Everything You Need to Know
About Standardized Tests for
College Admissions

The night before my SAT, I woke up from a paralyzing dream: I showed up on test day completely unprepared. My pencils were number four, not number two, my calculator had no batteries, my shirt was on backwards, and I was ten minutes late so I couldn’t take the test even if I wanted to — and believe me, I wanted to. My acceptance letter was on the line. Sure, my GPA was strong enough, and my class rigour was supreme, but failing my SAT was not an option … at least, that’s what I thought.

Sound Familiar?

If you’re like most, standardized tests can be an all-consuming anxiety that begins early junior year and follows you throughout your college application process. Deep breath. Standardized tests can boost an otherwise “weak” application, but they are not the chosen factor of your college acceptance.

Contrary to popular belief, standardized tests are not about endless amounts of studying and certainly aren’t about walking into the test room knowing every right answer. Instead, standardized tests are more about your ability to think critically and problem solve — real-life skills necessary for college-readiness — and that’s the point, standardized tests are designed to help universities best understand your ability to adapt and learn at the college level.

Nevertheless, it’s natural to feel a certain level of nervousness on test day. Our goal at Marymount University is to provide you with resources and information to ease your anxiety and lessen the stress that comes when thinking about the test ahead.

The 3 Most Common Standardized
Tests Required to Get into Most
Undergraduate Programs

Most colleges accept standardized test scores from either the SAT, ACT, or AP exam. However, every college is different in terms of score and format. For example, while the SAT and ACT both offer an optional writing portion, it is not required by every university. Before signing up for any test, be sure to do some initial research on what is required by your top universities of choice.

All About the SAT: Format, Timing, and Beyond

Time it Takes

3 hours and 50 minutes with essay (3 hours without essay)

How It’s Scored

Scale of 400-1600

Average SAT Scores in 2017

Reading and Writing

200 800


200 800

Total Score

800 1600
Note: Each section of the SAT is scored on a scale of 200-800. Your total score is the average off all four sections combined and rounded to the nearest whole number.

Cost Breakdown

$54.50 with essay ($43 without essay)

Understanding the SAT Format

The SAT is composed of the three main subjects essential to a well-rounded education: reading, writing, and arithmetic. The format of the SAT is designed to assess your ability rather than your knowledge. For example, unlike the ACT, the SAT focuses more intentionally on data analysis and your ability to solve problems without a calculator. This format not only encourages you to be strategic throughout the test, but the idea is that your training in school has prepared you for solving problems in a creative ways that use the resources and information provided within each question.

In 2016, the SAT evolved to include both “real-world” application questions and questions more closely related to the high school curriculum. The test is largely multiple choice, with the option to take a written portion. Better yet — students no longer lose points if they answer a question incorrectly. Instead, you simply do not get the point you would have gotten if the answer was correct.

All About the ACT: Format, Timing, and Beyond

Time it Takes

3 hours and 40 minutes (2 hours and 55 minutes without essay)

How It’s Scored

Scale of 1-36

Average ACT Scores in 2016


1 36


1 36


1 36


1 36


1 36
Note: Each section of the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. Your composite score is the average off all four sections combined and rounded to the nearest whole number.

Cost Breakdown

$58.50 with essay ($42.40 without essay)

Test Tip: If you find yourself running low on time, go ahead and quickly fill in your best guess on the remaining questions — you never know how lucky you may get.

Understanding the ACT Format

The ACT correlates well with what is taught throughout the high school curriculum. Similar to the SAT, the test is composed of the three core topics of education — reading, writing, and arithmetic — with the added bonus of science. Like the SAT, the test is multiple-choice with an optional writing component. And again, you don’t lose points for wrong answers.

Should You Take the SAT, ACT, or Both?

The obvious difference between the ACT and the SAT is the test format and time constraints, but there are also several discrete differences to consider:

SAT — Test Your Reasoning Through Real-World Situations and Multi-Step Problem Solving

Section One: Reading
52 questions in 65 minutes

What to Expect

  • 5 reading passages, typically longer than the ACT
  • Questions assess both your comprehension and vocubulary, correct answers are supported by the context of the passage
  • Questions are asked in chronological order


Section Two: Writing and Language
44 questions in 35 minutes

What to Expect

  • Passage- based questions designed to test your ability to find and fix errors in writing, such as:
    • Command of Evidence
    • Words in Context
    • Analysis in History/Social Studies, and in Science
    • Expression of Ideas
    • Standard English Conventions


Section Three: Math, No Calculator*
20 questions in 25 minutes

What to Expect

  • Test your reasoning and problem solving in areas of Algebra, advanced math, Geometry, and Trigonometry
  • There is NO problem solving and data analysis in this section
  • Geometry formula sheet provided

*Fear Not: it's not as scary as it sounds! Check out these Tips for the SAT No Calculator Math Section

