Standardized Tests for College Students: SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT

standardized testsIf you hate tests — don't worry; it's now possible to attend college without taking any of these standardized exams.

In fact, most online colleges do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions purposes. But that doesn't mean they are lesser quality programs. Dozens of traditional colleges (including schools like Smith, Bowdoin, and Bennington) do not require these tests either. Education authorities now believe there are better, fairer ways of predicting student success.

Some schools, however, do still rely on standardized tests. This is especially true at the master's degree level, and for professional degrees in areas like law and medicine. If you think your career or your desired college might require one of the following tests, read on.

And remember: when it comes to standardized test requirements, school policies change frequently. Some schools will make exceptions or offer testing alternatives. Before you register for any of the following tests, or give up on your college plans because of testing concerns, contact an enrollment advisor at your college of choice.

The SAT

What Is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized exam that many high school students complete before heading to college. SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Exam or Scholastic Assessment Test. Some colleges use SAT scores as a way of determining which students they will admit and which students they will deny. Some colleges use an SAT "cutoff score" to set the benchmark for admission, or to determine course placement. (For example, if you score high enough on the math section of the SAT, you may be able to opt out of an introductory math course.) But colleges also consider other factors, like high school grades, work experience, volunteerism, and student essays.

Who Needs to Take the SAT?

The short answer is: current high school students, who plan to pursue a bachelor's degree. The longer answer is more complicated.

Today, many colleges (even selective schools) are eliminating the SAT requirement. Again, they choose to admit students based on the other factors listed above. And most online colleges do not require an SAT score. So don't register for the SAT test unless you're sure you will need it.

If you are an adult student, starting college several years after completing high school, you probably don't need to retake the SAT, or even take it for the first time. Instead, many colleges will offer you a college placement exam option. Others may be willing to admit you based on your work history and personal statement.

Bottom line: every school has a different policy. An enrollment advisor can tell you whether or not the SAT is required at that particular school. Be sure you ask!

Bonus info: SAT scores can sometimes be helpful in winning certain academic scholarships. So research your scholarship options well ahead of time. If you find one that matches your profile, and it requires an SAT score, you'll have time to register, study, and do well.

When and How Do You Take the SAT?

The SAT test is offered 7 times each year, and can be taken at hundreds of test centers across the country — mostly inside local high schools. The test costs about $45.

Students must register to take the test 5 weeks before the actual test date. If you're not sure where to take the test, or when it's being offered, you can visit the College Board's Web site (College Board is the nonprofit organization that develops the SAT), and register online.

The test itself consists of 3 main sections: reading, math, and writing. Each section is graded from 200 to 800, meaning students can score anywhere between 600 and 2400. The test lasts over 4 hours — including scheduled breaks between sections, instructions, and material distribution.

The ACT

What Is the ACT?

The ACT is a standardized exam that many students complete before heading to college. The ACT is similar to the SAT, and the 2 tests used to be popular in different regions of the country; the ACT was accepted by colleges in the South and the Midwest, while the SAT was used on the East and West coasts.

Today, the ACT is accepted by 4-year colleges throughout the country. But just like the SAT, colleges place different levels of importance on this standardized exam. Some schools absolutely require a strong ACT score, and other schools are willing to admit students who write a strong essay and simply hold their diploma/GED.

Who Needs to Take the ACT?

Today, many colleges (even selective schools) are eliminating the SAT or ACT requirement. Most online schools do not require an ACT score. So don't register for the test unless you're sure you will need it.

If you are an adult student, starting college several years after completing high school, you probably don't need to retake the ACT, or even take it for the first time. Instead, many colleges will offer you a college placement exam option. Others may be willing to admit you based on your work history and personal statement.

Bottom line: every school has a different policy. An enrollment advisor can tell you whether or not the SAT or ACT is required at that particular school. Be sure you ask!

Bonus info: All 4-year colleges in the US will accept ACT scores; a handful of schools in the South and Midwest will only accept ACT scores (not SAT scores.) So if you have to choose between taking one or the other, the ACT might be more widely accepted.

When and How Do You Take the ACT?

The ACT involves multiple choice questions in 4 subject sections: English, math, reading, and science. An optional writing section is available. In total, the test lasts for 2 hours and 55 minutes.

The ACT is offered 6 times each year and can be taken at hundreds of test centers across the country — mostly inside local high schools. Registration must be completed 5 weeks prior to the test date, and online registration (at the ACT Web site) is encouraged. The regular ACT costs $32, and the ACT plus the writing section option costs $47.

The GREs

What are the GREs?

GRE stands for Graduate Record Exams. They are tests designed to help admissions committees determine whether or not you are likely to succeed in a graduate school program (i.e. a master's degree program.)

Of course, your undergraduate transcripts, your personal statements, and your letters of recommendation are also important factors. But these materials are somewhat subjective. Admissions committees can't tell if your undergraduate course work was unusually easy, if you received outside help with your essay, or if your references were exaggerated. Standardized tests, on the other hand, are objective and consistent. Grad schools require these scores as a way of making direct comparisons between applicants from different backgrounds, and even from different countries.

Who Needs to Take the GRE General Test?

