Testing options

Test preparation courses
There are conflicting reports about the usefulness of test preparation courses. Mamlet and VanDeVelde suggest that "most students don't need a coach or a class" and that the single largest factor was "familiarity with the test". Another report agreed that SAT/ACT prep courses were a waste of money and that taking a few practice exams, and understanding how each test works, was all that was needed. According to NBC News, the multibillion-dollar private test prep industry, including coaching and tutoring as well as software and clinics, is a source of "inequality and injustice" in higher education since it enables the offspring of well-to-do families to improve their test scores by means of learning "tips and tricks"; there is a report in March 2014 that the College Board is planning to redesign the SAT to make it less susceptible to gaming. Test prep courses can cost $1,000 per course; tutors can cost $15,000 per year, according to one estimate.

Standardized admissions tests
In 2003, according to one estimate, 1.4 million students took the SAT and 1.4 million also took the ACT test, paying about $50 per test. Generally counselors suggest that students should plan on taking the SAT or ACT test twice, so that a low score can possibly be improved. One advisor suggested that students with weak SAT or ACT scores could consider applying to colleges where these measures were optional. One suggested retaking the tests if there are "subpar test scores" in September and October (if applying early admission) or November and December (if applying regular admission.)Generally over half of juniors retaking the SAT or ACT tests during the senior year saw improvements in their scores. Colleges vary in terms of how much emphasis they place on these scores.

A consensus view is that most colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, and have formulas for converting scores into admissions criteria, and can convert SAT scores into ACT scores and vice versa relatively easily. The ACT is reportedly more popular in the midwest and south while the SAT is more popular on the east and west coasts. Apparently there have been instances of persons taking admissions tests in place of the real student as paid SAT test-takers, which is illegal, but the existence of such services has been called "an open secret in competitive circles"; for example, in 2011, an Emory University sophomore was arrested for taking the test for another person on a fee basis. One report suggested the College Board was considering requiring that test-takers submit a photograph of themselves on the test day as a precaution against impersonation. The photos would be stored in a password-protected database, but would not be shared with college admissions departments.

Michele Hernandez recommended taking the SAT or ACT test only once or twice otherwise an applicant may appear "score obsessed." One report suggested that a benefit of the ACT test was that it allowed the test-taker to have greater freedom to choose which scores to send to which colleges. Counselors suggest that students practice taking the test under actual testing conditions. Counselors advise students taking tests should become familiar with directions beforehand so there will be more time to focus on problems during the actual test. And the use of tests by colleges has been criticized as being ineffective at predicting ultimate life success; one study suggested that SAT results "don't mean much long term".

Regarding whether to choose the SAT or ACT, the consensus view is that both tests are roughly equivalent and tend to bring similar results, and that each test is equally accepted by colleges. Reporter Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times suggested that admissions deans repeatedly inform him that colleges view the ACT and SAT tests equally and do not have a preference. At the same time, small differences between the tests may translate into a slight benefit for the test-taker. One source noted that there is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, so advisors suggest that it is okay to guess if time is limited--but the SAT penalizes incorrect guesses. One report suggested that the SAT favors "white male students" from upper income backgrounds.Another report suggests that the ACT has more questions geared to higher levels of high school mathematics, suggesting that students who do well in math may perform better, but that the SAT is a better choice for students with an excellent vocabulary. According to one view, the SAT is more focused on testing reasoning ability while the ACT is more of a content-based test of achievement. In addition, according to this view, some SAT questions can be trickier and harder to decipher while some ACT questions may be longer; question difficulty progresses within each SAT section while difficult questions are randomly interspersed in the ACT; the SAT has a separate vocabulary section while the ACT has a separate science reasoning section.

SAT subject tests
Several sources suggested that the SAT subject tests were becoming more important in evaluating applicants. One described them as "true equalizers" in admissions, suggesting how strong a high school is, and elaborated that some admissions officers considered them to be a better indicator of academic ability than high school grades. Another suggested that selective colleges like to get results from SAT subject tests in addition to other ones, while public universities placed less emphasis on them.

Advanced placement tests
There was a report that scores on Advanced Placement exams could be helpful in the evaluations process. One report suggested there was a limit on the number of AP tests that should be taken, such that taking 12 AP tests was not as helpful as taking five and doing well on those five.

Common vs. college's application
The advantage of the Common Application is that it is the same for numerous colleges, and can save time and trouble for a student. It is accepted at 488 colleges out of several thousand, but only a third of the 488 use it exclusively, meaning that two-thirds allow an applicant to submit either the Common Application or the school's specific application form. According to Hernandez, many admissions officers complain that the Common Application stifles creativity and encourages "dull responses", and she recommends that students use the college's particular application when there is a choice.