Section Four: Math, Calculator
38 questions in 55 minutes

What to Expect


Section Five, Optional: Essay
1 essay in 50 minutes

What to Expect


ACT — Test Your Knowledge With Straightforward Questions and Problem Solving

Section One: English
75 questions in 45 minutes

What to Expect

Section Two: Math
60 questions in 60 minutes

What to Expect

  • Test your knowledge in Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, and Trigonometry
  • Questions increase in difficulty throughout the section
  • No formula sheet provided, unlike the SAT


Section Three: Reading
40 questions in 35 minutes

What to Expect

  • 4 reading passages
  • Questions assess your understanding in both grammar and syntax
  • Questions asked in no specific order


Section Four: Science
40 questions in 35 minutes

What to Expect

  • Tests your critical thinking in areas of Biology, Earth Science, and Physics using data, graphs, charts, and scientific hypotheses

*Note: The SAT has a more discreet way of assessing scientific concepts throughout the Reading, Writing, and Math sections.


Section Five, Optional: Essay
1 essay in 40 minutes

What to Expect


After understanding these differences and evaluating your strengths amongst the constraints, the best thing you can do to make well-thought out decisions is to take practice tests and examine your potential throughout the process — from preparation to performance.

If you take the practice tests and still aren’t sure of what to do — don’t worry.

Try taking this quiz instead:

SAT vs. ACT Quiz

(Created by PrepScholar)

1.) I struggle with geometry and trigonometry.
2.) I am good at solving math problems without a calculator.
3.) Science is not my forte.
4.) It’s easier for me to analyze something than to explain my opinion.
5.) I normally do well on math tests.
6.) I can't recall math formulas easily.
7.) I like coming up with my own answers for math questions.
8.) Tight time constraints stress me out.
9.) I can easily find evidence to back up my answers.
10.) Chronologically arranged questions are easier to follow.

Mostly Agrees

Take the SAT! The SAT gives you more time to answer each question, and doesn't include a science section.

Mostly Disagrees

Take the ACT! You'll love the fact that each math section is multiple choice, and the essay question can be supported by your opinion!

Equal Agrees
and Disagrees

You could do well on both! Maybe take some practice tests to help you decide which test you prefer.

Note: Sometimes it may actually be in your best interest to take both the ACT and SAT but not if it means sacrificing the time to study and genuinely apply yourself to both tests.

When is the best time to take ACT and/or SAT?

First Attempt: Spring of your Junior year

Second Attempt: Fall of your Senior year

AP Exams vs. Subject Tests

We have found that the best predictors [of grades] at Harvard are Advanced Placement tests and International Baccalaureate Exams, closely followed by the College Board subject tests.

— Dean of Admissions, Harvard University

AP exams and SAT subject tests are similar in that they test what you know specifically on particular subjects, while AP exams require more college-level analytical thinking, SAT subject tests are more direct, similar to the ACT. For more distinct difference between the two tests, please note the chart below.

AP Exams

Time it Takes

2-3 hours, depending on the test

College Credit (Y/N)

YES. While it is important to check a college or university's specific application requirements, there are many schools that grant college credit for scores 3 or higher on an AP exam (other schools may require a 4 or higher).

Course Exemption (Y/N)

Potentially. Be sure to check specific school requirements.

How it’s Scored

Scale of 1-5

Cost Breakdown


SAT Subject Tests

Time it Takes

1 hour

College Credit (Y/N)

NO. Because they aren’t tied to any specific coursework taken in high school, subject tests are more of an asset to your application. The test is an opportunity to demonstrate college readiness and highlight your specific interests in school.

Course Exemption (Y/N)

Potentially. Be sure to check specific school requirements.

How it’s Scored

Scale of 200-800.

Cost Breakdown

$26 baseline fee + $18 per subject test.

AP Exams

2.3 million Students

SAT Subject Tests


Each year, more students prefer to take an AP exam over an SAT subject test.

Why? Because the AP program is growing in popularity in the United States, and passing an AP test could result in college credit.

Standardized Tests Aren’t the
Only Thing Colleges Look At

Forget the "One-Size-Fits-All" Mindset:

While the intent of standardized tests is to help colleges and universities determine an applicant’s level of college-readiness, several higher-ed institutions throughout the United States are starting to realize that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” evaluation. The reality is that every student is unique, and not all students are high-scoring test takers.

Some students are visual learners, while others are auditory or tactile learners; some students are fast readers with immediate comprehension, while other students need time to digest a single paragraph; some students excel at math and science, but struggle with the humanities. There are simply too many factors that go into the diversity of students, and no college or university expects a single test to provide a fair testament to a student’s college potential. Instead, colleges and universities are beginning to place emphasis on other factors like extracurricular experience, letters of recommendation, and school transcripts, and offer either a “test optional” or “test flexible” approach.

