How to Prepare for College Placement Exams

placement testing for college

While entrance exams are used by colleges to select which students to enroll, placement exams differ in that they are mainly used to determine which classes a student should take upon enrollment. Your score on each exam will be a deciding factor in how you can choose your courses for the first year. They gauge your skills and assess what will be the most appropriate level at which to begin.

Preparation for these exams is critical to starting your college career off right, and following the steps below will ensure that you get through each exam just fine.

1. Determine If You Are Exempt First

If you plan to attend a community college, there are some exemptions you might be eligible for that could determine whether you even need to go forward with a placement test. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to find out which of these credentials you might be able to use to opt-out. Generally speaking, there are certain circumstances which will excuse a student from having to take part in a placement test:

SAT scores of 500 or over per section or ACT scores or 21 or over in each section

Prior placement exam results that are less than two years old

Transcripts that prove you have completed college-level coursework

If you have not previously attended college, and you score below the school’s minimum on your standardized scores, you will likely need to take a placement exam. However, these requirements will be different at each school. You will want to check with yours to find out what their standards are. If you find you are exempt, all you need to do is enroll in courses. But if you find out you still have to take one or more exams, don’t despair. We will give you ample information in this article to prepare you for what lies ahead.

2. Figure out What Tests You Need

If you have checked on your status and discovered you still need to participate in a placement test, you need to find out which on you will be taking. The most common is called the “Next Generation ACCUPLACER test. Consisting of several sections, it shows your aptitude in different knowledge areas and is computer-adaptive, so it adjusts the difficulty in real-time while you answer the questions.

If English is not your first language, you may need to take an English proficiency exam. Your locality may also be a deciding factor as there are some states and schools that have developed their own exams for incoming students.

The Next Generation ACCUPLACER test is less about how much you know right now, and more about your ability to be successful going forward with your future studies. Its purpose is to help plan a path for learning that is customized to you so that you can do well in college.

3. Find out What Is Involved With Each Test

Once you figure out the tests that will be required, you will want to determine a few things. What kind of questions should you expect? How long will it take? Is it timed? Will you be allowed to use any study aids to complete the exam? Knowing what you are up against will help eliminate any pretest anxiety and help you get prepared.

Preparation for the Next-Generation ACCUPLACER

The Next-Generation ACCUPLACER test is the most commonly used test designed to place students in courses that match their level of skill. The tasks and text reflect what would typically be encountered as a first-year student. It is divided into five subtests:

  1. Arithmetic
  2. Quantitative Reasoning, Algebra, And Statistics (QAS)
  3. Advanced Algebra and Functions
  4. Reading
  5. Writing

Understanding Computer Adaptive Testing

ACCUPLACER tests are computer-adaptive. Computer adaptive testing is a little different than tests you have traditionally taken over the years. It selects from a group of questions and presents them to test takers based on skill level. The test represents a range of difficulties so that it is tailored to each student, and their individual responses reveal the most valuable information about them.

These are not pass or fail tests — instead, they show the measure or your academic skills. The level of difficulty may be different for each person based on the responses to the questions which are given. It is an untimed test, so you can take all the time you need to consider your answers before submitting them. The number of questions on the tests is variable as well. There may be between 12 to 40 questions in total, and each test will be different. The sequence of the questions will vary with each test, as well.

Overview of the Individual ACCUPLACER Tests

The Accuplacer tests are all in multiple-choice format except for the essay portion. The following summary is taken directly from the College Board ACCUPLACER website so you can get an idea of what exactly is on each test:

Reading Test

The Reading test assesses your ability to derive meaning from a range of texts and to determine the meaning of words and phrases in short and extended contexts. Passages on the test cover a range of content areas, writing modes, and complexities. Both single and paired passages are included.

Writing Test

The Writing test evaluates your ability to revise and edit multi-paragraph text.

Math Tests

The Arithmetic test focuses on computation, order of operations, estimation and rounding, comparing and ordering values in different formats, and recognizing equivalent values across formats. The Arithmetic test assesses the following knowledge and skills:

  • Whole Number Operations
  • Fraction Operations
  • Decimal Operations
  • Percent
  • Number Comparisons and Equivalents

The Quantitative Reasoning, Algebra, and Statistics (QAS) test assesses the following knowledge and skills:

  • Rational Numbers
  • Ratio and Proportional Relationships
  • Exponents
  • Algebraic Expressions
  • Linear Equations
  • Linear Applications and Graphs
  • Probability Sets
  • Descriptive Statistics
  • Geometry Concepts

The Advanced Algebra and Functions (AAF) test assesses the following knowledge and skills:

