US University admissions tests and how UK students can prepare

US University admissions tests and how UK students can prepare

24 Jul 2023

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This informal CPD article ‘US University admissions tests and how UK students can prepare’ was provided by UES Education, specialists in international university and school admissions, working with top schools across the UK and Europe to provide a bespoke service for those who want the best possible application support in the UK.

Applying to US universities is a complex process, with admissions officers considering more than students’ grades when reviewing applications. Test scores are another academic aspect of American applications: in the US, there are standardised university entrance exams that prospective students have taken for decades. What are these tests like, do UK students need to take them, and how should teachers and schools advise them to prepare?

What are the SAT and ACT?

Students taking US university entrance exams have two options: the SAT test and the ACT test. These are similar tests administered by different, competing companies. Colleges will accept either test and don’t favour one over the other, so applicants should plan to take the test on which they will receive the best scores (choosing a test is discussed below). Students shouldn’t take both tests, as having both an SAT and an ACT score will not benefit their application, and will not be the best use of their time.

Both tests are timed, computer-based, multiple-choice tests that focus on English grammar, reading, maths, and data interpretation. Unlike the ACT, the SAT is ‘adaptive,’ meaning that the questions adapt to the skill level of the test-taker, and shape their score. The SAT takes around two hours to complete, and the ACT around three. SAT test centres tend to be at UK schools, whilst ACT test centres are multi-purpose centres that host a range of exams. SAT students will use a laptop that they bring to a test centre (laptops can be provided if a student does not have access to their own). When registering for the tests, students can book a test centre at a location that is convenient to them.

When advising students on test choice, teachers should keep in mind that students who are a good fit for the ACT should be reasonably quick across all sections, as the test is much more time-pressured than the SAT. Generally, STEM students studying A-Level maths, who are also quick and confident readers, will suit the ACT. Other students may be better suited to the SAT. Students who get extra time or other accommodations on exams can apply for the same on the SAT or ACT, but the accommodations process can be easier with the SAT.

Although the ACT (unlike the SAT) contains a science section, this section requires no prior knowledge of science: it comprises data analysis questions on which all students can develop competence with practice. Students can find SAT/ACT diagnostic tests offered online by test preparation companies that will tell them to which test they are best suited.

Computer based multiple-choice tests

Preparing for the tests

US students are used to taking timed, standardised tests, as they will have done so throughout school. But since such tests are new to UK students, preparation and practice are crucial.

Pre-COVID, the majority of US colleges required applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. However, the pandemic made it difficult or impossible for students to take the tests at in-person test centres, so most colleges became test-optional. This means that students can take the tests and submit scores, but aren’t required to: a policy that remains at many universities now. A few universities are test-blind, which means they will not consider test scores even if submitted. However, good test scores still benefit applications, and it’s likely that students won’t apply to only test-blind universities, so it is best for US applicants to plan to prepare for and take the tests.

Most UK students prepare for around 20 hours for their chosen test. They can do so with free online tools, with a private tutor, or by taking a group test preparation course. By offering a test preparation course in-house, schools can help their students get ready for the tests on time, as well as facilitating a collegial and supportive atmosphere among US applicants.

To get a sense of the timed test experience, students should take some full timed tests (many companies offer proctored mock SAT and ACT tests) before attempting the official test. Unlike GCSEs and A-Levels, the SAT and ACT can be sat multiple times, and colleges will expect students to attempt the test more than once. However, taking the test more than three times is unlikely to be the best use of applicants’ time.

It should be noted that these tests are also accepted by universities in other countries. For example, the SAT is frequently used by universities in Europe and the Far East, and can also be submitted as part of the UCAS process!

Taking the SAT or ACT can give UK applicants an advantage on their university applications. By choosing a test, preparing, and taking practice tests in advance of sitting the official test, they can set themselves up for success.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from UES Education, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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For more information from UES Education, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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