College Entrance Exams Explained

For many students, college is right around the corner. With test scores being a necessary part of the application process, many students and their parents may be confused by the many tests that are required. Below is a brief overview of the tests that colleges often require. Keep in mind, not all colleges require all tests and a score does not necessarily make or break an acceptance.

SAT (also referred to as SAT I – Reasoning Test)

The SAT is a 3-hour-and-45-minute test that assesses a students’ ability to succeed in college. It tests a student’s basic knowledge of subjects they have learned in the classroom — such as reading, writing, and mathematics — in addition to evaluating how they think, solve problems, and communicate through writing. The test consists of three sections that are divided into nine separately timed subsections, including a 25-minute student-written essay.

SAT Subject Tests (also known as SAT II)

Subject tests measure your knowledge of a specific subject in areas of Math, English, Languages, the Sciences, History, and more. Some colleges will require that you take either one, two, or even three subject tests. There are 20 subject tests to choose from although some colleges will require you to take specific ones. It’s best to take a subject test right after a course has been completed so that the material is fresh in your mind. For languages, it’s best to take the subject test after several years of the language have been studied.


The ACT is an achievement test that measures what a student has actually learned in school. Subjects tested are English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science, with an optional writing test. The ACT consists of 215 multiple-choice questions and takes roughly 3 hours and 30 minutes to complete, including a short break (or just over four hours if you are taking the ACT plus Writing).

So, what are the differences between the SAT and the ACT?

  • The ACT is an achievement test that measures what a student has learned in school. The SAT is more of an aptitude test that assesses reasoning and verbal abilities.
  • The ACT has up to 5 parts: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and includes an optional Writing Test. The SAT has only 3 parts: Critical Reasoning (Reading), Mathematics, and a required Writing Test.
  • The SAT has a penalty for guessing which means they take points off for wrong answers. Conversely, the ACT is scored based on the number of correct answers with no penalty for guessing.


The PSAT (or Preliminary SAT) was designed to be a practice for the SAT. It is now also used as an assessment tool to gain acceptance into National Merit Scholarship programs and known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). The PSAT assesses the same areas as the SAT does but does not have an essay section. The “Writing” section assesses grammar by way of sentence completion and sentence editing.