for the earliest fall tests is probably a good idea. If the student is dissatisfied with those test results, there is always the possibility of retaking the tests at a later fall testing in time to meet college application deadlines; if the results meet the student's expectations, he/she can relax and won't have to be concerned about that aspect of the application any longer. Students requiring SAT Subject Test scores could plan to take those tests at one of the later fall testings.
Another viewpoint with regard to the SAT Subject Tests is that the tests would best be scheduled at the end of the courses of study in the relevant subjects. For instance, if a student were taking a certain course in the 11th grade and planned to take an SAT Subject Test in that area, he/she might want to take the Subject Test at the end of the 11th Grade, when the subject matter was fresh in his/her mind.
Students should also plan to take the PSAT, which is administered in the fall of each year. This test will usually be accessible to students throughout their high school years but is particularly important in the 11th grade. The test is officially designated as PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), and it is the 11th-grade test sitting, not any of the others, which could qualify students who are U.S. citizens for the National Merit Scholarship program.
The PSAT is structured similarly to the SAT, and the feedback and analysis students receive afterwards provides a good basis for further preparation for the SAT. It also gives students a feel for the timed testing environment, but in a more limited way. The PSAT is not required for college admission and the results are not submitted to colleges/universities (except in the case of National Merit Scholarships and related recognitions), so it is a good way of testing the waters.
International students, depending on the language in which they receive their high school education, may be required to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (Internationl English Language Testing System), both of which assist the universities to which you are applying in determining your English-language proficiency. In some cases, the results could affect your admission; in others, if your results were weak, the university would place you in an English-language development program upon entry into the school before transitioning you into the regular academic rigor of the institution. Both the TOEFL and the IELTS may be taken more than once.
In summary, the following could be an effective standardized testing plan. Additional tests could, of course, be scheduled at the student's discretion.
- Fall of 11th Grade - PSAT
- Spring or Late 11th Grade - SAT Reasoning/1st sitting
SAT Subject Tests, if required
- Fall of 12th Grade - SAT Reasoning/2nd sitting
SAT Subject Tests, if required
Hope this helps you establish an effective Plan of Action!