Students pursuing a master's degree or a Ph.D. often need to take the GREs. If your grad school interests are rooted in arts & sciences, you may need to take the GRE General Test. This test measures quantitative and verbal reasoning, along with writing skills and critical thinking abilities.

Many online master's degrees do not require GRE scores. Instead, these programs admit students based on relevant work experience. Some schools also admit students based on their undergraduate GPA (grade point average.) Since most online master's degrees are professional in nature (as opposed to academic), these criteria are better indicators than GRE scores. You should contact enrollment advisors for further information.

If you're interested in law school, business school, or medical school, you would probably benefit from taking the exams that are associated with those specific programs (the LSAT, the GMAT, and the MCAT, respectively.)

When and How Do You Take the GRE General Test?

You can take the GRE test at any computer-based test center in your area. Test dates are available year-round. If you're aiming to receive your scores in time for January, February, or March application deadlines, you should plan to take the test in the fall.

The GRE Web site provides free, downloadable practice tests, sample questions, and test-taking strategies. It's a good idea to study with these resources, since test-takers who are familiar with the format tend to fare better. It's also helpful to try a computer-based practice test (rather than simply marking answers in a book.) Test preparation is always more effective when your study methods mirror the actual test format.

Who Needs to Take the GRE Subject Tests?

If your grad school interests are rooted in math, literature, or a specific area of science, you may need to take a GRE Subject Test (either independently, or in addition to the General Test.) GRE Subject Test areas include: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology.

When and How Do You Take the GRE Subject Tests?

Unlike the General Test, the GRE Subject Tests can only be taken in October, November and April. Students are advised to register at least 1 month in advance. That means you'll need to register by October — at the absolute latest — if you hope to start a program the following September.

Subject tests can last up to 3½ hours. Make sure you arrive on time, with valid identification and several number 2 pencils. When you register, you'll receive a practice test and a study guide that can help you prepare. You can also purchase study guides or review your college textbooks. GRE subject tests are quite rigorous — so don't waste your time and money if you're not well-prepared, or if your first choice grad schools don't require these scores.

The GMAT

What Is the GMAT?

The Graduate Management Admission Test is an exam that's offered to business students worldwide, and is recognized by most MBA programs. It measures analytical writing skills, quantitative skills, and verbal skills — including reading comprehension, critical thinking, and sentence correction.

Who Needs to Take the GMAT?

If you're headed to business school, the GMAT is a smart first step. But it's not essential. More and more business schools are looking at other criteria when they consider admitting new students. Some business schools are willing to consider GMAT or GRE scores; others have made the GMAT an optional component of their application. And many accredited online MBA programs don't require any standardized test. California State University at Monterey Bay and Northeastern University in Boston are 2 great examples.

When and How Do You Take the GMAT?

The GMAT test lasts for 3½ hours, with breaks in between the 3 sections.

Unlike the GREs, the GMAT is computer-adaptive, which means that your test questions are uniquely based on your previous responses. When you answer something correctly, you'll be a supplied a more difficult question. When you answer incorrectly, your next question will be easier. Your overall score is a measure of a.) how many questions you answer in total, b.) how many questions you answer correctly, and c.) the level of difficulty involved in your specific questions.

Test day check-in and security measures are fairly intense. Be prepared to supply your fingerprint, signature, and/or palm vein pattern, plus a photograph. There are strict rules about outside materials, so you'll have to adios your cell phone, PDA, calculator, and any kind of food or beverage.

The GMAT Web site offers free, downloadable practice tests, sample essay topics, and sample test questions. In addition, there are dozens of study guides and manuals that can be purchased online or at your local bookstore. It's a good idea to try a few practice tests — especially if you've been away from college for awhile. Basic math concepts and the ability to write organized paragraphs both take some time to reclaim. Practice tests also help you learn to pace yourself, which is a crucial part of completing all the test questions.

The LSAT

What Is the LSAT?

The LSAT stands for Law School Admission Test. All law schools that are approved by the ABA (American Bar Association), plus most Canadian law schools, require applicants to take the LSAT as part of their admission process. The test measures applicants' acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills. Law schools use LSAT scores as one of several factors, when considering prospective students.

Who Needs to Take the LSAT?

If you want to be a lawyer, there's no way to avoid the LSAT. American Bar Association law schools require this step, and you need to graduate from an ABA law school in order to sit for the bar exam.

When and How Do You Take the LSAT?

The LSAT is a half-day test, administered by the LSAC (Law School Admission Council, a nonprofit corporation that oversees admissions for legal education institutes.) The LSAT is offered 4 times each year at designated testing centers throughout the world.

The test consists of 5, 35 minute sections. Each section contains multiple-choice questions. Only 4 of the 5 sections actually contribute to your score. These sections measure reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. The unscored section is a variable section that may appear anywhere among the scored sections. It's used by test administrators to test new questions.

LSAT scores range from 120 to 180. At the end of the test, a 35 minute writing sample is administered. The writing sample is not scored by LSAC, but copies are sent to all law schools to which you apply.

The LSAT is designed to measure skills that are considered essential for success in law school: the reading and comprehension of complex texts with accuracy and insight; the organization and management of information and the ability to draw reasonable inferences from it; the ability to think critically; and the analysis and evaluation of the reasoning and arguments of others.