Believe it or not, summer before junior is a great time to plan out standardized tests. Even though most college admissions officers will admit that standardized test scores are more of a reflection on a family’s income than they are a predictor of future success in college, they are still a key piece to the college admissions process. They are necessary for colleges to level the playing field between high schools and their varying curriculums, as well as distinguish between similar applicants.
Every year more colleges are becoming Test Optional, including the recent announcement from the University of Chicago, but I still recommend that students take the test(s). Test Optional does not mean that you don’t have to send in any test scores; colleges often require SAT Subject Test scores, AP or IB tests or the IB Diploma in lieu of the scores. Other schools require extra writing samples or letters of recommendation. And some schools, like the University of Chicago, still expect students with financial means to take the tests. Check out the Test Optional link above to examine each Test Optional School’s requirements.
In general, the better standardized test scores a student has, the more options they have and they more merit aid they can qualify for (at schools that give merit aid). Some test optional or test flexible schools still require standardized tests for scholarship consideration. If you find that, even with diligent preparation, standardized tests do not accurately reflect your best efforts and abilities, then you can consider other strategies, including applying test optional.
When to test prep depends on the student and when they begin the college planning process. Some students take an initial test the summer before their junior year, others might wait until 2nd-semester junior year to prep and take their first exam, but these students should be aware of AP and IB test dates and final exams that could conflict with test preparation. Most students take 2-3 standardized tests (either the SAT or ACT or both) between the end of their sophomore year and winter break senior year. After the 3rd test, studies have shown scores do not improve much, and continually taking the test could just add stress or negatively impact your admissions. However, a good test prep plan includes many practice tests. Practice tests help you feel more comfortable with the timing, as well as the material being tested. Click here for more tips on test taking (or here for tips on the SAT specifically).
Having one to two tests under your belt before summer of your senior year helps you put together a realistic college list, and lets you work on some or all of your college essays over the summer, instead of cramming them in during your busy fall. Please read here for more advice on when a student might be ready for the ACT or SAT based on the high school coursework they have taken. Continue reading
Although few schools require them, and only a small percentage of college applicants will submit them, Subject Tests can help high scorers set themselves apart from other applicants by submitting them.
SAT Subject Tests include more than 20 different tests focusing on specific disciplines, such as English, history and the social sciences, mathematics, physical sciences, and foreign languages. These are tests that are only required or recommended from a few colleges but are options for all students to strengthen their applications or highlight skills in a particular subject area. Each subject test lasts 1 hour and consists entirely of multiple-choice questions.
What is the difference between the SAT (or ACT) and SAT Subject Tests?
The SAT (and ACT) is a college entrance exam, testing what students learn in classrooms and how well they apply that knowledge. Its reading/writing and math sections are based on the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed for college success. SAT Subject Tests focus on a single subject and indicates a student’s readiness to take college-level courses in that subject.
How Colleges Use Subject Tests
Some colleges value the Subject Tests as a key indicator of college readiness for specific programs. For example, UC Berkeley “recommends Math Level 2 and a science Subject Test for its Chemistry and Engineering colleges;” UC Irvine “recommends Math Level 2 and a science for its engineering, pharmaceutical and physical sciences schools;” and UCLA “recommends math Level 2 and a science test for its School of Engineering and Applied Science.” Many colleges require or recommend Subject Tests to strengthen applications, and some also use them for course placement and even for credit.
Who Should Take Subject Tests
- Applicants considering colleges that require, recommend or consider SAT Subject Tests for all applicants or to apply to specific programs or majors.
- Students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) majors: Subject Tests are the only high school level national admission tests that assess a student’s grasp of fundamental scientific concepts and his or her ability to apply that knowledge.
- Students whose best language is not exclusively English: These students can demonstrate achievement in other languages or in areas that are not as reliant on the mastery of English.
- Many students can benefit from taking SAT Subject Tests to highlight their knowledge of a specific subject or subjects. SAT Subject Tests can help students spotlight their academic strengths and get an edge in college admissions.
- Students who would like to demonstrate knowledge obtained outside a traditional classroom environment (e.g., summer enrichment, distance learning, weekend study, etc.).
- To place out of certain classes in college. Many colleges use Subject Tests to advise students or help with course placement. Other schools allow students to place out of introductory courses or gain credit based on their performance on certain Subject Tests. (For example, Subject Tests can also be used to fulfill subject-based competency requirements for large university systems like the University of California and the University of Arizona.)
- For most of you, Subject Tests are completely optional, and in light of the stress most students feel about the SAT and ACT, it is perfectly reasonable to not take Subject Tests. However, you should know it is an option and one you might consider even if not required, to highlight your strength in a subject, or to make your application stronger.
When Should I Take the Tests?