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A guide to understanding standardized tests

SAT, ACT, IELTS, TOEFL… don’t let the acronyms put you in a tizzy! In this third instalment of our 12-part series on US college admissions, we explain what the tests do, and whether you need to take them
BY Katherine Ernst Mehta |   06-05-2016
photo by Moyan Brenn, used under CC BY 2.0 license

With the various acronyms, scoring systems, and percentiles, it can be difficult to wrap your head around standardized tests.  Read on for a brief overview of the different tests.  But first, in the spirit of testing, let’s check your knowledge with a short quiz.

The BrainGain Magazine Standardized Test Quiz


If you're thinking of applying for admission to a US university or college, you will need to figure out what tests to take. What better way to do this than to take a test :)


Which of the following is not a standardized test?




SAT Subject Test


None of the above

How many US universities are test-optional (meaning they do not require applicants to submit standardized test scores)?

0 - all US universities require standardized test scores

10 universities

150 universities

Over 800 universities

All US universities are test-optional

Which test is preferred by universities



Both are given equal weightage and preference, regardless of subject choice

It depends whether you apply as a Science vs. non-Science student

What does SAT stand for?

Scholastic Aptitude Test

Scholastic Achievement Test

Stress Alert Test

Nothing. It's just SAT


The SAT, the oldest of the standardized tests still in use today, has gone through many iterations.  Most recently, The College Board, which administers the test, released a redesigned version in March 2016.  In this newest version of the exam, the essay portion is optional, and there is no longer a penalty for incorrect answers.  There are two multiple choice sections – Evidence-Based Reading & Writing, and Mathematics.  The maximum possible score for each section is 800 points, and the maximum score for the entire exam is 1,600 points.

The ACT, SAT’s main competitor, has four multiple choice sections – English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science – plus an optional essay.  Each section is scored on a scale of 36 points, and the individual section scores are averaged together to give a composite score out of 36 points. 

When choosing between the ACT versus the SAT, it’s important to note that both exams are given equal treatment by US universities; one is not preferred over the other. Most often, deciding which exam to take depends upon which format the individual test taker is most comfortable with.

Other standardized tests:

PSAT– the PSAT (or Preliminary SAT) is typically taken in Class 10.  It is not required by universities, but it can be good practice for taking the SAT without any real risk, because universities do not see your scores.

PreACT– This year, the ACT has also announced that they will launch a PreACT intended for Class 10 students to get a preview of what it’s like to take the actual exam.  Like the PSAT, universities will not receive these scores.  The test is set to debut in the United States in fall 2016.

SAT Subject Tests– The SAT Subject Tests, or SAT IIs, test area-specific knowledge, in subjects such as Math, Science, English Literature, U.S. History, and several languages.  The full list is available on The College Board’s website.  Each test is scored on a scale of 800. SAT Subject Tests are required by some but not all programs, so it’s best to check each university’s requirements.

TOEFL/IELTS– Both are English language tests required by many universities for international applicants.  Students should check individual school requirements to see which of these tests are required for admission.

Feeling overwhelmed?  You’re not the only one.  Increasing anxiety about standardized tests has led many students, parents, and administrators to question the true value of these tests in the admissions process.  In fact, several schools have decided that they will no longer require students to submit standardized test scores as a part of their application. These schools, referred to as “test-optional”, are great options for students who may not have had time to take the SAT/ACT before applying, or who feel their test scores don’t reflect their true potential and abilities.  A full list of test-optional schools is available on (


Katherine Ernst Mehta is CEO and Founder of Edvanta Consulting, which works with international high-school students seeking admission to US universities. She first came from the US to India for research, and now lives in Delhi. You can reach her on Twitter at @EdvantaCo. Previous instalments of her 12-part series on US college admissions are here.



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