Breaking the college code: What's the deal with AP, IB, SAT and ACT?

If the endless array of acronyms, shorthand and abbreviations has ya feeling dizzy, you’re in the right place! We’re busting the college code so you don’t have to hit Google (or feel like a know-nothing in front of your counselor). Read on, smarty pants!

Er. What’s an “AP” class?

An AP class is an upper level Advanced Placement class. The AP program is administered by the College Board, which also oversees the PSAT and SAT (more about those two later). APs are supposed to be college-level courses you take for a year in high school, rather than the typical college quarter, trimester or semester, though if your school is on a block schedule, this may be different. There are tons of AP classes—from biology to art history to Chinese—but not all schools offer all the classes.

At the end of the year, each AP class culminates in the AP exam, given to all students on the same day, at the same time, typically at the end of April or beginning of May. The exam is graded on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. Many colleges and universities allow students to “place out” of introductory level courses with scores of 4 or 5 on AP exams, but this differs widely. Your school may or may not require you to take the exam—check with your school counselor to find out.

Got it. So, what’s an IB, then?

The International Baccalaureate or IB program offers upper-level coursework, but it requires students to take a full diploma, or array of classes, rather than only picking the subject that interest them. Students across the globe enroll in the IB program, whereas the AP system is more of an American thing.

As part of the IB program, you pick six classes from six subject areas: your primary language, a secondary language, a social science, an experimental science, mathematics, and an art (or another course from the previous five categories). At the completion of your coursework, you take a rigorous exam marked by external IB program examiners, who assign grades from 1 to 7. If you receive a minimum of 24 points, you are granted your diploma. The program also evaluates students’ efforts in three other areas: creative (engagement in the arts), action (physical activity) and service (as in, community service). You must perform up to par in all areas.

OK. Let’s talk SAT.

The SAT used to stand for “standardized achievement test.” Now, however, it doesn’t stand for anything. Yep, weird, we know. The SAT an admissions test administered by the College Board (the same folks who maintain the AP program we talked about earlier). It’s the most widely recognized test in the U.S., and is used in part or whole in admissions decisions for many colleges and universities. Some schools are becoming “test optional”, which means you don’t have to submit SAT (or ACT—see below) scores to apply or be accepted.

The SAT is currently in flux and will be changing in the next few years. The basics aren’t really changing, though. The test comprises two main sections, critical reading and mathematics, with a soon-to-be optional writing section. Right now, it’s scored out of 2400 points. When the writing section becomes optional, the scoring will revert to the original 1600-point scale.

Students typically take a practice SAT test during the fall of their sophomore year. This is the PSAT, and your score here can qualify you for scholarships and commendations. Plus, practice is always a good thing. Come the spring of your junior year, you’ll probably want to register to take your first real SAT. You can take the SAT as many times as you like, but twice is probably the most typical among college-bound students.

There’s one more type of SAT, and that’s that SAT II, or SAT Subject Tests. A lot of colleges require you to submit up to three scores from these subject tests, so it’s really helpful to start looking at schools you might be interested now, and checking out their admissions requirements. You can take the subject tests whenever you want, and a lot of students choose to take them after they complete a similar class in school. Example: You just took freshman biology, so why not take the SAT II subject test in biology while the information is still fresh?

One more thing. What’s the deal with the ACT?

Good question! The ACT is a “college readiness assessment” meant to more completely test a student’s preparedness for college. Subjects tested include English, math, reading and science, with an optional writing test. The highest score you can get on the ACT is a perfect 36. You can take the ACT as many times as you want, though like the SAT, twice is probably the average.

A lot of counselors recommend students take the ACT if they don’t perform well on the SAT, simply because the subject areas are broader and it tends to test what you learn in school, rather than your ability to reason through various questions. While the SAT is still the default test accepted by most colleges, many are now offering the ACT as an option. Before you take the test—or if you’re deciding which to take—it can be helpful to check out the admissions requirements of the colleges you’re interested in.

Phew! Have more questions? Ask ‘em in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer in upcoming articles in our college prep series!


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by Brittany Taylor | 2/1/2016