U.S. Undergraduate

Admissions Tests Overview

Get to know the Tests required for entry to US University

If you are an international student looking to apply to a university in the US and are a bit confused, this is the place to start. This video introduces the SAT and ACT - the most common admissions tests you will be required to take to study in the USA. You will learn about the test formats, how they are scored, what you should do if you are looking at taking subject tests, and get a few test prep tips to get you started. You will also learn about the US admissions process and timing of when you need to submit your applications.

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Audio Transcript

Slide 1: Hello, and welcome to Kaplan's overview of the US Undergrad admissions tests.

Slide 2: Today we're going to be taking a look at the SAT and the ACT, the two most common undergraduate admissions tests for American universities. We'll look at their format, how their scored, what you should do if you're looking at taking subject tests, and offering you a few tips for test prep to get you started.

Slides 3-4: The first question you need to ask yourself is when should you take the SAT or ACT? Well, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. Most American students are going to take the SAT or ACT in their Junior year and then if they need to they'll take it again in their Senior year. This means that you should be looking at taking the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of Year 12 and, if necessary, again in the Autumn of Year 13. This coincides with the application deadlines. US university application deadlines tend to fall in December and early January, and schools need to have received your scores in time for those applications to be adjudicated. You need to make sure that you take the test early enough for schools to receive your scores. So this means that you can take the SAT or the ACT by the latest in September or October. In addition, if you're looking at applying to universities that require SAT Subject Tests, you'll have to register for these on a different day. They tend to be offered on the same day as the SAT, so you need to make sure that you register for the SAT Subject Tests and the SAT on two different dates.

Slide 5: Let's take a look at an example application timeline, so you know how testing and test scores fit into everything else that you need to complete in order to submit your applications. We’ll use Harvard University because it is a fairly typical application timeline. In the Spring prior to your year of application you should sit the ACT or the SAT for the first time. Now this will be with or without writing. Harvard does not require the optional essay that is on both the ACT and the SAT, but before you decide to not take the essay you should check all the universities you're planning on applying to make sure that none of them require the essay. In addition, Harvard recommends two SAT Subject Tests, except in the case of financial hardship. Now we'll talk a little bit more about the SAT Subject Tests in the near future, but just keep in mind that most Ivy League institutions do require SAT Subject Tests.p

In the Fall (or Autumn) of the year of application you need to submit your application to Harvard. You also need to be prepared to pay the application fee upon the time of submission, unless you're planning on applying for a fee waiver request. A number of universities also have something called an application supplement. You might have heard of something called the common app, or the common application, and the common app is a universal application that you can use to apply to numerous universities within the United States, but many universities who use the common application also have a supplement to this application. These could be additional essays, portfolio, or something else that you need to submit. These can generally be submitted later thank the common app, but you do need to make sure that you complete them in time for the application deadline. You should also be aware that not all universities use the common application, and some universities have their own applications. So do your research, and make sure that you know what is required of each University that you're planning on applying to.

Harvard offers the opportunity to apply “Early Action”. What this means is that you'll have to submit everything earlier than the “Regular Decision” timeline, and you will get a decision on admission in Mid-December. That does mean you need to take your tests earlier and you need to submit your test scores earlier. Harvard says that you should really be submitting your standardized test scores by the end of October. However, they are willing to use the November's series because those tests are right at the beginning of November, and the results should reach the application panel prior to them making a decision on your application. Early November is also at the last time that “Regular Decision” students should be looking at taking the SAT or ACT. This is to ensure that the scores make it to Harvard prior to the January 1st application deadline.

November 1st is the application deadline for early applicants and at that time, early action applicants must also submit their financial aid application. As I said earlier, they'll get the decision in Mid-December, which is also the last acceptable SAT testing date for “Regular Decision” consideration.

January 1st is the deadline for “Regular Decision” applications. If you have not received a confirmation email from the admissions office by February 1st you need to reach out to them and check that they have received all necessary materials. This is also the deadline for you to submit your financial aid application as a “Regular Decision” applicant.

Mid-February is the last ACT testing date for “Regular Decision” consideration. This is interesting because the last time you can take the SAT for Regular Decision is Mid-December but the last time you can take ACT is Mid-February, so even if you missed that last acceptable testing date for the SAT you could always take the ACT instead. At this time you also need to submit your mid-year school report. This is basically your predicted grade so Harvard knows that you're still on track to perform well in your final year.

