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Prepping for AP Exams and Subject Tests

It’s the winter of your junior year… you’ve just got your first quarter of grades and you’re absolutely killing AP bio!  You won’t start reviewing for AP exams in school until the spring, but that doesn’t mean you should put off thinking about them until then.  The spring of your junior year can get pretty cluttered with AP exams, SAT or ACT administrations, and SAT subject tests, so you don’t want to get caught off guard.  

For students who are currently enrolled in APs, we recommend pushing the SAT or ACT prep timeline forward, so that way you’re done before the Spring of junior year.  The reason for this is twofold. First, hours long AP tests could lead to test fatigue, so we want to avoid “overtesting” at all costs. Second, students enrolled in APs might also want to consider SAT subject tests.  SAT subject tests are offered on the days of the May and June SAT administrations. You’ll only be able to take one or the other (i.e. you’ll have to choose between the SAT and the subject tests), so make sure you’ve made plans regarding SAT test dates ahead of time.

What is an SAT subject test? How is it different from an AP exam?

Both types of exams are offered by the College Board and give students the opportunity to showcase specialized knowledge in a specific subject. However, they differ in their purpose. SAT subject scores are helpful for college applications, while AP scores are helpful once you’ve already been admitted. 

SAT subject tests are college admissions exams that allow students to demonstrate their strengths in a certain subject area. They are about an hour long and are offered periodically throughout the year on days when the SAT is administered. They are scored from 200-800.

AP exams are tests taken by students each May after a student has taken an Advanced Placement course. They consist of both free response and multiple choice questions. They aren’t ever required for college applications, though many request that you report your scores if you’ve taken an AP exam.  You will need to send an official AP score report once you’ve chosen a college so they can evaluate your AP scores for credit. They are scored from 1-5.

Why they’re important

AP exams are important because they give students the opportunity to earn college credit. Depending on the college, scoring high on an AP exam can allow you to opt out of a class or be placed into a higher level class. Even if you opt not to take the exam after taking the class, having AP courses on your transcript shows rigor in a student’s schedule.  AP classes can show college admission officers that you are ready for and can succeed in college.

SAT subject tests are somewhat less important to college admissions, especially for colleges that do not require them.  Most colleges do not require subject tests, although some do and others recommend them. Scoring well on SAT subject tests can also be a great way to show skill and interest that might not otherwise be apparent. 

Ultimately, neither AP scores nor SAT subject test scores will have a huge bearing on your admissions decisions, but they could be helpful supplementary materials that provide an additional opportunity to show your stuff!  So if you’re a competitive applicant applying to selective colleges, they might be one more differentiating factor that colleges can consider.

How you can study for both at the same time

There’s quite a bit of overlap for AP Exams and Subject tests, so much so that studying for one can improve performance on the other. If you are taking an AP exam in the spring, it’s definitely worth considering taking a subject test around the same time in the corresponding subject area.  We’d recommend taking the May or June SAT subject tests so that way you’re AP studying is still fresh in your head.

So, should I take SAT subject tests?  

The answer here is going to be very personalized.  We’ve included a list of colleges that either require or recommend SAT subject tests below.  If you’re interested in any colleges that require SAT subject tests, then you’re application will be considered incomplete without scores on file.

For colleges that recommend SAT subject test scores, we recommend only submitting competitive scores.  This begs the question: what is considered competitive for SAT subject tests? Generally speaking, a score of 700+ is considered solid on most SAT subject tests.  There are exceptions to this rule, like the SAT Math II subject test, where even a perfect score of 800 is just 78th percentile! If you are applying to competitive engineering programs, your Math 2 score will be scrutinized and a perfect score will be significant for admissions.

All in all, skip the SAT subject tests if you can’t score a 700 or higher.  Conversely, if you’re rocking your AP class, then give yourself another opportunity to show your strengths by getting a killer SAT subject test score.

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