Come spring, standardized testing begins to take on even bigger proportions than usual. Junior year is wrapping up, and some students are considering re-testing for the SAT or ACT for a second — or even third time. AP exams are popping up everywhere on the student calendar, and there there are those SAT Subject Tests (until recently known as SAT IIs) to consider. Of the all these college-related exams, which take precedence? Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” standard in college admissions, it all depends…
What Are SAT Subject Tests?
Parents may recall that “back in the day,” strong students typically sat for academically-focused Achievement Tests designed to assess a student’s command of academic knowledge. The College Board, owner and publisher of the SAT, years back retired the Achievement Tests and re-introduced these knowledge-based exams that are known today as SAT Subject Tests.
Similar to the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests are one-hour, multiple choice exams that are designed to test student knowledge and analytical skill in a variety of academic areas, including math, science, literature, history and foreign language.
The overall trend in recent years has seen many colleges shifting away from requiring the SAT Subject Tests. Instead, colleges are focusing their application reviews on admissions factors that they consider to be more strongly indicative of student potential for college success, primarily high school course rigor; grades earned in these classes; and SAT and/or ACT scores. As result, only about 35 colleges require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, while a number of others consider the results. Keep in mind, however, that even if a college’s overall policy is to not require Subject Tests, certain programs within the college, especially in STEM fields, may.
Why Should My Student Consider Taking SAT Subject Tests?
If few schools require these tests, why still plan to take them? For the student who wants to showcase a particular academic strength, preparing for and taking a Subject Test may provide an opportunity to highlight his application relative to others in the pool of applicants. This approach is even more applicable if the student is unenrolled in AP level courses but still wishes to demonstrate depth of knowledge.
Homeschooled students often elect to take Subject Tests in order to demonstrate the strength of their chosen curriculum as well as provide additional data points to Admissions. One very academically-focused homeschooler I worked with years back had his eye on several highly selective colleges. As he worked through his challenging, home-based course work, Subject Tests were never far in the background.
For students planning college work in a technical field, such as engineering or biomedical science for example, even if the college does not specifically require submission of Subject Tests, a strong Math II or science score may potentially help set the applicant apart from others coming in with similarly strong high school math and science curriculum and grades.
When Should My Student Take a Subject Test?
Once a student has completed the highest level subject area coursework she is likely to pursue in high school, then it is time to consider sitting for Subject Tests while the material is still feels fresh. In contrast, if the student will be later learning essential material through a higher sequence course, then it is best to wait until the student has more fully acquired the material before approaching the exam. Since high school class content is unlikely to fully encompass all that is covered in the Subject Test, students should take the time to review gaps in their knowledge and fill in accordingly.
TIP! The College Board offers FREE review material posted online.
For the sake of sanity, remember to keep the focus and make a great testing plan. In other words, students cannot take SAT Subject Tests on the same day as the SAT (truly, that would require an inhumane number of hours in a testing center!) There are only so many hours in high schooler’s day: Should time constraints come down to one testing choice or the other, it would probably be more important to focus on posting a solid SAT or ACT score rather than hyper-focusing on Subject Tests.
Note that the Subject Tests are scaled and “curved” by individual subject, meaning that score percentiles for Spanish vs. Math II vs. even the SAT itself are very different. In the case of a disappointing score, a student may have the option to hold back scores through the College Board’s Score Choice option and not release them to colleges. Students, however, need to verify individual college's policies around use of Score Choice.
To Test or Not to Test
Deciding whether or not to prepare for Subject Tests should be based on several factors. Students should consider their interest in the topic; command of the material as evidenced through class grades as well as a sample SAT Subject Test; and the time and motivation to study the material that may fall into the gap between what the high school class provides and what the test requires.
At many colleges, the ACT may (but not always) stand in as a single substitute for the SAT plus two Subject Tests - but it is essential to consult each college’s specific testing requirements.
Even if a student prefers to take the ACT instead of the SAT, he may still desire to showcase his subject knowledge by scoring high on a Subject Test.
A Final Word
I advise my students to have a go with Subject Test(s) if they have:
* a strong command of material in an academic area and
Throughout the college process, when you have something worthwhile to share then don't hold back. While it’s great to shoot for high Subject Test scores, these won’t trump doing one's best by posting strong SAT or ACT results and achieving good grades in solid courses.
* the time and energy necessary to shore up any missing subject knowledge such that prepping will not siphon away time from other important student commitments.
Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com