Placement Tests: The Gateway to First-Year Courses

This article is published in the 2017 I’m First Guide to College

As a high school student, you’re probably no stranger to taking tests. Chances are, you’ve already taken the SAT, PSAT, ACT, PLAN, and SAT IIs, or some combination thereof. But while most students are familiar with these exams and understand their importance, many have never been told about the placement tests they may have to take before they register for first-year college courses.

So what is a placement test? A placement test is an exam given to new college students in order to determine their academic readiness levels. The results of your placement exam will be used to decide what courses you can take your first year of college.

What happens if I don’t pass the placement test? Students who don’t reach “college readiness” levels on their placement tests are generally required to take one or more remedial courses before they can begin (or in some cases while they begin) taking first-year courses. Remedial courses are non-credit bearing courses (courses that don’t count towards your degree) intended to provide students with the basic knowledge they need to succeed in college-level courses.

Do all schools require students to take a placement test? Not every school requires placement tests, but most do. Almost all community colleges require students to take placement tests, and many four-year schools do as well.

Do all schools use the same placement test? No. Two of the most popular placement tests are College Board’s ACCUPLACER and ACT’s Compass test. However some schools may create their own exam or use other placement tests.

What is tested on a placement test? Generally these exams will test your reading and math skills, and possibly your writing skills as well. Some schools require students to take a foreign language test upon admittance as well.

How do I know if my college requires me to take a placement exam? Simple: ask. Ask your admissions counselor whether or not a placement test is required and which placement test is administered at your college. If your counselor can’t tell you, ask him or her to refer you to someone in Academic Affairs who can.

How can I prepare myself for a placement test? Ask your admissions counselor to put you in contact with someone at your college (a testing site coordinator, a student support specialist, etc.) who can explain to you what is tested on the placement exam. Ask if there are practice tests available, either online or at the college, to take over the summer. (You can easily find study guides and samples of ACCUPLACER and Compass tests online.) Take a practice test and use it as a diagnostic to show you what skills you need to work on before taking your official placement test.

What are the long-term consequences of not passing a placement test? Because many students lack the funds, time, and motivation to complete remedial coursework, only about one in ten community college students tracked into these classes will graduate within three years, and only about one in three four-year students taking remedial courses will graduate in six. So ask the necessary questions to find out whether or not your college requires a placement test and what’s tested. Use the answers to prepare yourself adequately for the test ahead!