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Jonathan Reidenouer

Understanding the ASVAB Test and What It's Used For

The ASVAB assesses the abilities of recruits and place them in the jobs most suitable to those abilities.

Since the United States moved to an all-volunteer military in 1973, the Armed Forces have become established as popular destinations for young adults looking to find direction in their lives. Maybe you are in high school and don’t feel that college is right you, or perhaps you never graduated from high school and are looking to break out of your current situation. Or you may be a young adult who feels stuck and needs a way to reset your life. Of course, you may also be one of the thousands who have planned from the start to make the Armed Forces your permanent occupation.

Whatever your reason for joining the military, the Armed Forces offers significant benefits. In addition to providing educational assistance, the military can also be a launching point for more lucrative and fulfilling jobs than what you may be used to as a civilian.

Whether you are enlisting to begin a career in the military or hoping use your experience to find one outside the Armed Forces, you will first need to qualify by passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, commonly known as the ASVAB test.

What is the ASVAB?

The ASVAB is a military aptitude test that serves to both assess the abilities of recruits and place them in the jobs most suitable to those abilities. It’s a requirement if you want to enlist in the Armed Forces, and recruiters will use your scores to predict where you may best fit in the military.

The test is administered in three different forms, with essentially two different versions, both of which are composed solely of multiple-choice questions.

CAT-ASVAB

The CAT-ASVAB is a computer-based test administered at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and used for enlistment purposes only. The CAT stands for Computer Adaptive Test: an automated test administration system that displays questions, scores and records answers, and allows for flexible start times and self-paced responses. You are allowed to complete the CAT-ASVAB at your own pace: when you complete a test in the battery, you can immediately move on to the next section without waiting for everyone else to move on. However, once you complete a question, you cannot go back and change your answer.

The CAT-ASVAB gives you 153 minutes to complete 145 questions among 10 subtests. Because it is computer-based, you can take it at your own pace within the time allotted, and you are permitted to leave once you have completed the test. (Note: If you are specifically looking to join the Navy, you will take the Coding Speed test in addition to the other 10 subtests.)

MET-site ASVAB

The MET-site ASVAB is given at a Mobile Examination Site to those who have been referred by their recruiters. Unlike the CAT-ASVAB, it is a Paper & Pencil (or P&P) test, so you can change your answers at any time within each subtest. However, you will not be permitted to leave until the entire allowed time has elapsed. How many questions are on the ASVAB? In just 134 minutes, you will be given 200 questions to answer. You will have only about 40 seconds per question on this version of the ASVAB, as opposed to 63 seconds per question on the CAT-ASVAB.

Student ASVAB

The Student ASVAB is identical to the MET-site ASVAB, but it has a different purpose. Rather than serving as a qualifying test, it is used primarily to help high school and college students explore different career paths. However, you will still receive a military qualification score, so you can use your test results if you decide to enlist. Recently, some recruiters have been able to administer a computer version of the Student ASVAB at their offices.

Computerized Adaptive Testing means that if the correct answer is chosen, the next question will be harder. If the answer given is incorrect, the next question will be easier. After each item is administered, information is collected and evaluated, and the item best suited for your estimated ability level is selected to be administered next. With the P&P ASVAB, everyone receives the same questions, so it can seem easier or harder than the CAT-ASVAB depending on your level of ability.

If you are running out of time on the CAT-ASVAB, it is best to skip questions you aren’t sure of or can’t get to, as there’s a penalty for guessing. With the P&P test, there is no such penalty, so you want to make sure you answer every question—even if that means filling in random guesses.

What material does the ASVAB cover?

The two versions of the ASVAB essentially cover the same material, although there are a few differences. While there are 10 subtests on the CAT-ASVAB, the other forms of the test have eight ASVAB sections.

SUBTEST 1: General Science

This section is designed to test topics from courses taught in most high schools: life science, earth and space science, and physical science. You will see questions covering botany, zoology, anatomy, physiology, and ecology, as well as items dealing with force and motion mechanics, energy, fluids, atomic structure, and chemistry.

SUBTEST 2: Arithmetic Reasoning

The Arithmetic Reasoning subtest helps to both characterize your mathematics comprehension and assess logical thinking. It measures your ability to solve basic arithmetic problems encountered in everyday life. This section is loaded with word problems, so if you’re like the many students who dislike such problems, you should seek out an ASVAB tutor to help with your preparation.

SUBTEST 3: Word Knowledge

No surprises here—this section tests your knowledge of words. Some questions simply check your vocabulary by asking what words mean, while others provide the context of a sentence. Both versions of the ASVAB give you 30 seconds or less to complete each question.

SUBTEST 4: Paragraph Comprehension

In a style similar to the SAT and ACT, this section presents passages to read and then asks questions to check your comprehension of the material. You should know how to identify stated and reworded facts, determine a sequence of events, draw conclusions, identify main ideas, determine the author’s purpose and tone, and identify style and technique.

