In this page:

  • Test costs
  • AP tests
  • SAT II / subject tests
  • CLEP exams
  • PSAT/NMSQT
  • SAT
  • ACT

Tests: SAT, ACT, AP, CLEP, PSAT, SAT II … 

  • What exams do students need to take to prepare for college admissions?
  • What are the differences between them?
  • When do students take them?
  • Does my student *have* to take tests?

For a recommended testing schedule and registration details, see Testing … when? 

Cost:

As of the 2016-17 school year, the costs for each test were:

  • SAT: $45, $57 with essay (fee waivers available for those who qualify)
  • - Score report: 4 free within 9 days of test (not recommended unless student is in a rush, since you can’t know how well they’ll do); otherwise $12 per test per school
  • ACT: $42.50, $58.50 with writing (fee waivers available for those who qualify)
  • - Score report: 4 free, if requested at time of test (not recommended unless student is in a rush, since you can’t know how well they’ll do); otherwise $12.00 per test per school
  • SAT II (also known as SAT subject test): $26 for first basic test; add $20 for each additional subject test; add $26 for language with listening
  • AP: $93 (some schools may require additional proctor fees for students not registered at their school)
  • CLEP: $80 per test

NOTE: Other fees, such as late fees, change fees, rush fees, and others, are additional.

Does my student *have* to take tests?

Short answer, no. ALL tests are optional! You’ll hear over and over that students must take this test or that. The truth is that over 850 schools do NOT require the SAT or ACT for admission. See FairTest for specifics.

NOTE: There are some caveats, however, especially if the student is applying to a particularly competitive program. Your student will be compared to other competitive students, and the lack of test scores or competition results could hurt their chances. And some schools require the ACT or SAT of homeschoolers, even if they do not for public schoolers.

If your student is a poor test taker or simply doesn't want to go through the hoops of test taking, then they don't have to. Keep in mind that they're limiting their choices of schools, but some students are perfectly okay with that. After all, it's all about the *fit*!

AP tests

Advanced Placement (AP) are exams offered by the College Board that are designed to cover the same material as an entry-level college course. Click here for a list of tests. They are based on curricula defined by the Board. Details are here.

Each AP Exam score is a weighted combination of the student's scores on the multiple-choice section and the free-response (essay question) section. The final score is reported on a 5-point scale:

5 = extremely well qualified
4 = well qualified
3 = qualified
2 = possibly qualified
1 = no recommendation

So, for example, if a student earns a 4 or 5 on the Chemistry AP exam, they have an excellent grasp of entry-level college chemistry. 

What do AP tests cover?

There are 36 AP exams offered: https://apstudent.collegeboard.org/apcourse. They are approximately 3 hours each and include both multiple-choice and hand-written, free-response questions (FRQs). The nature of the FRQs is different for every exam. Some require short answers, others require essays. In foreign languages, the FRQs may include speaking and listening portions, as well as reading and writing. Whether an AP course is the equivalent of a particular college course varies depending on the AP course, the topic, and the college. (For instance, MIT says that AP Biology is covered in week one of their Intro to Biology class.) 

Should my student take AP tests? 

It’s entirely up to you and your student. AP exams are used for a variety of reasons: 

  • to have an outside grade on a student's high school diploma
  • to earn college credit (depending on the college)
  • to prove to colleges that their students are as qualified as traditionally schooled students since the scores are nationally standardized
  • to count for high school credit
  • to show mastery of coursework that colleges look for (this is different for each college)
  • to show that their student is ready for college-level work
  • to show academic rigor

AP exams are never required for college admissions.

When and where are they offered?

AP exams are offered only once a year, in May. Each test is offered on only one day and time, in either the morning or the afternoon, depending on the test.

Register your student directly with the high school that's offering testing. If you're homeschooling, you may have to shop around. Some schools offer many AP courses and are happy to include other students. Other schools offer few courses and thus have few exams. And some schools won’t allow non-enrolled students to take the tests. 

Contact your local high school first in September or October to see if they will allow your student to test and when registration will begin (usually February or March). Ask for the school AP Coordinator or junior/senior guidance counselor, because the first answer from the front office staff isn't always the best answer. 

If your public high school won’t allow your student to test, contact private schools in your area.

Will colleges give credit for AP tests?

Some universities will give college credit for AP exams; some will give credit only for non-major credits; and some will give credit for some tests and not others. Others won’t give any credit at all—it just depends on the university. If you’re interested in finding out if a particular college will award credit for a particular AP exam, do a search for "<school name> AP credit."

When do we send scores to colleges?

It's quite common for colleges to ask students to self-report scores on their application and/or on their transcript. Make sure you have a full list and that the student reports them accurately. Unless the college specifically asks for an official score report, you normally send them in after the acceptances come in and your student decides which school they would like to attend. Save your money. 

Can I include AP classes on my student’s transcript?

Yes, you may include AP credit on your student’s transcript. Note, however, that you may use the AP designation (e.g., AP Chemistry) in the title of your course ONLY if you have had your syllabus approved by the College Board or your student has taken a College Board-approved AP class. 

