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The number of students taking high school standardized tests continues to climb. In 2015, around 3.9 million students took the PSAT, 1.7 million the SAT, 1.9 million the ACT, and about 2.5 million took AP exams.

While the importance of test scores as an admissions factor places fourth — after grades in college prep courses, grades in all courses, and strength in curriculum — among the list of admissions criteria on the 2014 NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) State of College Admissions, test scores weigh on the minds of most parents and students, generating a lot of questions and concerns. One primary question is, Just how important are these standardized tests?

For 850 colleges, standardized tests are optional. Some of the best colleges in the country are test optional, including Bates, Bowdoin, Pitzer and Wake Forest University. A complete list is available at

The traditional universe of about 1,450 colleges requires either the SAT or ACT. Do not heed voices advocating that both be taken: Such a course of action is a waste of time and effort unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as scoring high enough on the PSAT (a scaled 222+) and therefore qualifying as a National Merit Finalist, which requires taking the SAT, even though one prefers the ACT. Only a small fraction of the 16,000 National Merit semifinalists might face such a dilemma.

Some colleges require or recommend SAT Subject Tests. Until a couple years ago, the UC System required two. Some engineering schools, such as UC Berkeley, still do: Math 2C and one science test. To add a level of confusion, some schools that require SAT Subject Tests, such as Brown, will accept the ACT with Writing instead of SAT Subject tests. A good piece of advice when applying to the most selective schools is to always check their SAT Subject Test requirements — they seem to change like the wind. For example, the Ivy League schools used to require three. Now ,only Brown, Harvard and Cornell require two. The others recommend or consider the subject tests.

Should one take the ACT or the SAT? The best advice is to take a diagnostic of a full real test of each. Full, real tests are free online for the SAT and ACT. The big issue is usually a question of time. The ACT with essay takes 3 hours and 35 minutes. The SAT with essay requires 3 hours and 50 minutes. The next big issue is making sure the test is administered without interruptions.

In studying for the ACT or SAT, the key to test preparation is to know the material well. Remember, this is a standardized test, so if there is a question about ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’ on the 2004 test, it will be on the 2016 test, rest assured. As with any test, one also needs to prepare a strategy: how best to address the various reading passages or attacking the essay. Pacing is essential. Your knowledge is being tested under pressure.

Reporting the scores on college applications is also fraught with complications. Some colleges, including Occidental, Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame, allow superscoring the SAT, which means they use only the highest section scores from all the tests taken. Others allow superscoring of the ACT, including Cornell, Duke and Stanford. Some, including UC Berkeley and Yale, want to see every test you take, while others such as Harvard, Dartmouth and the University of Michigan allow score choice, which lets you determine what tests you send to the admissions offices.

There are many topics to cover in the world of standardized testing, and to make matters more challenging, standardized tests and test policies are always in flux. One source of accurate, up-to-date information can be found at the Compass Guide to College Admission Testing 2016-2017. If you are a current junior or senior and still wrangling with tests, download your free copy now.

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 11 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800.

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