Late March is when admissions decisions are released. In the US you can get one of three decisions. You can be denied admission, you can be accepted, or you can be placed on the waiting list. If you are placed on the waiting list this is an opportunity to reach out to Harvard with any more material that you can give them that helps showcase why you deserve a spot at Harvard. These could be additional awards that you received after you submitted your application, any extracurriculars volunteer experience, or anything else that you feel might have been lacking in your original application. Harvard will take that new material, add it to your application and use it to determine if you will be offered a of admission off of the waiting list.

Late May is the deadline for admitted students to apply if they're going to accept a spot at Harvard. If Harvard does not hear from a student by late May they will assume that the student is not planning on accepting the spot.

Slides 6-7: Another question that you might be asking yourself is should I take the SAT or the ACT? The answer to that is it's really a personal choice and you want to play to your strengths. Most universities are going to accept either the SAT or the ACT, but do double-check the universities that you want to apply to before you make your decision.

The length of the two exams is almost exactly the same. Both include an optional essay and the majority of other questions are multiple-choice. The SAT does tend to be more popular with international students, but the ACT could be a better personal choice depending on your strengths. Keep in mind that, for international students, the SAT is a paper-based exam but the ACT is a computer-based exam. If you would prefer to take a paper-based exam the SAT may be a better choice, but if you prefer to take a computer-based exam the ACT may be a better choice.

Slides 8-9: Let’s take a look at the structure of the ACT and the SAT to help you decide which exams a better choice for you.

The ACT reasoning test has four section types; English (which is basically writing), Math (which goes all the way up through trigonometry), reading comprehension, and a science section. This is a reasoning test, this is not a content-based exam so the level of content knowledge that you need for any one of these sections is not particularly high. What they're trying to evaluate is how well you think through the test.

Each section is going to be scored from 1 to 36, and then to get your composite score they will average the four sections together. If you take the four sections, plus the optional essay, the entire test will take 3hours and 35 minutes to complete, and that includes a 40-minute optional essay.

The ACT is a fast paced exam, and in fact it's a faster paced exam than the SAT. In the English section you have 75 questions to complete in 45 minutes. In the Math section you have 60 questions to complete in 60 minutes. In Reading, 40 questions in 35 minutes, and in Science, also 40 questions in 35 minutes.

There are some advantages to the ACT. It's offered more times a year than the SAT. It is offered seven times a year in February, April, June, July, September, October and December, but those seats do fill up quickly so you want to make sure that you register early to be able to take the tests in the location of your choice. Another advantage of the ACT reasoning test is that you get a calculator for the math section, so although it is 60 questions in 60 minutes, you have a calculator to help you.

The cost of the ACT is USD without the essay and it's .50 USD with the essay. However, there is a .50 USD surcharge that will need to be paid as well. To register for the ACT you should visit ACT.org

Slide 10: The SAT reasoning test is scored differently. There's two scores; the evidence based Reading and Writing, and Math. In each of those sections is scored from 200 to 800. Then those two scores are added together to get your overall 1600 score. The time to complete the SAT reasoning test is four sections in 3 hours and 50 minutes, with the last 50 minutes being the optional essay.

This test is not quite as quick as the ACT. You have a 65 minute Reading section, followed by 35 minute Writing section, which makes up your evidence based Reading and Writing score. Then you have a Math (no calculator) section, followed by a math (with calculator) section, which makes up your Math score. Keep in mind, there's no Science section on the SAT, but there is a Math section without a calculator.

The SAT reasoning test is offered four times a year in the UK; in March, May, October, and December. Because of the limited amount of times the SAT is offered the seats fill up even faster than for the ACT, so if you're planning on taking the SAT really make sure that you register early so that way you get to take the test close to where you live.

The cost of the SAT reasoning test is USD without the essay, USD with the essay, and there's a non-us regional fee. To register for the SAT you should visit www.collegeboard.org

Slides 11-12: Both of these tests are multiple-choice tests and Americans take multiple-choice tests every year throughout their schooling. A multiple choice tests generally has four to five answer choices for each question, and one answer is correct and the rest are wrong.

