Updated: Mar 5, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major shifts in the American educational landscape. For some students and universities, existing trends have been vastly accelerated, leading to new experiments in admissions and education. For other students and universities, the changes have been unforeseen, leading to the need for rapid adjustment.
Due to the nature of the COVID crisis, it was impossible to continue running not only normal, in-person classes, but also college admissions tests in the usual way. Most recently comes the announcement from the College Board regarding the cancellation of SAT Subject Tests and the previously optional SAT Essay. Many of our students and parents have been affected by this decision, and we are eager to address some of their most pressing questions. We plan to host an open town hall in February and give everyone a chance to ask our team questions live! Remember, some of these changes will affect international and American students differently, so there may not be a single, universal answer to all questions!
So first, what are the SAT Subject Tests? What application components have been cancelled? What is changing?
SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II’s), were designed to give all students the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in a particular subject area. Universities relied on these scores for admissions, as they were a good uniform metric of preparedness for college courses. This was especially relevant for students who could not similarly demonstrate knowledge with grades from classes in well-known high schools: SAT Subject Tests were originally intended especially to benefit students from rural areas, inner city, homeschooled students, and international students. On January 19, 2021, the College Board discontinued SAT Subject Tests in the United States, and will discontinue them internationally after the June 2021 round of testing.
The other major change from the College Board was the cancellation of the optional component of the SAT test: the Essay. The essay was required by very few institutions - most prominently the University of California system (Berkeley, UCLA, etc.) - but, for most students not applying to these institutions, the optional essay has long been a disadvantageous option. In short, we are happy to see it go! The basic SAT, now, will only consist of two Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (English) sections, plus two math sections (with and without calculator). Despite causing some confusion, the optional SAT essay was just a section of this particular test that will no longer be available: essays as such are still a major part of the college admissions process in the United States. As testing is reevaluated - a trend hastened by COVID - application essays are more important than ever for many institutions!
Wait, so the SAT Subject Tests are still offered this May/June? Is it worth taking them?
We know that many students (and parents) invested a great deal of time and resources into preparing for the SAT Subject Tests. There is no reason to let that go to waste! Although some universities no longer require test scores as part of their admissions process, most still at least give the option to submit them. Our team doesn’t anticipate that changing in the next 2-3 years, so if you previously intended to take the SAT Subject Tests for the 2021-2022 application season and have already begun preparation, we recommend that you continue preparation and aim to take your tests in May and June. If you have not registered yet, the registration deadlines are April 8th for the May administration and May 6th for the June administration.
How can I demonstrate proficiency in a particular subject now that SAT Subject Tests are no longer offered?
If you were planning on taking SAT Subject Tests at some point in the future - either for a future application season or for the 2021-2022 season but will not have time to prepare by June - there are many other tests you can still take! Depending on your location, some of these options may be more or less accessible to you. The most common examinations that serve a similar purpose to SAT Subject Tests in allowing for subject proficiency demonstration are IB subject tests, GCSE/IGCSE tests, and AP tests. To avoid confusion by obscure acronyms, we will focus on one of these - the AP or Advanced Placement tests that are dominantly used in the United States. Our team recommends this as a first choice alternative to SAT Subject Tests, since APs are native to American education, while IB/GCSE/IGCSE are more common in Europe and the UK.
Let’s dig in! What are AP Tests? How are they scored?
The announcement from the College Board itself stated preference for AP Tests as the reason for cancelling SAT Subject Tests. AP (Advanced Placement) is a curriculum program that guarantees a standard advanced level of instruction at a supporting institution - like your high school. The AP Examination comes at the end of the course, which is why AP tests are only administered in May, unlike the SAT Subject Tests, which are administered several times a year. The AP exams themselves are also very different from the familiar SAT format. Each subject exam is split into two sections: a multiple choice part, and a free response part. The most challenging aspect for most students is the free response component of the exam: for many subjects, this means writing out essays or solutions by hand. Those are later scored by human AP graders, not machines.