Your student does NOT have to take a class to take an AP test. Self-study is a common method of acquiring the knowledge required to pass an AP test. If your course hasn’t been approved, you may call the class something informative, like “Chemistry, with AP Test.”

How does my student study for an AP test? 

There are a number of options:

1) Self study without College Board approval of the curriculum.
You may choose whether or not to give credit for this as a class, separately from the AP test. If you do give credit, you may assign grades as you choose, and bear in mind that AP prep is at least "advanced" or "honors" level. It should be labeled that way on a transcript, and noted if the AP test was taken.

2) Get the College Board’s approval of your syllabus. 
Homeschoolers can get approval to call their courses AP classes. Look under the teacher information for each test on the AP website. They usually give several example curricula, and if you follow one of those reasonably closely (beginning with the same main text), there usually isn't a lot of trouble getting approval. It just takes time and has to be done on their timeline.

3) Join or create a local class or study group to prepare for the test.
Like self-study, this may be with or without formal AP approval. Homeschool parents have had great success with getting a small group of kids together and having one of the parents teach the class or lead the students as a study group. There are also a number of “a la carte,” for-pay providers if your student wants an in-person class (note that these may be expensive).

4) Take a class from one of the online providers who offer them.
These may or may not be official AP classes. If you are paying for an online class and want some assurance of course rigor, the AP designation may be important to you. Also try to find out the average scores of their students who take AP tests before spending your hard-earned money, because some of these classes can be awfully expensive.

5) Take a comparable course at a community college or university. 
This one may not be the most logical, but people have done it. There’s not much purpose in taking the test if you already have a grade in a college class. This is the least likely to prepare the student adequately, as the curricula for AP is intended to be college level—but colleges all have their own curricula. If your student wants to go this route, have them review using a test-prep book before taking the test.

SAT II / subject tests

What do SAT subject tests cover?

SAT IIs (also called SAT subject tests) are designed to show completion of high-school-level material. SAT subject tests are one hour long and multiple choice only. There are 20 tests offered, 12 of which are language tests. 

Should my student take SAT subject tests?

SAT subject tests may be required parts of an admissions package to college, especially in top-tier schools. Check the Common Data Set for each college by searching “<college name> common data set.” You can find the school’s policy under Section C, Question 8, “SAT and ACT Policies.”

When should my student take SAT II tests?

SAT subject tests should be taken at the end of the study of that particular subject. The student should work through a prep book to be familiar with what is covered. Get the big blue book of SAT subject tests that has one of each of the subject tests in it.

When and where are they offered?

They are offered on the national SAT test dates. The only exception is the “language with listening” test, which is offered only on a few days.

A student may take up to 3 on a single day, although most people recommend no more than 2 due to test fatigue. 

A student registers through the College Board for the tests they would like to take on a given test day. However, the student can choose the number of tests, which tests, and the order of the tests on the day of the exam. (In other words, they can change their mind once they gets to the testing center.) 

During the registration process, you’ll be able to choose the testing center (usually a high school) closest to you.

Will colleges give credit for SAT subject tests?

Generally speaking, no, as these tests are intended to show mastery of high school-level material.

When do we send scores to colleges?

When you send SAT I (the regular SAT) scores to schools, SAT subject tests are automatically sent unless you are paying extra for score choice and not sending all scores.

Can I include SAT subject test classes on my student’s transcript?

Yes, you may include anything you wish on your student’s transcript. If your student has done well on a subject test, it seems reasonable to include that knowledge on the transcript.

How does my student study for a subject test?

The options will be similar to the answer for the AP test (above). The easiest way to study is to get a copy of a subject test prep book. The subject tests cover a particular set of information, so it’s best for the student to familiarize themselves with the topics that will be covered. In addition, some tests have a unique way of asking questions (e.g., Chemistry), so knowledge of those questions is helpful.

CLEP exams

CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) tests are administered by the College Board. There are 33 CLEP tests.

CLEP tests are offered for a range of topics, which includes some not covered by SAT II and AP exams. They cover intro-level college courses and are all multiple choice. They're generally not considered as rigorous as the AP exams. 

Many state schools accept some CLEP tests for course credit, but not all tests. The cutoff scores for credit are different for different schools. The College Board lists recommendations for cut-offs, but check with the specific schools to see what theirs are. Most private schools do not accept CLEPs, but check with the particular school your student is interested in.

Your student can take a CLEP at anytime during the year, and there are testing centers around the country. Community colleges often offer the tests in their testing centers. Several private colleges are listed as local testing centers; however, most seem to only do the DANTE, not CLEP. Check with the College Board.

PSAT/NMSQT

The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), offered by the College Board, is a standardized test cosponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). The test is offered only twice a year, usually on a Wednesday and a Saturday of the same week in the middle of October.

The test is composed of 3 sections—Math, Reading, and Writing and Language—and takes about three hours to complete. 

The maximum score for the test is 1520. The Reading and Writing Sections are combined into one section score, and the Math section contains two parts--one allowing the use of a calculator and one not. 

