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For many years, getting a solid score on a standardized test was the first step toward getting into college. But in recent times, many universities have begun offering students the option of applying without submitting SAT or ACT scores. Others operate as “test blind,” reviewing all applicants without a look at test results. In fact, according to FairTest, more than half of colleges and universities were operating with some form of test-optional or test-blind policy by fall of 2020.

But that doesn’t mean you can get into your college of choice without taking a standardized test. And even if your first-choice school doesn’t require a test score, your second option might. So dipping your toe into the standardized-testing waters early in your high school career is a good idea. At the very least, a test can help you identify your own strengths and weaknesses, whether or not you wind up sharing your scores with college admissions officials.

Which test(s) should I take?

As a sophomore, you should register for and take the PSAT (pre-SAT) and/or PLAN (pre-ACT) tests. This will reveal whether you are ready to take on the full versions of these tests or need more preparation.

If you do well on the pre-test, you should schedule your appointment to take the ACT or SAT for early in your junior year. If you are satisfied with your score, you’ll be freed up to spend time on other aspects of your college applications. If your score isn’t where you want it to be, you’ll still have time to target your weak areas with some extra study and time to try some online practice tests (look for those provided by the College Board). You can improve your results on a second or even third try.

U.S. News & World Report offers these four steps to successful test-taking: 

  • Begin as soon as possible.
  • Consider your PLAN or PSAT experience. (Did your score indicate that you are ready to take on the ACT or SAT, or should you hold off to allow more time for study?)
  • Assess the scholarship implications. (Will a higher score earn you a bigger scholarship?)
  • Retest as necessary.

What exactly are most colleges looking for?

It’s helpful to find out what the requirements are at the schools you’re considering. As a sophomore, you probably don’t have that list finalized, but if you know of two or three universities that pique your interests, check the admissions pages of their websites to find their policies.

For example, at Wingate University, students can self-report their high school GPA and their test score (ACT, SAT, CLT or PSAT). Incoming classes of 2021 through 2023 are test-optional, but if a test score is not supplied, an essay is required. Students who apply get an answer within two weeks and if admitted are notified about how much scholarship money they can qualify for.

Essay or personal statement

Many universities require personal statements or essays. There are scores of advice columns online to help you craft a statement that helps capture who you are, what hopes you have for your future and what you can contribute to a campus community. Make sure your statement is your own. 

Strong resume

Additionally, universities want to see that you are well-prepared for academic rigor and are well-rounded. It’s a good idea to start keeping track of your volunteer efforts and any extracurricular activities or organizations that are helping you build leadership skills. Quality over quantity is the basic rule of thumb. It’s better to show that you’ve excelled in one or two areas that you are passionate about than to provide a long list of club memberships but no real evidence of what you have done or how the experience has contributed to your growth.

Letters of recommendation

Many selective colleges and universities require recommendation letters with your application, usually from a school counselor and at least one of your teachers. It’s a good time to be building relationships with adults at your school, so that they get to know you well enough to write specifically about your qualifications. 

Finally, remember that you are much more than a score

Although high marks on standardized tests can help open doors, you are not defined by any grade or score. University officials view your score as one aspect of your application but will consider you based on a broad range of factors. So don’t sweat the test, just do your best.