You’ve probably heard a lot about Advanced Placement (AP) exams and the SAT subject tests (formerly known as the SAT II), but may still feel a bit confused about the differences. In general, AP tests have nothing to do with college admissions. They’re used to determine if you will receive college credit for the tests you passed.
AP tests are scored 1 to 5 (or 1 to 6, depending on the test), and although a score of 3 is considered passing, some schools require a 4 or 5 for you to receive college credit. SAT subject tests, on the other hand, are often required or strongly recommended when applying to some of the more selective colleges.
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Those that require the tests typically request that you take two to three subject tests, such as math, writing and a third of your choosing. All scores must be released to the schools to which you are applying in order to determine admissions and/or for course placement. The AP exams offer a great opportunity to earn college credits before you even start. Gaining AP credits will help lessen your course burden in college.
However, having AP credits doesn’t affect your admission into college (although having successfully taken AP courses is considered in determining your admission). SAT subject tests, on the other hand, can affect your admission chances at the schools which require them. Those schools also may use the subject tests for course placement and to advise about course selection.
Except for Studio Art and Music Theory, all AP exams have multiple-choice questions and an essay or problem-solving section. All SAT subject tests have multiple-choice questions with no essays. The good news is that you can retake both tests. (But note that the AP exams are only given once a year in May, while most SAT subject tests are given throughout the year.) Colleges will see all your scores, but most will use only your highest on each test.
Don’t stress too much about the SAT subject tests. Like school finals, these are knowledge-based tests, so if you got good grades in these subjects, you’ll probably do fine with just a little refresher study before the exams. If you’re not applying to any schools that require them, don’t bother to take them.
If you read what most teens suggest on the test message boards focusing on social media and college admissions, the best advice is to take the AP exam first (in May of your junior year), followed soon after by the SAT subject tests (which many claim are much easier). The reason is that you’ll then only have to study once (with maybe a refresher. There are even SAT/ACT test prep apps that you can use that may boost your scores). However, you may want to consider taking the AP tests in May of your senior year when you’ve got an entire year of knowledge under your belt.
You can also take the SAT subject tests at the beginning of your senior year (but don’t take it later than that or else the colleges to which you’re applying may not see the scores before they make their admission decision). Also, if you’re planning on taking the AP tests in May of your junior year, you might want to take the SAT subjects tests at the same time. Remember that you may forget a lot while you’re having fun over the summer!