What is the difference between test optional and test flexible?

Schools that choose to be “test optional” do not require any standardized test scores — that means they don’t require scores from either the SAT, ACT, AP Exam, or SAT Subject Tests.

On the other hand, a school that opps to be “test flexible” may require scores from either AP Exams or SAT Subject Tests, but not the SAT or ACT.

Note: There are different rules amongst different schools for a variety of different reasons (i.e. out of state/ international students, applying for scholarships, and/or declaring a certain major). For a clear answer on what a school requires, be sure to contact the admissions department for further clarification.

Do test optional schools still award merit aid?

This question is still up for debate, however, most colleges report that they still grant merit scholarships for test optional students — the key to asking this question to an admissions office is asking whether or not the institution offers full consideration to test optional applications.

What does a competitive application actually look like?

Keep in mind that if you decide not to submit a standardized test score, a well-rounded application becomes even more important for sharing a holistic reflection of your talents, passion to learn, and drive to succeed. Here is a quick overview of what an application could include:

Official Transcript/ Class Rank

This is an opportunity to accurately show your course rigour and how you managed the workload and intensity amongst peers.

Community Service/ Outside Learning Opportunities

Were you on a travel athletic team alongside your high school team? Note that. Did you pet puppies on the weekend? Note that. Big brother? Big sister? Note everything. Community service and outside learning opportunities are a great way to show your commitment to a well rounded personal development.

Writing Sample/ Statement of Purpose

Why do you want to go to college? While some colleges and universities will provide you with a prompt or standard of expectation, this is your opportunity to let your unique personality shine.

Awards and Recognition

Were you voted MVP? Class president? Most likely to succeed? Don’t be afraid to brag on yourself — let the admissions people know how your hard work has been recognized. .

Letters of Recommendation

Having two or three community leaders and/or mentors write you a letter of recommendation is a great way to show the positive impact you have made in your community through a different perspective. Try to only ask the people who know you best — a teacher, coach, club advisor, or even a youth pastor.

Note Diversity (if applicable)

Colleges are always striving to increase the diversity on campus. If your culture is important to you, let them know!

List of Extracurricular Activities

This includes clubs, sports, student council, etc. Were you a leader in any of these areas? Note that in your application!

Note Legacy (if applicable)

Does your family already have a strong relationship with the school? This is by no means a guarantee of acceptance, but it doesn't hurt to mention.

Note: As an intention to get to know applicants on a more personal and professional level, some colleges or universities may request an interview prior to making an acceptance decision. To better understand what a college requires, be sure to contact their admissions department.


Why Marymount University
Decided to Go Test Optional

Marymount University no longer requires ACT or SAT test scores from high school applicants with a grade point average of 3.0 on a scale of 4.0, providing an admissions alternative to students who don’t think their scores adequately reflect their academic achievement or potential.

The move serves two broad purposes that are consistent with the mission and values of Marymount, said Francesca Reed, the university’s associate vice president for enrollment management.

It will allow for a more holistic view of a student’s academic achievement and attract a broader pool of qualified, interested students who have a strong record of academic success in high school.

— Francesca Reed

She added that, unlike SAT/ACT scores, high school grade point averages are a significant predictor of success at Marymount. This is great news for those students who may be international, have test anxiety, or simply can’t perform well on any standardized test.

Note: Standardized test scores will still be required from those applying for certain programs, such as Honors, Physical Therapy, Clare Booth Luce, and Forensic and Legal Psychology Scholars. Home schooled applicants will also be asked to submit test scores.

Marymount University’s Application Requirements

Admissions Requirements:


Cumulative GPA of 2.6 or higher on 4.0 scale


Test Optional Standardized Test Scores

Required Materials:


$40 Nonrefundable Application Fee


Completed Application


Official High School Transcripts


One Letter of Recommendation


Writing Sample (250-500 words, untimed)


Additional Requirements for International Students

Applying to Marymount University

Marymount offers you the opportunity to expand your horizons, develop your talents, prepare for a successful future, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Curious to know more about our application process? Click the link below to learn more!

Learn More

Additional Resources


Marymount’s 5 Tips on How to Create a Resume that Hirers Can’t Resist

Read More

Marymount Offers 5 Ways to Improve Your SAT/ACT Score the Next Time You Take IT

Read More

What You (and Your Parents!) Need to Know About Test-Optional Universities

Read More

What Does it Mean When a School Says It’s “Test-Optional”?

Read More

6 Ways to Prepare for the SAT/ACT

Read More

Hate Taking Tests? You’re Note Alone! Here are Some Tips on How to Rock Your Next Exam

Read More

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Applying to college doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. Your perfect college is waiting for your application, and with a little college prep, you’ll be there in no time. If you have any questions, contact us at Marymount. We’re always happy to help!


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