There are a few core advantages to AP exams, however. Students have the option to choose from 34 different subjects, in contrast to the 20 offered by SAT Subject Tests. AP tests represent a wider range of disciplines, including AP Macroeconomics, AP Computer Science, AP Environmental Science, and AP 3D Art and Design. Find the full list here. Further, although this entirely new test format may seem daunting, rest assured, as the tests are scored holistically. The final scaled score is from 1 to 5, denoting the grade you would obtain if you were to take the equivalent course at a university. For instance, 5 is reserved for “extremely well-qualified” students, who are certain to get an A or A+, and thus deserve to receive college credit on the basis of this examination. 3 (or C/C+) is the minimum passing grade for many universities in order to receive credit, but many require you to score a 4 or a 5. This system is challenging for American students, but is likely to be advantageous for Europeans, due to the familiar 1-5 scoring metric and requirement of written-out solutions rather than just multiple choice.
Can you study for an AP exam without taking the class?
On the one hand, yes! It is possible! On the other hand, it is more challenging than doing so for SAT Subject Tests. The exams often cover much more material than is typically covered in the subject area in high school, as it is intended to be equivalent to a university level course, as opposed to a university readiness course like SAT Subject Tests. Additionally, the corresponding course usually trains you to answer questions in the AP exam format.
Deciding whether you can take the AP exam without taking the AP-designated class can be determined by evaluating: (a) whether you already took the subject at your school and (b) your performance on a diagnostic test. In rare cases, it is possible to prepare for the exam entirely independently, especially if you have already taken an advanced course on the topic at school. However, in most cases, we recommend the support of a tutor who can fill in gaps and guide the student through the particular format of the AP exam.
Which APs are worth taking? How many are needed to get into top 20 schools?
The main goal of taking AP exams as part of the college admissions strategy is the same as for any other standardized test: to demonstrate proficiency and heightened interest in a particular subject area. However, there is an additional goal: to demonstrate that you took full advantage of your high school’s most difficult course offerings. In this spirit, students who have no AP courses available at their school will not be judged for not having the AP portfolio of a student whose high school offers many AP options! Nonetheless, if one is interested in going into business, AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics are excellent choices to consider. If interested in majoring in biochemistry, AP Biology and AP Chemistry would be a good addition to the application. Taking AP English and Composition would be a very strong demonstration of verbal and language skills, relevant for boosting the profile of all international students going into any major.
Among our students, the most popular SAT Subject Test has always been Mathematics Level 2. We anticipate that a desire to show advanced proficiency in mathematics will continue to be the single most important consideration to our families seeking to take subject-based tests, so we wanted to address this separately! The SAT Mathematics Subject Tests offered the opportunity to show knowledge of high school algebra and pre-calculus/math analysis. The corresponding AP choices are AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC and AP Statistics. Even though statistics and calculus are covered less frequently in international math curricula than topics in algebra and math analysis, these are definitely possible to prepare for independently outside of school, but getting a high score on these is much more likely to require close work alongside a tutor following a course program.
Since AP tests have previously not experienced mass attention from the international community, there is no existing way to evaluate how many are needed to be a competitive applicant. For domestic students, who have the option of going to schools with AP programs (and lots of AP classes/tests offered), it is common to take at least 3 AP classes over the course of their high school career. AP scores are only meant to help your application: not having them - as long as they are not offered in your school - will not have a negative impact.
Where can I take AP exams?
Even though they have not been as popular as SAT Subject Tests internationally, AP tests and courses are available at many international high schools. There is currently a possibility that AP tests will be administered online again, like last spring, but this decision will be made in early February. Unfortunately, the College Board is still in deliberations and has not yet issued an update on the current state of events. We anticipate that as AP exams increase in popularity outside of the United States, there will be even more convenient opportunities to take them in your home country.
How else can you demonstrate proficiency in a subject area?
The AP program is designated to offer students the opportunity to learn at the college level while still in high school. This reflects the long term shift in education towards longer, immersive educational experiences instead of one-off examinations. While AP tests provide an excellent short-term alternative to SAT Subject Tests in the current admissions process, in 3-5 years, more value will be assigned to taking the AP class instead of just passing the test. Our team recommends that in addition to test preparation, you consider applying for and participating in summer and academic-year enrichment and college credit experiences! Moreover, many college-level courses that you can take over the summer can adequately prepare you for taking the corresponding AP exam!