What Tests Do I Need to Take for Undergraduate Admission to a Top School?

Testing is a big part of your high school academic experience the college application process. From figuring out which standardized tests to take to determining AP testing, regional state required exams, as well as your midterms and finals, there’s a lot to balance. It’s not just you; it can be overwhelming for everyone. Let us break it down for you:  

First, let’s get to what is required for a lot of schools. It’s required that you take the ACT or the SAT, and many require SAT Subject Tests as well (SAT IIs) for almost every school. We recommend that all of our students take a diagnostic exam for each during their sophomore or junior year, have them scored, and compare the scores to figure out which test is better suited. Every student is different. Let us know if you need help setting that process up or deciding which test to take.

The key similarities and differences between the SAT and ACT are:


  • 2 sections: Math (800 points), Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (800 points)
  • Optional Essay section (though let us just say that we feel similarly about the optional essay section as we do about optional essay supplements...nothing is optional.)
  • Scored out of 1600                            


  • 4 sections: Reading (36), English (36), Science (36), Math (36) -- all multiple choice
  • Optional Writing section
  • Scored on a scale of 1-36 (composite of all 4)

For a slightly more comprehensive breakdown, read through our blog post on the matter here. For more information on when to take these tests, make sure you’re familiar with our post on the topic.

All of that said, there is no need to take any tests if you don’t want to or if you think that an environment that values testing is not going to be the best fit for you. There are many top schools, both liberal arts and national universities, with test-optional applications where you do not have to submit your scores. We encourage our students to look into these options if they think it might be a good match.

Here’s a funny story for you: we had a student call us last week in a tizzy. He was freaked out because he “had heard” that if you don’t take 7 AP tests then you’re not getting into a good college much less an Ivy League school. We calmed him down and told him to not worry, that that was completely false. You may be under the same impression.

Don’t get overwhelmed with “I heard XYZ” and other anecdotes throughout this process because at the end of the day, there is only one you applying. Every other applicant was different, and it’s not productive to rely on other people's’ experiences to guide your application journey. Most “advice” thrown around during this time is generalized from one experience, and it’s usually wrong. Focus on you and your experience, and make it the best that you can.

In addition to your ACT/SAT and SAT Subject Tests that you take, there are also tests that you take through your school, like AP Exams and regional state exams. These are not in any way required, and there are a lot of myths surrounding this exact issue.

There is no need to take AP exams. If offered, we highly recommend that our students take any and all appropriate AP courses offered. Some schools, though, don’t offer any AP courses and that’s completely okay. What students forget is that colleges know all. They know if your school only offers 2 or even 0 AP courses. You’re not compared to those students who were able to take 8 AP courses because their school offers 20. It all depends on how you use what you have available to you.

As an example, there are a few private schools in NYC that offer absolutely no AP courses. We’ve had students from those schools over the last few years apply to colleges. Some are currently attending schools such as Yale, Princeton, and Georgetown, among others. Not taking AP courses or tests didn’t hurt them, and it won’t hurt you.

That said, if you have mastered the material in your AP courses and you think you’d get a 4 or 5 on an AP test, then we say go for it. It never hurts to have an abundance of high scores, but if you don’t have them it won’t negatively impact you.  

Let us know if you have any questions or need help sorting through all of these testing requirements. It’s not easy, but it can be simplified.