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Everything You Need to Know About SAT Subject Tests

College process Boca Raton, FlShould you take the SAT Subject Test? Back in my day… we walked both ways uphill to school. Yes, despite the physics, we made it happen. There were no laptops in classrooms then, no internet for instant answers, and we watched good ol’ MTV when we came home.

Okay, so this is partly schoolhouse myth. And “back in my day” wasn’t so long ago. Point is, the life of a student has changed a lot in recent years. Some things have gotten easier, while some things are more challenging.

As I’m sure you know, college prep testing is one of those things that’s considerably more stressful today. When I went to school, college applications were simple and straightforward. You needed good grades, that was given. And you needed a solid SAT subject tests scores, preferably in the ballpark of say … 1600. Beyond these displays of smarts and hard work, universities were satisfied.

But things have a way of changing. As the number of students applying for colleges increased in the late 1990s, tuitions started to rise and competition increased. Colleges became more selective and pressures mounted on those trying to get into to top schools.

In 2005, the SAT added an essay section. Soon after, SAT Subject Tests became a widespread aspect of college applications, a new measure for identifying the worthiest applicants. With expectations on the rise, college applications were becoming quite the nightmare.

And then things have changed yet again. Within the last decade, many colleges have dropped their requirements for SAT Subject Test, also called the SAT II or SAT Achievement Tests. The hour-long multiple choice exams are taken separately from the main SAT test, covering some 20 subjects such as math, writing, and a variety of foreign languages. But these once crucial component of college admissions at many top institutions are becoming less and less standard. In fact, their popularity is plummeting. But they’re not gone altogether. You’ve probably wondered.

Do you need to prepare or can you forgo this round of exams?

Read on as we discuss everything you need to know about today’s SAT subject tests. We’ll cover which colleges require the SAT subject tests scores, why they’re becoming so unpopular, and how to use these conditions to your advantage during your application process.

Let’s learn!

Why are SAT Subject Tests Fading?

Prepare for SAT Subject Tests in Boca Raton, FL

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The National Center for Fair & Open Testing found that the number of students taking the SAT Subject Tests has fallen 23% over the last decade.

The trend to drop SAT subject tests started in the University of California education system. A 2009 decision to drop these test requirements immediately affected over 200,000 incoming freshmen in California school system. After observing the change inside the huge California system, other universities such as Columbia University and Dartmouth College soon followed suit. These days, a wide swath of higher education institutions such as Williams College, Duke University, and Vassar College no longer require students to submit SAT Subject tests.

Why the change?

“We want to make the application process as fair to all students as possible. “We felt like we weren’t getting any valuable data from the SAT II scores to help us.” Mary Dettloff, spokeswoman for Williams College

The University of California was the first to voice this opinion. The administration declared that the tests created difficulty for low-income students and therefore denied highly qualified students an opportunity to higher education. To register for the SAT Subject Test date, it costs $26. Then another $20 per test taken, and up to three tests may be taken in a single day. Some colleges will assess additional fees for the application.

Unlike their wealthier peers, low-income students often haven’t been advised to (or how to) prepare for these tests, and thus find themselves at a disadvantage to them during the application process. This inequality aligns with a widely-held view that standardized testing is oftentimes an indicator of socioeconomic status and school environment – rather than student ability. University of California officials decided that subject tests weren’t adding much value during the process of evaluating applicants. High school grades and standard SAT results were sufficient.

SAT prep in Boca Raton, FL

Image credit College Board

Why does this matter?

“Admissions offices have recognized the SAT Subject Tests contribute to a standardized exam overkill,” says Bob Schaeffer, Fairtest Public Education director. “Requiring them excluded many otherwise qualified applicants.”

Some universities call these tests “unnecessary barriers” to accessing higher education. For colleges looking to cultivate the best selection of hard working students, tests were not shown to forecast students’ college performance, only an ability to take tests.

According to the Columbia Undergraduate Admissions policy site:

“Standardized tests are simply one component of our holistic admissions review, in which quantitative credentials are assessed within the broader context of an applicant’s interests, background, personal qualities and accomplishments.  We hope the increased flexibility with our application will ease some of the stress students may feel when going through the college admissions process.”

If more testing isn’t important, what is most important?

High school grades are the best indicator of college performance, says Schaeffer.

Many cite the College Board’s introduction of the essay portion into the main SAT in 2005 as the first step towards the downward trend in subject tests. With the addition of the essay portion, the organization dropped the subject writing test in 2006. But as of its 2015 redesign, the College Board made the essay portion of the SAT optional.

Overall, the decreases in students taking the tests has cut into the College Board’s bottom line. The decline of some 200,000 test takers at the $26 registration cost and $20 exam cost, plus scoring and reports fees, has cost the organization an estimated $6 million in annual revenues.

When Should You Test?

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While tests are no longer required at many schools, they are still optional, and oftentimes recommended. What does that mean for you?

If you expect to score well, you should take the subject tests.

“You would be misguided to think that strong scores on the tests won’t help you.” –Adam Ingersoll, Compass Education Group

Yes, it can’t hurt to submit strong scores, especially if they’re aligned with your interests and your major. Being able to demonstrate your qualifications to top schools is well worth the effort in an ever-more competitive admissions climate.

“While SAT subject tests are not required, some campuses recommend that freshman applicants interested in competitive majors take the tests to demonstrate subject proficiency.”  

“Remember, these are recommendations, not mandates. You will not be penalized for failing to take the SAT subject tests. On the other hand, submission of these test scores (just like submission of [Advanced Placement] and/or [International Baccalaureate] scores) may add positively to the review of your application.” — University of California, Office of Admissions

According to a 2015 report from the National Association of College Admission Counseling, between 4-7% percent of colleges do attach “considerable importance” to the SAT Subject Tests. For example, elite schools such as Harvard and MIT still value these results and have no plans to drop the requirement. Officials at both institutions consider the exams as an equalizer, a means of measuring students from different high schools.

But these are the few remainders. In 2015, the NACAC found that 70% of schools said subject tests have “no importance” in admissions. Given this downward trend, many experts foresee that subject tests will eventually disappear altogether – especially since dropping standardized testing requirements is beneficial for colleges. Without additional testing requirements, schools tend to receive more applications, which drives the percentage of accepted students down, and thereby increases their “selective” appeal. Colleges also gain from additional application fees.

Read here for a complete list showing the institutions that require, recommend, consider, or suggest an alternative to tests when considering your application.

Bottom line.

Closing the Book

If you’ve felt that whether or not to take SAT Subject Tests was like blind guessing on multiple choice, you’re not alone. With the state of testing in flux, many students and parents are questioning if to enroll in specific tests for their admissions at various colleges. As we’ve seen here, the national trend indicates that most schools do not require you to submit to SAT Subject Tests, though most will accept and review them as proof of merit. Some prestigious institutions still require them, so be sure to check.

If you’re confident in your abilities to score well – or willing to study hard to outperform other test takers – it’s to your competitive advantage to submit SAT Subject Test results. As the number of students applying for higher education increases, those who can demonstrate good grades, solid standard SAT scores, extracurricular – plus subject test scores fields of interest – will stand out from the rest. Whether or not you choose to submit these tests, coordinate your efforts well ahead of time for best results. To take charge of the college process, prior planning prevents poor performance – and preparation precedes success.


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Jennifer McKenzieEverything You Need to Know About SAT Subject Tests