Stress Tests

There is little about the process of college admissions that causes parents and students worldwide more anxiety than college and university admissions tests.

After all the years of hard work in the classroom, extracurricular activities, leadership, teamwork, piano lessons, swimming lessons, community service, etc., most students will still have a final hurdle to clear. For students who plan to attend university in the English-speaking world, but outside of the United States of America, AP Examinations or the IB Diploma is all the testing required for most. You should know, however, that a significant number of colleges in the United Kingdom maintain their own private entrance exams. Additionally, some universities require additional testing for placement in academic specialties in medicine, the sciences and engineering. Moreover, nearly all nonnative English speaking students will be required to take the IELTSTOEFL or PTE to prove that their command of the English language is sufficient to allow for university success.

Students planning to attend college or university in the United States are also required to take a test of English language competency. Students should be aware that while most college websites only list the TOEFL, over 1,500 academic institutions also accept the IELTS. This is relevant in that some students find the IELTS to be somewhat friendlier as part of the test is conducted with a live person and people tend to get higher scores. It is also important to know that non-native English-speaking students may be required to take an English test even if they attend an international or English taught school. It is worth checking the requirements for specific academic institutions to be sure that your student can complete all testing in a timely and prepared manner.

Nearly everyone has heard of and dreads the US college admission test known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the SAT. Judging by the size of the monstrous industry that has grown up around training students to score well on the SAT, a score of approximately 2,000 is the holy grail and any student’s ticket to a top university, right? Not necessarily. While a majority of colleges and universities in the USA do require students to submit their SAT scores, these scores alone do NOT determine the academic fate of students seeking university placement. SAT scores are taken as part of the picture in conjunction with the achievements, talents, interests and intangible qualities that students display. After all, if all it took to get into a top-20 university was strong grades and SAT scores, college admissions committees could save weeks of time simply pulling straws to determine who to accept.

So what is the SAT and why all the stress? First and foremost, the SAT is not an intelligence test. So no weeping is warranted should the score not be what one hoped. Your child is still the same bright, affable, college-bound student they were before this test came up. 

The SAT is designed to test a student’s ability to reason based on their critical (analytical) reading ability. In addition to reading, the test is heavily focused on vocabulary and grammar usage. There is a mandatory writing section and a math section. However, the math is pretty basic and generally well covered in most school curriculums by the time your student completes 9th grade/Year 10. The basics of the verbal and written sections are also largely covered in the school curriculum. So why all the stress? It is because students don’t critically read as much as is required for them to do well on the test. To test at the highest level, students need to read both fiction and non-fiction of a wide variety and high quality over and above the reading they do in school. Yes, there are test-taking strategies that can help students maximize their scores, but nothing replaces the simple mastery of their basic math, fervent reading and dedicated essay writing. Please note that one of the more effective ways to learn how to write better is to read more. Check out the College Board’s own website and you will find that they recommend reading as the best preparation for the SAT. This is not to say that students do not benefit from SAT preparation classes – they do, if for no other reason than it gets them focused on further developing skills necessary for testing well. Separately, students in local schools or those in schools without US, UK, Australian or Canadian based curriculums benefit tremendously from specific SAT training as the presentation, format, written and reading skills are likely very different from what they are familiar with. These students too would do well to read a lot and often.

Students should know that there is another type of admissions test equally respected and accepted by US colleges and universities, known as the ACT (formerly the American College Test). Similar to the SAT this test has multiple sections, but instead of 10 focused on Math, Reading and Writing, it is broken into four sections: Math, Science, Reading and English. Also, the test is primarily designed to establish that you have learned what you should have done in school and is less focused on reasoning. Generally, students who have taken both score roughly equivalent, but there are some students who score better on one versus the other in a meaningful way. The ACT is offered at a very limited number of international schools in China. If your child’s school does not offer the test, it can be taken in Hong Kong.

Yet another source of confusion and stress are the SAT Subject Tests, formerly known as the SAT II. The Subject Tests are offered in seven subjects and nine languages and allow students to show their academic prowess in specific subject areas. Taking these tests is especially useful for students with an interest in specific subject areas or related subjects such as engineering, medicine, English literature, etc. The language tests allow students to demonstrate their competency in languages beyond English. In deciding whether or not your child should take the Subject Tests, know that only about 40 colleges require the SAT Subject Tests. It is well worth your time, however, to check the specific requirements of the universities/colleges to which your child plans to apply, as many institutions recommend that specific subject tests be taken. Additionally, there are another 160 US colleges and universities that recommend (but don’t require) that students submit Subject Test scores to provide additional data points on their academic ability. Other colleges use Subject Test scores to place your student in ability appropriate classes once he or she has matriculated at the school. The Subject Test dates are the same as those of the SAT. Up to three subject tests (1 hour each) can be taken on a test date, but it cannot be taken at the same time or mixed with the SAT.

Finally, but importantly, students and their families should know that there are a meaningful and growing number of excellent and fully accredited colleges and universities that do not require (SAT Optional) or minimize the use of SAT and ACT scores in making admissions decisions. For example, some colleges exempt students who meet minimum GPA levels or who are in the top 10% of their classes from needing to submit SAT/ACT scores. Being text flexible or test optional, however, does not mean that the applicant will not have to submit anything. Often, these colleges require substantial supplemental questions and essays or request graded written work from school. Also, test optional does not extend to the TOEFL or IELTS examinations. These are still required to ensure that students possess an acceptable level of English language ability. Also, please know that colleges have varying policies for international students (non-US passport holders). Applicants should visit the international student section of the colleges they are considering and review exact requirements for admission. Some very good test optional colleges include: Bard College, Bates College, College of the Holy Cross, Goucher College, Julliard, Lawrence University and Wheaton College. For a full listing, please go to

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Tess Robinson and Amanda Thomson are co-founders of Shanghai based TEAM Education offering one-on-one boarding school, college and graduate school admissions consulting services to students and their families. Team Education Discovery Tours specialize in small group and tailor made college tours. Co-Founder Tess Robinson is a graduate of Harvard Business School (MBA) and Stanford University (AB, International Relations). Robinson also received a certificate in College Admissions Counseling from UCLA and is a member of NACAC and OACAC, the leading professional associations for college counseling. She has been successfully guiding students through this process for 12 years.


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Tess Robinson