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by Vault Education Editors | February 23, 2010


Navigating the world of standardized testing is akin to navigating the many levels of Dante’s Inferno. With so many hellish and miserable choices, high school students often find taking the SAT, ACT and other necessary exams intimidating and confusing. However, with the right guidance and navigation, standardized testing can become a painless process. While every high school freshman has heard of the SAT and ACT, their lesser-known brethren, the SAT Subject Tests and APs, receive much less attention. Almost every college in the United States requires the SAT or ACT exam, and many students find themselves wondering if they should go the extra mile and complete the supplementary exams. What students don’t know is that these exams can bolster a college application and provide them with the skills necessary to succeed in the world of higher education.

SAT Subject Tests are achievement tests, meaning that they test you on individual subjects of your choice, as opposed to the SAT, which (in theory) gauges how will perform in the future. These short, often 60-minute tests, show a college your proficiency in a certain academic area. Biology, physics, American history and various languages are just some of the subjects found amongst the SAT Subject Tests. Most students choose to take these tests after completing a course or course series in the subject matter. The SAT Subject Tests tend to be tailored to honors and advanced curriculums, so students enrolled in basic classes might find them to be difficult. For instance, if a school offers Biology and Honors Biology, the student completing Honors Biology will most likely find himself prepared for the SAT Subject Test in biology, while the student taking regular Biology may need extra studying and tutoring.

Most Ivy League and other top schools require prospective freshmen to complete at least two or three SAT Subject Tests. Often, the number and subjects required correspond with one’s prospective major. For example, a math major may be required to take the math SAT Subject Test, while a physics student may be required to take the SAT Subject Test in physics. Schools ask for these exam results because the student's performance reflects his knowledge in a particular subject area, and doing well on these exams shows colleges that the student is strong in these fields.

Like SAT Subject Tests, AP exams are subject or achievement tests. They are most often administered at the culmination of an AP course, which means that a student may take an AP class during the year, and follow it up with an AP exam in May. These classes model college level courses and require A LOT of time and effort. AP exam topics vary more than the SAT Subject Test topics, and include everything from Chinese to music theory. The great thing about AP classes is that since they are usually modeled on college courses, many colleges will award college credit for high scores on AP exams. AP classes should only be taken by those willing to endure long hours of studying and hard work. Almost universally, AP students are working at an overall advanced level and take particular interest in their classes. The exams are scored from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest grade. Most colleges will accept a score of 3 or above--if you score below a 3, you should not submit your score. These tests usually include both multiple choice and writing sections; and the math and the science tests have questions involving theorems and formulas.

I think we all can agree that taking extra standardized tests are no fun. Nobody likes having to study long hours, and sit in front of mind-numbing Scranton sheets. That being said, these tests can be very valuable on a college application. Many students find aptitude tests like the SAT to be difficult, even when many of these students do well in school--they can maintain high GPAs but just can’t seem to do well on the SAT. SAT Subject Tests and AP exams are incredible ways of boosting a college application: If you didn’t do as well as you would have liked on your SATs, you can prove to colleges that you are capable of handling college-level material through your performance on these exams. Taking SAT Subject Test and AP exams also also teaches you how to study for college-level exams and you valuable time management skills. So, if I can leave you with one last thing, it would be to take as many AP classes and SAT Subject Tests as you can because when college application time comes rolling around, you will be thanking yourself.

-This is the first in a series about college admissions by Dan Greener. Dan is a graduating high school senior, heading to Cornell University in the fall. With his college application experience so fresh in his mind, he will provide honest insight into the life of the Class of 2014.


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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