The test is mostly multiple-choice, but there are some open-response math questions that require takers to enter their responses on a grid. 

If your high schooler is interested in taking the PSAT, start calling local schools to make arrangements in the spring of the year before they'll take the test, as some high schools place their exam orders in the summer. Your student should try to register for the exam through the high school that they would attend if they were in public school--in some states (e.g., Texas) public schools are required to allow students to test at their zoned school during eleventh grade. Most schools have their students register through their website. Call your school’s junior/senior counselor to ask about the process and to find out when the registration opens.

Should my student take the PSAT? 

If your student is headed to college, the short answer is “yes.” 

The PSAT is considered a shorter, easier, less expensive warm-up for the SAT. It is generally taken by high school juniors--for whom the score on the PSAT determines their initial eligibility for the National Merit program--but it is not unusual for sophomores and even freshman to take the exam for practice.  

Don't stress about the PSAT. If your student isn't anywhere near the cutoff score for National Merit, then taking it won't mean anything. It is good practice for the SAT, however.

NOTE: If your child takes more than four years to get through high school, check the National Merit website for the policy on who is eligible for scholarships. Currently, if you formally count your student as taking five years to complete high school, they will need to qualify for National Merit their third year of high school *and* again their fourth year of high school (with the fifth year being their senior year).
However, as homeschoolers we have the luxury of allowing our students extra time if they need it due to illness, maturity, travel, or any other circumstance that delays their ninth grade. As most parents don't need to declare their student officially as a ninth grader to anyone, they can delay their student's entry into high school by a year or so. In that case, the student must take the PSAT the year before graduation (their junior year) to be eligible for the scholarship.

Some libraries will offer free practice PSAT exams in September if your student just wants to take the test for practice and not for a score.

How do I register my child for the PSAT?

To register your child for the PSAT, here’s what you need to do:

1. Make sure you have the right ID for the PSAT (or for any standardized test, actually, like the SAT or ACT)--a passport works fine as long as the photo is fairly recent. The school will be VERY picky. Lots of money rides on the results of the PSAT, so the ID must be right and the photo must look like your child. Don't take the chance of your student being turned away, which is what might happen if the name registered doesn’t match the one of the ID or if the picture doesn’t look like them. A passport, state ID, or driver’s license will work (it must be a government-issued ID).

2. Call your local high school (the one your child would attend if they were in public school) and ask for the junior/senior guidance counselor. Ask

  • how to sign up for the PSAT (it will probably be a web portal)
  • what the deadline is for PSAT registration (it's always later than I expect it to be)
  • if your child needs a school ID number to take the PSAT (this is a number that each of their students is given when they enroll--our high school gave my kids dummy numbers when they took their first AP test there)
  • how you can pick up the study guide for the PSAT (one is provided for each student registered). It includes a practice test.

SAT

The SAT is a reasoning test that has recently been redesigned to look more like the ACT. 

The test is set up like the PSAT, with the addition of the optional essay. The score range is 200-800 for each of the two sections. For a detailed report of the 2016 score breakdown, read this report.

The college-readiness benchmark for the two sections is a score of 480 for Reading/Writing and 530 for Math. Approximately 50 percent of students score above a 500 in each section.

The Math section covers

  • arithmetic
  • algebra I & II
  • geometry, trigonometry, and data analysis

The Reading section includes 5 reading passages.

Quick facts:

  • the SAT covers Reading, Writing and Language, Math, and the optional Essay
  • 400-1600 score scale
  • 3 hours and 50 minutes with the essay; 3 hours without it
  • 4 answer choices
  • 4 college app fee waivers for every student who uses an SAT fee waiver
  • no penalty for guessing
  • no vocabulary that you’ll never use again
  • Khan Academy has partnered with the SAT to provide free, personalized practice

Register through the College Board website

ACT

The ACT is a test that covers reading, writing, mathematics, science, and an optional essay. 

The ACT is more of a knowledge-based test than the SAT, although the redesigned SAT purportedly looks more like the ACT now. Register here. 

Quick facts:

  • Scored on a scale of 1-36
  • Almost 3 hours without essay; 3 hours, 40 minutes with essay
  • The Math section covers
  • -  Arithmetic
  • -  Algebra I & II
  • -  Geometry and trigonometry
  • Calculators can be used on all math questions
  • The Reading section has 4 reading passages
  • The Science section tests your critical thinking skills, not your science knowledge

I recommend taking the SAT and/or ACT for the first time in the fall/winter of eleventh grade, at the latest. That gives enough time to do more study and determine whether the SAT or ACT is a better fit. I generally recommend taking whichever test was a better fit in May or June of eleventh grade if you think the score will improve. That still leaves time to take it once more in October before admissions deadlines.

Many students choose to start earlier for practice or because they want to space out their testing over a couple of years. Having the SAT/ACT testing done at the beginning or middle of junior year makes the rest of high school much less stressful.

Generally speaking, there's typically no advantage to taking either test more than two times. No student should take either test more than three times.