Some of you are familiar with the different tests high school students are expected to take before applying to college. However, many people are completely confused by them. All those letters can sound rather intimidating when you are new to the college application process.

Of course, not all of our homeschooled high schoolers will need to earn a college degree. Many people establish successful careers without graduating from college. Apprenticeships, on-the-job training, trade schools, and independent, at-home learning can all lead to great work situations—whether full-time, part-time, or volunteer.

In addition, students can avoid the need to take any national, standardized tests and yet still go to college if they attend a community college for two years before transferring to a four-year school. Those seeking acceptance as qualified transfer students from accredited two-year colleges often do not need to show even a high school transcript. The junior college record alone usually speaks for the student.

However, some of our teens will want to go directly to a four-year college from our homeschool high schools. Whether or not your students should go to college is not the point of this article. Whether or not they have the option to attend the college of their choosing is the point. As homeschooling parents, we want to provide our children with as many excellent options as possible. One element that can help our high school students in their quest for college admission and scholarships is strong test scores.

The Tests

The most commonly taken test is the SAT I Reasoning exam. Almost every four-year college in the country requires applicants to submit scores from the SAT I exam or its lesser known counterpart, the ACT. Notice I said “almost”—inevitably, there are exceptions. The schools that do not require the SAT I usually ask students to demonstrate their academic journey through more creative means, such as comprehensive portfolios, and they still require a high level of academic performance. Unless you know for certain that your teen is going to one of these few “exception” schools, you should plan for your high school students to take the SAT I or the ACT.

The SAT I Reasoning exam is not based on specific content knowledge (with the exception of math). Rather, it claims to measure the student’s ability to think critically—hence the name. (How well the test actually accomplishes this goal has been hotly debated for years.) The entire exam takes almost four hours, but when breaks are added, the student is usually at the testing site from 7:45 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. or later.

In the spring of 2005, the SAT was thoroughly revised for the first time in many years. Some changes were made to the Math section: quantitative comparison problems were dropped and more advanced questions added. Meanwhile, the Verbal section was renamed the Critical Reading section, and the analogy questions were eliminated. Most notably, a new Writing section was added to the exam. It consists of a 25-minute timed essay that must be legibly handwritten, along with additional multiple-choice questions.

Many colleges are not yet giving the new Writing element much weight, as they prefer to wait a few more years to consider these scores in the context of more students. Finally, there is a section on the new test that is only “experimental” in nature. In other words, it doesn’t count toward the student’s final score. However, since the students have no way of knowing which section is the experimental one, they must give their best effort on every section they face.

The SAT I exam costs $43 at this time, and picture IDs are required. Students choose from a selection of nearby testing sites (usually public high schools) when they complete the online registration process. (Important: the national SAT “school” code for all independent homeschoolers is 970000.) The test is usually offered seven times annually, October through June. Registration deadlines are about a month before the test dates. The best time to take the SAT I is usually in the spring of the junior year. This choice gives the option of retaking the test for improved scores in the fall of the senior year. Check with specific schools as to their admission and scholarship deadlines.