by Lisa Thompson

There are few high school students who look forward to taking (and, in some instances, retaking) college admissions test like the ACT or SAT. Yet, it’s something of a rite of passage if you plan to go to a four-year college or university. But why are they even required?


Comparing students

Different states have different high school graduation standards. Different school districts have different requirements and class offerings, too. This makes it difficult for colleges and universities to compare the academic skills of high school graduates and predict their success in college. College admissions test are used to evaluate the students based on nationally recognized standards. Many colleges and universities accept both the ACT and SAT, but some only accept one.


Do admission tests really predict student success?

There has been a lot of debate about this in recent years. And the verdict is still out. The tests can show what students don't know or understand, but the issue isn't as simple as that. Even accounting for the fact that some people just do better on standardized tests than others, criticism about the tests center around four main areas:


  • Gender bias – the multiple choice question format, guessing penalties (SAT only), and the speed at which questions must be answered favor male test-takers
  • Racial bias –English/reading sections use language that is more familiar or common to white students
  • Socioeconomic bias – wealthier students do better because they attend better schools and can afford to take test prep courses and retake the test
  • How schools use the test results – (1) some colleges use the test scores as the key criteria for admittance, giving tests more weight than high school grades and the type of courses the student took, and (2) some only look at combined or composite scores for the whole test rather than the subscores for each section, which some claim are a better predictor of college success. 


Although both the ACT and SAT attempted to address these concerns when they were last revised, claims of bias continue to dog them. So much so, that some schools have stopped requiring a college admissions test.


What's a student to do?

While the issues surrounding admissions tests are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, you still need to take the test if it's required for admissions. If you can't afford a test prep course or one isn’t offered locally, pick up a test prep book at the bookstore (usually for around $20-30) or check one out from your local library.  Work through it by yourself or with a friend, parent, or teacher. There are also free resources online:



Test prep will help you figure out where you need improvement and learn what to expect on test day. This will help reduce your test anxiety. That, in turn, will help you to focus more on the test itself.


If you're having difficulty paying to take the test, make sure you ask about the ACT or SAT fee waiver.