What Standardized Tests to Take and When to Take Them

Understanding standardized test type and timing is critical to the college application and planning process. It is important to ensure that your student has all of their tests planned so they can ensure that they will meet application requirements and get a sense of where they stand in comparison to other applicants at the colleges they are considering applying to. However, many parents are unaware of what test types are required by colleges and the most beneficial time to take these tests. Without awareness of the required tests and the best times to take them, students might end up taking required tests at the last minute. This minimizes their preparation time and limits chances for them to re-take the tests for a potentially higher score. Not having a student’s test scores in advance of the college application process also poses a challenge to creating a balanced list of schools [insert Balanced List of Schools blog link]. Knowing a student’s test scores enables parents, students, and counselors to seek out likely, possible, and reach schools for student. A balanced list of schools should include schools in each of these categories.

Visiting colleges is also an important preparatory step in the college planning process. Knowing where your student is in terms of test scores and when their test preparation and tests will take place will assist you in better figuring out when to visit colleges and which ones to visit. The following list includes required and recommended test types and our recommended time frame for taking them.

AP Tests:

AP, or Advanced Placement Tests, are not required for college applications, but are strongly recommended. These tests test a student’s knowledge in specific subjects, for which they have taken a year-long class. All AP Tests take place in May, and are graded on a scale of 1-5, 1 being the lowest. Generally, if a student scores a 3 and above, colleges give students college-level academic credit for that course. Some schools require a score of a 4 or a 5 to grant college course credit. The best time to take these tests are at the end of the school year after taking the corresponding AP course. Scoring well on these tests indicates a student’s strength in that academic subject.

SAT Subject Tests:

SAT Subject Tests are required by some colleges, depending on the major your student is applying for. Some schools recommend 2-3 SAT Subject Tests which correspond to the academic subject your student is applying to major in. They show a greater spectrum of proficiency than the AP Tests because they are out of 800 points. We strongly recommended that students take the subject tests that relate with the majors the student is considering applying to. The best time to take these subject tests are during the same time that your student is taking the AP Test in those subjects. For example, several students take AP Biology in their sophomore year, and take the SAT Subject Test in Biology during their junior or senior years. It is ideal for this student to take the SAT Subject Test in Biology during their sophomore year while the material is still fresh in their minds.


The SAT or ACT is required by most colleges. Students can choose whether to take the SAT or ACT; however, most colleges require the SAT or ACT with the writing option. Make sure that your student signs up to take the SAT with the writing section or the ACT with the writing section. In order to determine which to take, we at College Planning Source recommend that students take a diagnostic test, available through test preparation companies, to determine which they “naturally” score better on. SAT/ACT Concordance tables help students and families to determine the equivalent of the ACT score on the SAT and vice versa. We recommend that the student take a test preparation program for the test that they are a better fit for. As long as the student is at the right math level, it is ideal to take a test preparation course between the sophomore and junior years and take the test during the fall of junior year. During the summer, students have more time to focus on their test preparation than they do during the school year. This allows students time to re-take the test of they need to, and also to find out early on in their junior year what colleges are realistically within their reach, as most schools post the average SAT/ACT score of their students online. Students can then go visit these prospective schools long before the application season begins.

At College Planning Source, we recognize that each student and family is unique, and that it is important to come up with a customized college planning game plan for each student. We help families put a good plan in place and help guide them through it, to maximize efficiency and give students their best chance at getting into a school that is a great fit for them. For more information or to set up an appointment, please call our office at 858-676-0700.

If you were interested in this post, you might enjoy our post on a Balanced List of Schools, for more information on creating a balanced list of schools.

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