If you’re the parent of a high schooler, or know someone who is, chances are the phrase “standardized testing” is a staple in your vocabulary. You may have heard of the SAT, ACT, AP/IB, and (for international students) the TOEFL — but what exactly are they and how much of a role do they play in your student’s college application process?
Through this post, I’m going to break down the different types of standardized assessments and answer a few common questions.
What types of standardized tests are there, and do I need to take all of them?
In general, standardized tests can be broken down into five categories:
1. The “main” test (in terms of college evaluation):
Either the SAT I (out of a total of 1600) OR the ACT (out of a total of 36) — students need only submit their scores for ONE of these; they do NOT have to take both! It is a common myth that students with an aptitude for science should take the ACT. While this used to be true, the SAT was recently modified to incorporate more science elements and is, therefore, more comparable to the ACT.
2. SAT II Subject tests (out of a total of 800):
These are shorter tests (one hour each) focusing on individual subjects that students have learned in high school. Some private schools require a minimum of two subject tests and can even recommend up to three
See all SAT subject tests
3. Advancement Placement (scored on a scale of 1 to 5) and International Baccalaureate tests (scored on a scale of No Grade to 7):
These are typically paired with a corresponding AP or IB class offered by a student’s high school. If a student successfully passes a given AP or IB test, they are eligible to receive college credit. There is no minimum number of these courses/tests that a student must take, but students should strive to take as many as they can, particularly in the subject area in which they plan on majoring to demonstrate their interest and aptitude in that area. It is important to note that high schools structure the AP/IB curriculum differently. For example, some schools prohibit students from enrolling in these courses before their junior year, and not every school offers AP and IB courses. However, a student CAN self-study for an AP test if it is not offered by their high school, as long as they make arrangements in advance to take the test at a school that does offer the course.
4. National Exams, including science (Chemistry, Physics, and Biology Olympiad), and math (AMC 10, AMC 12, and AIME):
These tests are often more obscure in the discussion about standardized testing. For more information, students should talk to a teacher in a related subject. Students planning to major in a STEM field should strongly consider taking these tests, and should start studying early (many schools have established clubs or teams dedicated to the preparation process.)
5. Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS):
Colleges often require one of these tests for students for whom English is not their primary language, or for whom English has NOT been their primary language of instruction for at least 5 years. The minimum required score differs depending on the college, but in general students should aim for 70 (out of a possible 120) or above on the TOEFL and a score of 7.5 or above (out of a possible 9) on the IELTS.
Why do standardized tests matter? Isn’t GPA a good enough indicator of my college readiness?
While GPA is still the primary indicator used by colleges, it is not perfect! Different schools calculate GPA differently, so while GPA is an excellent method of comparison among students within a given school, it cannot be used to compare students across schools, across the world. Because standardized tests are the same for students worldwide, they are the method of choice for evaluating students across schools and regions. Due to rising concerns about the educational and equity gap in performance (with students from higher-income backgrounds performing better on these tests because they have greater access to preparation resources such as SAT and ACT academies), the College Board has revamped the SAT to make it coincide more closely with what students are learning in school.