SUBTEST 5: Mathematics Knowledge

The Mathematics Knowledge subtest is designed to assess your ability to solve problems by applying your knowledge of mathematical concepts and applications. Basically, it’s seeing how much you can recall and apply from high school math. This section covers topics up through Geometry and Algebra 2 courses, but it also includes some probability and statistics material.

SUBTEST 6: Electronics Information

Electronics Information tests your understanding of electrical current, circuits, devices, and systems. This is an area most applicants are not familiar with, so prior preparation is critical.

SUBTEST 7: Auto & Shop Information

This particular section measures your aptitude for automotive maintenance and repair and wood and metal shop practices. If you have taken such an industrial arts course in high school or at a vocational-technical school, then you have a head start in these areas. For most people, significant time is required in order to become familiar with the material.

NOTE: On the CAT-ASVAB, this material is split into separate sections (7 and 8), one for automotive knowledge and one for wood and metal shop knowledge.

SUBTEST 8 (9 on the CAT-ASVAB): Mechanical Comprehension

The Mechanical Comprehension subtest assesses your knowledge of the principles of mechanical devices, structural support, and properties of materials. Much like the material in the previous two sections, this is an area many applicants are unfamiliar with. A mechanical engineering tutor can help fill in knowledge gaps.

SUBTEST 10 (on CAT-ASVAB only): Assembling Objects

This subtest is typically used to see if a person would be a good fit for mechanical, electronic, or similarly skilled jobs. Its purpose is to assess your ability to visualize three-dimensional objects that have been broken down into their component pieces. Using a drawing of a disassembled object and four pictures, you are to choose the picture that depicts what the object should look like when it is properly assembled.

What do my ASVAB scores mean and how are they used?

The score that matters most when you’re enlisting is the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) score. Your AFQT score is based upon the four subtests covering language arts and mathematics: Paragraph Comprehension, Word Knowledge, Arithmetic Reasoning, and Mathematics Knowledge. Each branch of the military has its own minimum AFQT score required to enlist. Note that if you have a GED instead of a high school diploma, your required minimum score will be significantly higher. Here’s how to read ASVAB scores: your raw score is the converted into a percentile score, which tells you what percent of test-takers you scored better than. Here are the ASVAB requirements for each of the six branches of the U.S. military:

Military Branch Req. AFQT Score Min. w/GED
Air Force 36 65
Army 31 50
Coast Guard 40 50
Marines 32 50
National Guard 31 50
Navy 35 50

If you have met the minimum AFQT requirement, your ASVAB scores will be used to measure your academic achievement, assess your ability to learn through future training, and determine specific job qualifications. Your Academic Ability Composite score indicates your potential for further education based upon your capacity for verbal and mathematical activities. Composite scores from various subtests are used to create your Military Careers score, which helps recruits determine their chances of qualifying for various occupations within the Armed Forces. You can find lots of information on www.military.com about career paths based on Military Careers scores.

Keep in mind that you must meet the AFQT minimum before the recruiter will even consider the rest of your ASVAB scores. If you don’t score well enough on Paragraph Comprehension, Word Knowledge, Arithmetic Reasoning, and Mathematics Knowledge, you won’t be able to enlist.

How do I take the ASVAB?

The first step is to contact a military recruiter. Once your recruiter determines that you are otherwise qualified, he or she will set up a time for you to take the ASVAB at the nearest MET site or at the closest MEPS.

You are allowed to retake the test if your AFTQ score is below the minimum, but you must wait 30 days after taking the ASVAB the first time. If you don’t clear the minimum the second time around, you can take it again in another 30 days. After that, however, you will have to wait six months to take it again. Scores remain on a potential enlistee’s record for two years.

If you surpass the minimum AFQT score and think you could have done better, you will need to appeal to your recruiter, as retakes are generally not permitted for the sole purpose of improving your ASVAB score. Some branches allow retesting if something unusual happens during the test, and the Navy permits retesting if there is evidence of improvement in education or language ability, or if the test-taker desires to qualify for a specific job. In such situations, though, your recruiter has the ultimate authority to determine if a retest should be allowed.

How can I prepare most effectively for the ASVAB?

Because of the wide range of subject matter on the ASVAB, every student should prep for the test to some degree. There is a host of good ASVAB test prep sources out there, both in print and online. One nice feature to look for is ready-made flash cards, which are sold either by themselves or as part of a prep book. Make sure you include prep sources that include ASVAB practice tests. Remember that no matter how much you work on being familiar with content, the most important element of your preparation will be working on those practice tests.

Since the AFQT score is the one that qualifies you to enlist in the military, you would certainly benefit from the guidance of an expert tutor who can get you ready for the Paragraph Comprehension, Word Knowledge, Arithmetic Reasoning, and Mathematics Knowledge sections. Since the ASVAB is a fully multiple-choice test, strong test-taking skills are of utmost importance. Having access to a tutor will give you the edge you need by teaching you the necessary content and strategies to pass the ASVAB and qualify for the Armed Forces.