Test Prep Priorities: SAT/ACT Essay and SAT Subject Tests

November 26, 2019 

Applying to college can be stressful. Fortunately, recent changes to SAT/ACT Essay and SAT Subject Test requirements have simplified the process for most students. The SAT/ACT Essay and the SAT Subject tests are now required by only a small number of schools, giving many students the chance to focus on SAT or ACT test prep or to take only the tests guaranteed to highlight their strengths. Although it is always a good idea to verify what the schools on your list of preferred colleges want from applicants, there are some general guidelines to consider as you plan ahead.

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The ACT introduced its new Writing test in 2015, and the SAT followed in 2016 when it launched its redesigned test. Since then, these tests have largely been abandoned as admissions requirements, as one writing sample cannot reliably predict a student’s college performance. Less than a dozen college or college systems (such as the University of California system) still require the SAT/ACT essay. In its place, some schools are starting to require students to submit a graded writing sample, while about 15 other competitive colleges have decided simply to recommend applicants submit their SAT/ACT essay scores. So, how do you decide if you should take the SAT/ACT Essay?

First, visit the College Board’s Essay Policies page or the ACT’s information page to search a full listing of schools. If even just one of your top choices is on the list, take the essay. When in doubt, play it safe. If you are not sure where you intend to apply (or it is possible your preferences could change), then take the SAT/ACT Essay. You may ultimately decide to apply to a college that requires it. Therefore, it would be wise to cover your bases, especially since you must take a full SAT to take the Essay.

What if the essay is recommended but not required? If a college recommends submitting an SAT/ACT Essay score, consider it a necessity. Only think twice about taking a recommended essay test if you are reasonably sure you could underperform (under 14 out of 24 on the SAT or under 7 out of 12 on the ACT). If you believe it would be difficult for you to earn a competitive score on the essay, focusing on test prep without the essay is going to be the best use of your time. Essay scores should highlight an area of strength. So, if you are a good writer, the essay is a great opportunity to show off.

SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests are standardized tests covering 20 subjects. Only the most competitive schools still require SAT Subject Tests, which are designed to give students another way to demonstrate their achievement in a particular subject. Although similar to AP tests, SAT Subject tests are neither associated with a specific curriculum nor linked as closely with placement in college courses. These tests are much shorter (1 hour) and are more straightforward multiple choice tests. Like the SAT, each subject test is scored from 200-800 points.

Since SAT Subject Tests are a significant factor in admissions for 20 schools, only a small number of students should worry about taking them. Selective colleges that still consider subject test scores have found they can provide “helpful and predictive” information about prospective students. To find out if you should take one of these tests, refer to the College Board’s information page and review requirements and recommendations for schools on your college list. As always, contact the colleges directly for their most accurate and updated policies.

One of the most confusing things about SAT Subject Tests is deciphering what it means if a school recommends but does not require subject test scores. MIT, for example, requires students submit a math score and a science score. While other Ivy League schools, such as Princeton and Stanford, only recommend students submit two scores. Many honors programs, including The University of Delaware, also strongly recommend applicants take SAT Subject Tests. For all of these schools, the best rule to follow is to interpret recommendations as requirements. And, if you have the option to choose which tests to take, always choose those that match your strengths and any advanced courses you will have completed by the test date.

Bottom Line

Both the SAT/ACT Essay and SAT Subject Tests have become less important to the college application process. That’s good news! With so much testing and other demands on students’ time and energy, fewer tests means devoting yourself to other activities that will enhance your chances of getting into your dream school. So, verify whether you will need to take the SAT/ACT Essay and/or any SAT Subject Tests. Then, decide on a test prep plan that not only fulfills all admission requirements, but that also gives you the greatest opportunity to highlight your strengths. Don’t take chances! If you don’t have a clearly defined college list, or want to keep your options open, taking one or both of these tests will ensure you will be prepared for anything.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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