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Here is some information about the various standardized tests that are part of the college admissions process.


Please note that both the SAT and ACT tests will undergo revisions during the 2015-2016 school year.  The SAT’s changes are substantial.  The ACT’s Writing section has been revised. The new versions of the tests will be given as follows:

ACT: Starting in September 2015.

PSAT: Starting in October 2015.

SAT: Starting in March 2016.

See below for more information.


PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT)


The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is given every October at school.  All juniors are strongly encouraged to take the PSAT, because that year’s score is used to qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship program.  Lowell also encourages sophomores to take the test for practice.


Beginning with the October 2015 test, the PSAT/NMSQT will be based on the revised SAT.  The test’s questions are similar to those on the SAT, so it can be good practice for the SAT.  Scores are reported on the same scale and in the same categories as the new SAT: an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section (made up of a Reading test and a Writing and Language test), and a Math section (made up of a Math test).  The maximum score in each section is 760 points for a total test maximum of 1520 points.  The new SAT has the same sections and a maximum of 1600 points.  Score reports will allow you to estimate how you might score on the SAT and show what you need to work on to do better. 


Learn more about the PSAT/NMSQT.


Learn more about the National Merit Scholarship program.


SAT plus Essay and ACT plus Writing


Many colleges require that students take one or more standardized test to qualify for admission.  The SAT and the ACT plus Writing tests are accepted interchangeably by most colleges.  You should check with the admissions offices of colleges you are considering to verify their testing requirements.


Both the SAT and ACT tests will undergo changes during the 2015-2016 school year.




The ACT Writing section is being enhanced to present a broader range of subject matter, to offer different points of access to the issue being discussed, to make the writing task more clearly resemble real-world argumentation, and to provide more structure for planning and more time for composing. 


The Writing section continues to be optional, but many colleges, including the University of California, require that you take it.


Learn more about the changes.




The SAT has been revised extensively.  The College Board has overhauled its entire suite of tests (including the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, and tests for younger students) to align them with each other in their content and scoring into one coherent system.  The Essay section has become optional, scored separately from the rest of the test, which now has a total maximum of 1600 points. 


Although the Essay is now optional, many colleges, including the University of California, require that you take it.


Learn about the revisions at these websites:

About college readiness

Key Changes 

Redesign Specifications


Students in the graduating class of 2016 will take the current SAT.

Students in the graduating class of 2017 can take either or both tests.

Students in the graduating classes of 2018 and beyond will take the New SAT.


This chart compares the tests.

SAT vs. New SAT vs. ACT


Registration and Fee Waivers


See these College Board Websites for SAT testing dates and registration deadlines.

Current SAT: 

New SAT: 


See this ACT website for ACT testing dates and registration deadlines.


 You can register online.  Fee waivers are available from your counselor.  If you are in PACT, you can also get fee waivers from the PACT advisor.  (Learn more about PACT here.)  Learn more about fee waivers here:

Current SAT




Our Advice


We suggest that you take the practice tests of both the ACT and SAT and decide which test suits you best.  Take that test (or both tests if you’re still not sure which is best) during your junior year.  Take that test again in the fall of your senior year if you think you can better your score.


Don’t spend a lot of time trying to perfect already high scores.  High scores are more likely to go down than up with repeated testing.  Rather than spending time on further testing, focus on improving your grades and on activities in which you can show leadership ability.  Once your scores are in the range that shows you are a good academic fit for a school, it’s the other parts of your application that can give you an edge.


SAT Subject Tests


In addition to the SAT plus Essay or ACT plus Writing, most private schools require that you take two or more SAT Subject Tests.  The University of California no longer requires Subject Tests, but it does recommend them.  Some technical majors on some campuses strongly recommend you take the Math Level II test.  Check with the campus and major you are considering to see their recommendations. 


Subject tests evaluate your mastery of the content of the given school subject.  You should take the test at the end of the school year that you complete the subject, so the information is fresh in your mind.  Not every Subject Test is given at every test date.  Foreign Language with Listening, for example, is only offered in November.  Check the schedule on the SAT website to see when the various subjects are offered.  You can take up to three Subject Tests at a time.  Note that you can take either the SAT or SAT Subject tests on a given test date, not both.  Make sure you plan out your testing calendar carefully.


The Counseling Department shares this advice about testing.


Test Optional Colleges


Not all colleges believe that standardized test results help them decide who they should admit.  The list of Test Optional schools is growing year by year.  Learn more about these schools on the website of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing.


Preparing for the tests


There are many ways to prepare for the SAT and ACT tests.  You should spend some time considering which way is best for you.  To do well, it’s important that you understand the format of the test and what kinds of questions will be asked.  Nearly everyone benefits from taking a practice test.  Beyond that, the appropriate preparation will depend on your situation.  Remember that test scores are just one of the factors colleges consider in making their admissions decisions.  Spend your time wisely.


Books and other written materials


The VICCI Center library has a variety of books with test-taking tips and practice tests to help you prepare for the SAT, ACT plus Writing and SAT Subject tests.  They can be checked out for two weeks.  We also often have practice test booklets put out by College Board and ACT.  The SF public library has test prep books as well.


When you take a practice test, make it as close to the real experience as you can.  Set an alarm to time the sections or have another person time the test for you.  The tests are long, so this will help you get a feel for what it’s like to focus intently for the full time.  Review your answers so you can see what kinds of questions give you the most trouble.




Start with the SAT and ACT websites.  They have lots of advice and free prep materials, including a full practice test.  They also have materials for sale, but start with the free ones.

Current SAT




The College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free, personalized adaptive practice materials for the New SAT.  There are also practice materials for the current SAT.

Khan Academy SAT

Khan Academy Test Prep


Other websites with free test practice include the following.  Some also offer paid services.


Shmoop (Lowell Library subscription. Get login password from the librarians.)




Kaplan Test Prep


The Princeton Review


Finally, the College Solution Blog posted some other recommendations for free or low cost prep:


Classes and tutoring


Test preparation classes and tutors are not needed by everyone.  What kind of class or tutor (if any) is right for you will depend on what you need.  Some people may benefit from a large group class that teaches test-taking tips.  Others may prefer a smaller group or one-on-one tutoring.  If you already do well on the test, a group class might be too general to help you much.  Some people think the main benefit of a class is that it forces you to do the actual practice.  You could save a lot of money if you set a practice schedule and stick with it.  You will certainly waste your money if you take a class but don’t do the work.


The San Francisco public library offers free classes in some branches during the fall and spring.  Check the Teen section of the library’s website for more information.


There are many fee-based test prep services.  You may want to talk to friends for recommendations if you decide you want to pay for services.


Sources:  Lowell High School Counseling Department, College Board, ACT, National Merit Scholarship Program, National Center for Fair & Open Testing, Khan Academy, Lowell High School Library, San Francisco Public Library, websites noted in links.


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