There are three ways to get to the correct answer choice; you could work it out - do the math, you could eliminate all of the wrong answers and choose whatever remains, or you can guess, because in the long run nobody will know how you got to the correct answer. Neither the universities you apply to nor the SAT really care how you get to the correct answer, just that you do. You shouldn't stress out if you don't know the answer to a question. Hardly anybody who takes the SAT or ACT knows the answer to every single question, so need to be comfortable with guessing. It's always worth putting an answer choice down even if you have absolutely no idea where to start with a question.

The reason that we say that guessing is a good thing to do is because there's no negative marking on the SAT or the ACT. Each correct answer is going to give you one point. Any incorrect or omitted answers will give you no points. Basically, you have a 100% chance of not getting any marks if you don't put an answer choice down, but if you have four answer choices to choose from you have a 25% chance of getting the correct answer just by guessing. If you are going to do a bit of guessing on test day make sure you pick a letter of the day. So, if we stick with our example of having four answer choices for a question, if I have four questions I don't know how to answer and I put C down for every single one I have a fairly good chance of at least getting one of those questions correct, but if I randomly guess a different letter for each question I'm much less likely to pick up any marks.

Slide 13: Something else that you might be concerned with is how high must you score and this depends on where you're looking at going to university. If you are looking at going to a high, top-tier, Ivy League university you need to score high on the SAT and the ACT. However, if you are looking at maybe applying to an art school or a lower tiered school your score does not need to be as high. If you're a sports student who only needs to get a certain score in order to gain a scholarship for admittance to a university of your choice then that's the score you need to shoot for.

Idea to check what score you need is to check the middle 50% of admitted students at the school. Both the College Board and ACT publish the middle 50% on their website for universities, and even universities often publish them themselves. Keep in mind that the higher the range of the middle 50% the more competition there is going to be to get in.

Something else who might be wondering is, is it possible to get in with a lower score? The answer is yes it is, but it's unlikely you would have to have something very impressive on your application to balance out a lower test score.

Slides 14-15: Let’s take a look at a few middle 50%s and hopefully this can help you start to figure out what score you should be aiming for.

MIT is the top scoring University in the US. Their middle 50% ACT score range 34 to 35 out of 36. Their SAT score range is 1500 to 1580 out of a 1600. These are incredibly high scores. We're looking at students scoring and the top 1% of test takers.

As we move down we have Duke, Harvard and Stanford, all of which are fantastic schools, and you'll notice that the top of the middle 50% is the same as MIT but there's a little bit more range than what the middle 50% is. Stanford goes all the way down to a 31 on the ACT and down to a 1390 on the SAT. NYU is also a fantastic school but they have a slightly lower score range of 28 to 32 on the ACT and at 1252 a 1480 on the SAT. Whatever score you get there are fantastic schools available to you where your score will fit into the middle 50%, but if you are targeting certain schools you should be targeting those scores.

Slide 16: Something else that I'm sure you might be concerned about is, what happens if I need to take the SAT again? What will the universities think of my application if they see more than one SAT score? The answer is they don't care. You can take the SAT or the ACT as often as you'd like. Most American students are going to take it two or three times a year. Universities are used to seeing more than one score on a score report. Colleges or universities will do something called “Super Scoring”. They will take your highest score on each section and make a new composite score, so sometimes taking the SAT or ACT a second time can actually help your application. That being said, if you are going to retake the SAT or ACT please do something differently. Use a different strategy. Use a different approach. Understand the test from a better perspective, and find a different way to take the test because the likelihood of you improving your score if you take the SAT or the ACT in exactly the same you way did last time is extremely low.

Slides 17-18: You may also need to take SAT Subject Tests. These are not a big deal. They are required by a lot of universities, but they're only an hour long and they're all multiple choice. You can take up to three in a single day, but they are offered on the same dates as the SAT so you need to make sure that you take the SAT in the SAT Subject Tests on a different date. Each test is scored exactly the same as a section on the SAT a 200 to an 800. To register for these you should go to www.collegeboard.org.

