For decades, the SAT General Test (now just referred to simply as the SAT) has ignited fear and anxiety in the hearts of college-bound high school students across the globe. There are countless news articles and op-eds about everything from the well-documented achievement gap between affluent and less-affluent students to the varied, illicit stunts some test-takers pull each year in order to attempt to secure top scores. In short, the SAT is a big deal, and everyone knows it. Get a high score and your chances at gaining admission to an elite school will invariably increase. If, on the other hand, you don’t do so hot, you’ll have a glaring deficiency to make up for elsewhere on your application.
Given all of the hoopla over the SAT, you might expect that the SAT Subject Tests, its pesky little cousins, would receive similar attention. But a cursory perusal of education headlines or a conversation with your average well-intentioned, high-achieving college applicant reveals that this is simply not so. In the seemingly unending shuffle of teacher rec letters, extracurricular activities, and artistic supplements, the Subject Tests, at least in our experience, can get sort of lost. Is that because they really aren’t all that important — at least when compared to the flashy General Test?
Not a chance.
Much to many of our clients’ surprise, we recommend that serious applicants to top 20 schools take a minimum of three SAT Subject Tests. Even if a school recommends but does not require the Subject Tests, and even if a school is completely test-optional, we find that elite colleges and universities want to see these scores, and they want them to be incredibly competitive (think 750+ as a general rule, but obviously, the closer to 800 the better).
Think about it. The SAT General Test has long been touted as a way to level the playing field among students from countless high schools with different grading procedures. But everyone (well, most people) know that the SAT does little to promote fairness in the college application process, and top schools are increasingly cluing into this fact, as well. The SAT is incredibly coachable, meaning that students who have access to quality tutoring will likely do pretty well. So while the test may provide a quick, rudimentary portrait of a student’s general abilities on a given day, it cannot and does not measure one’s innate and absolute quantitative and verbal skills.
The Subject Tests are a little different. Instead of attempting to measure broad areas of ability, they focus on specific fields of knowledge. So if you are an admissions officer at Example University and you want to compare student A and student B, both of whom made A+ grades in AP Chemistry and received raving letters of rec from their teachers, the Subject Test scores provide a decent way of doing that. And if student A received a 780, whereas student B received a 680, you can imagine which candidate the admissions committee would guess has a better grasp on the material and is probably more prepared for college-level organic chemistry courses. On the other hand, if student B had seen his or her score report, decided (rightfully, for elite schools) that a 680 was too low to be competitive, and simply not sent in any Subject Tests at all, that wouldn’t be much better. In that case, admissions officers are simply left without the one piece of information that can actually shed light on a student’s ability and preparedness in a national context.Hopefully, we’ve convinced you by now that the Subject Tests are well worth taking seriously. While top-notch extracurricular activities and inspired essays are great, too, at the end of the day, you’re applying to an academic institution. As such, your academic credentials will always come first. The SAT Subject Tests provide one of the best opportunities to bolster your profile in this category — so crack open a prep book or two and get on it.