  • Linear Equations
  • Linear Applications and Graphs
  • Factoring
  • Quadratics
  • Functions
  • Radical and Rational Equations
  • Polynomial Equations
  • Exponential and Logarithmic Equations
  • Trigonometry

WritePlacer Essay

The WritePlacer essay measures your ability to write effectively, which is critical to your academic success. Your score is based on your ability to express, organize, and support your opinions and ideas. The position you take on the essay topic doesn’t affect your score. The following five characteristics of writing will be considered:

  • Purpose and Focus: The extent to which you present information in a unified and coherent manner, clearly addressing the issue
  • Organization and Structure: The extent to which you order and connect ideas.
  • Development and Support: The extent to which you develop and support ideas.
  • Sentence Variety and Style: The extent to which you craft sentences and paragraphs demonstrating control of vocabulary, voice, and structure.
  • Mechanical Conventions: The extent to which you express ideas using Standard Written English.
  • Critical Thinking: The extent to which you communicate a point of view and demonstrate reasoned relationships among ideas.

ACCUPLACER for English Language Learners

If English isn’t your first language, you may be asked to take one or more ACCUPLACER placement tests for English language learners to assess your English language skills.

  • The ESL Language Use test measures your proficiency in using correct grammar in English sentences.
  • The ESL Listening test measures your ability to listen to and understand one or more people speaking in English. Conversations take place in a wide range of locations including lecture halls, grocery stores, and libraries.
  • The ESL Reading Skills test measures your ability to read English through the comprehension of short passages.
  • The ESL Sentence Meaning test measures how well you understand the meaning of sentences in English.

4. Preparing for the ACCUPLACER College Placement Exam

While preparing for the college placement exam might seem a little stressful, it really doesn’t have to be. There are many online resources to choose from to help you prepare to do your best on the exam. Practice tests, quizzes, flashcards, writing prompts, and more are all just a click away. The best way to combat any nervousness you feel about the tests is to ready yourself for them in advance and be confident that you’ve got this.

Check out these resources to help you prepare:

College Board ACCUPLACER Study App

Union Test Prep Practice Tests, Flashcards, and Study Guides

Mometrix Test Preparation Materials

Exam Sam

School Resources

Most of the schools that offer the ACCUTEST have some resources available to help you prepare as well. There may be workshops, review packets, and helpful tools both on and offline. If you can visit the campus learning center to prepare, do so. This will help you familiarize yourself with the surroundings, so when the test day arrives, you know where to park, which area of campus you need to report to, and other details.

Go Over What You Already Know

If you still have notes and books from previous classes, now is the time to review them and refresh your memory on some of the subjects that will be on the placement tests. You can use the same study tips and routine you would use when preparing for any other test. Brush up on any math formulas you will need to remember as well.

4. Registering For The Entrance Exam

If the college you plan to attend is local, you will need to get in touch with the admissions office and speak to a representative about scheduling a time to take the ACCUPLACER exam.

If the school you plan to attend is in another State, you will need to contact them to obtain permission to take the test at a local institution. They may already have remote locations in place for testing, or you might need to schedule the test yourself.

Fees and Costs

While some schools include the cost of taking the placement exams in with the registration fees, sometimes there might be an additional charge. It is always at the discretion of the institution administering the test, so you will want to check with them for the most up-to-date information. The fee typically ranges from $15 to $50 if you need to pay for it out-of-pocket.

5. Accuplacer Policies

Retaking the Test:

Each school will have different policies about retaking any subtest. Typically, you will be able to complete it twice over the course of a year and will need to wait a minimum of two weeks before you retake the ACCUPLACER. You will want to check the guidelines at your own institution.


Every student is required to bring at least one form of picture ID. A state-issued driver’s license, student ID, state-issued identification card, employee ID card, or passport will all work as long as they are current and have a photograph. Applicants will not be able to proceed with testing if they do not present identification, so be sure you do not forget this vital item. You will also need your social security number.

Personal Items:

Unless you are told otherwise, you will not be able to bring any personal items with you into the testing area. Your school may have a designated spot to put them, or you may need to leave them in your vehicle. Be sure to find out ahead of time about this to make sure your valuables are safe.

Please note that you will not be able to access your items until the test is complete, so if you need to take medicine, plan appropriately. Use the restroom before entering the testing area. Personal items include but are not limited to:

Cell phones












Length of The Test:

Most students complete the exam in less than two hours, but it is not a timed test, so you can take longer if you so desire. Make sure to complete each session carefully and thoughtfully and take your time. There is no reason to rush as even if you are the last person in the testing area, it won’t affect your final grade.

6. What to Expect on Exam Day

Make sure you know where to park and where you are going. Show up on time (be early if you can) and present your legal photo identification to the test administrator. If you need disability accommodations, you should get in touch with the test center well in advance so they can prepare.