Slide 19: Here you can see a list of all of the SAT Subject Tests. There's Literature, US History, World History, Math level one, Math level two, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and a variety of language exams. Ideally you should try to take SAT Subject Tests that are close to what you're already studying in school. So, if you are taking Biology, Maths and Italian, you should take the Biology, Math level two, and Italian subject tests. Keep in mind that what makes a good score on each of these SAT Subject Tests varies dramatically. For example, on the math level two you need to get as close to it 800 as possible. However, on US history you can get a little bit of a lower score and it's still an extremely good score. Do your research. Check what the percentiles are for different scores on the SAT Subject Tests so you know what scores you should be aiming for.

Slides 20-21: Registration and score reports

Don't forget to register early. It doesn't matter how much you prep if you forget to sign up for the test. As a reminder, the SAT is administered four times a year in March, May, October, and December, and the ACT is administered seven times a year in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December. You want to register early so that way you get a location that is near you. You may also want to check with your school as some schools offer testing for their own students. You can register for the SAT at www.collegeboard.org, and the ACT at www.act.org.

It will take approximately three weeks for your test scores to be returned. The test scores are going to come back to your online profile that you create with the College Board and/or the ACT when you register for the test. the College Board and the ACT will have to send your scores to the schools that you select. You cannot send your scores to the schools that you select. Each testing fee does include four schools, but if you're planning on applying to more schools you will need to pay for additional reports. An additional new report for the ACT is USD and for the SAT is USD.

Slide 22: Now that you know the structure of the SAT and the ACT, hopefully have an idea of what you should be looking to score on test day, and know how to register and how your scores will be reported to schools, let's look at how you can prep.

Make sure that you give yourself enough time to prep. These are not exams that you can cram for. As I said earlier, these exams are designed to test your critical thinking skills, not how much you know in English and maths. Think of it like a skill. If you had never played field hockey before would a week be enough time for you to learn how to play field hockey and do well in a tournament? Probably not. The same thing applies to the SAT or the ACT. You need to give yourself time to learn these new skills.

You should have a strategy for each question type so you know exactly what to do whenever you see a question on the test. Then you should practice that strategy on a variety of practice tests.

You also need to become comfortable with guessing strategically. Sometimes getting to the answer the long way is not the most efficient way. Sometimes it's much faster to be able to eliminate and guess from the remaining options.

Also, make a test day checklist. There are a number of things that you need to remember for test day. Including identification, your tickets, and of course where your test is going to happen.

Last of all, remember that top colleges do expect to see top scores so don't take these tests lightly. Universities value the information that the SAT and the ACT shows about you as a prospective student, so make sure that you're putting your best foot forward.

Slide 25-26: How can Kaplan help you prepare for the SAT in ACT? We offer In Person courses for the SAT. This is 18 hours of In Person instruction that allows you to be in a classroom with a live teacher. We also offer the same course, live online for the SAT and the ACT. If you don't have time or you're not available or none of the schedules work for you for In Person or Live Online, we also have a Self-Paced option. the Self-Paced option involves pre-recorded versions of those 18 hours of In Person instruction, so that way you can go at your own pace through the SAT and ACT prep material. If you think you need something a little bit more focused or you think you need more time than just 18 hours with a teacher, Private Tutoring might be the best choice for you. Ee offer 10, 20 and 30 hours of Online or In Person tuition.

Slide 27: What comes with all of this? well no matter what option you choose you will get 40+ hours of instructor-led video lessons and these lessons focus not only on the content that you need to know for these tests, but more importantly the strategies that you need to employ to be successful on those tests. All of our teachers are expertly trained. Every single teacher has scored in the top 10% of the SAT and the ACT and has gone through a rigorous training program. For the SAT you'll get eight full-length practice tests, four of which are official College Board practice tests. For the ACT you'll get nine full-length practice tests, one of which is from the official test maker. You'll also get something called a QBank. These are a variety of questions that you can use to practice the specific skills. Each course comes with a personalized study plan. The software that we use gives recommendations to you based on how you've performed on your most recent practice tests, so if you've been fairly leak on quadratics the program will recommend that you do information that relates to quadratics. Finally, you'll also get Kapln’s exclusive SAT and ACT Channels. These are live, interactive sessions that you can join that focus on specific components of the exams that you feel like you need more help with.

Slide 28: If you have any questions about the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests or how Kaplan can help go ahead and visit our website at www.kaptest.co.uk. Alternatively, you can call +44 (0)20 7930 3130 or send an email to global.info@kaplan.com