Bring only what you need so you don’t have a lot of stuff to store or carry around. Pencils and scratch paper will usually be provided.


The ACCUPLACER uses something called “cut scores,” which means that you need to score at least at a certain level to be admitted to any credit-bearing classes in the subject. If you score below the cut score, you will need to take core or remediation classes before you can move on to college-level classes.

Remediation classes don’t count towards college credit. They are similar to high-school classes in the given subject and will act as a refresher to fill in any information you are missing. Once you have passed any remediation classes, you can move forward with enrollment in college-level courses in that subject. It is possible to pass all but one or two subsections on the ACCUPLACER and only need those particular remediation classes.

7. College Placement Exam Study Tips

In addition to being prepared for the ACCUPLACER well in advance, there are other things you can do to prepare yourself. This time can be stressful for many students, and making sure your mind and body is in tip-top shape will help you avoid anxiety and do your best on each subsection of the placement exam. Luckily, some methods are proven to help you focus, stay on track, and excel at test time.

Don’t Cram

Pace yourself and study at intervals by taking 20 to 60 minutes at a time with plenty of breaks in between. After studying, get something to eat, call a friend, or just rest your eyes for 10 to 15 minutes before diving back in. Set a schedule to do this consistently, and you will find that you will retain information better over the long run.

Get Some Exercise

Did you know that just one 30-minute session of cardio can improve your memory? Exercise gets the blood flowing to the brain, delivering valuable nutrients and oxygen that can maximize your energy levels and reduce stress. It doesn’t matter what kind of cardiovascular activity you choose. Walking, jogging, dancing, cross-country skiing, and anything else that helps you work up a sweat can be beneficial. Just do it!

Eat the Right Foods

You have been told all your life that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Even in the elementary grades, it is suggested that students be sent to school with a full tummy on test days. Researchers have found that high-fiber and high-carb foods like oatmeal are digested slowly and can provide sustained energy throughout the day.

Even what you eat a week or two before your exam can have long-lasting effects as well. Superfoods that are high in antioxidants can be part of a well-rounded meal plan that boosts overall performance, while diets high in fat and junk food can slow down your thinking speed and attention span.

According to Medical News Today, the top 12 brain-boosting foods are:

  • Fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna, and mackerel.
  • Dark chocolate
  • Berries like blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries
  • Nuts and seeds that are high in vitamin E, such as sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and almonds.
  • Whole grains like brown rice, barley, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, and bulgur wheat
  • Coffee
  • Avocados
  • Peanuts
  • Eggs
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Some Soy Products

Some studies also suggest that supplements like ginseng, beta-carotene, magnesium, and vitamins B, C, or E could potentially help with mental performance if a person is deficient. You should check with your doctor to find out if these might work for you.

Don’t forget too that when you are studying, your brain uses glucose for fuel, and you need to recharge with healthy snacks periodically.

Find New Places To Study

A new environment can shake things up and help you retain information better. If you typically study in the library, choose a different spot like the student lounge, the cafeteria, or a quiet corner. Studies have shown that altering your environment while studying can improve retention because the brain will make specific associations between any background noises or visuals going on at the time. Even better, take it outside and study at the beach or a local park where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.

Manage Your Time Wisely

If you are always rushing, you won’t be able to retain information correctly, and your performance will suffer. Make sure you have a realistic plan and schedule ample time for studying each subject thoroughly to avoid being frazzled.

Don’t Pull an All-Nighter

In recent years, discussion about sleep and its benefits to both the mind and body have taken center stage, and it is now known that a good night’s sleep is more important than ever.

While everyone pulls an all-nighter from time to time, it is almost always a terrible idea. A 2008 study conducted at St. Lawrence University found that students who stayed up all night to study had impaired memory and reasoning skills for up to four days afterward. This does not bode well toward getting good grades. Not only does it decrease your overall performance, but it can also interfere with proper REM sleep, which is needed for good memory.

Use Sound to Increase Performance

Many students prefer to study while doing other things like watching TV or listening to music, claiming that it helps them to concentrate. There is probably some truth behind this, but it pertains to certain sounds. Music can activate the right and left brain at once, which can help improve memory and maximize your ability to learn.

The best music to listen to for optimal brain performance is classical, meditation, or spa-style music with a tempo between 60-70 beats per minute. Nature sounds like rain, birds, crashing waves, wind, and babbling brooks can also help.

Final Thoughts

Getting prepared for your college placement exam can be both exciting and stressful. Enjoy this time in your life and remain positive and determined to achieve your goals. By following the above tips and availing yourself of the resources listed, you will be well on your way to acing your exams.