By Natasha Zhou, translated by Charlene Chiu
Last month, CollegeBoard announced that they would be discontinuing the SAT Subject Tests and the optional SAT essay. For students in the US, this went into effect immediately: CollegeBoard refunded the fees and cancelled student registrations. For international students, CollegeBoard will offer two more Subject Tests in May and June 2021. While this move has certainly surprised the thousands of students who were preparing for the Subject Tests, it did not surprise colleges nor college admissions advisors. The writing has been on the wall for some time now as only a very small number of selective colleges were still requiring Subject Tests, and AP exams (also by CollegeBoard) have grown much more common.
First, a brief explanation on why CollegeBoard discontinued the Subject Tests and essay:
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education in the States has debated the need for standardized testing. In the past few years, the test-optional movement has gained momentum: George Washington University went test-optional in 2015, James Madison University in 2017, and the University of Chicago in 2018. Due to the pandemic, many of the Ivy Leagues have since implemented a test-optional policy for applicants in 2021. Experts have also predicted that colleges may become test-optional in the long term and that future admissions will place a higher emphasis on a student’s extracurricular activities, community involvement, and daily work. Combined with the fact that Subject Tests are widely considered redundant tools for assessing subject mastery and a decreasing number of students are taking them every year, it seems inevitable that CollegeBoard would cancel them.
For international students: Before we explain the effects of these cancellations, we want to first answer a question many international students are probably asking: should you still take the Subject Tests that you’ve registered for? As a rule of thumb, we don’t recommend going ahead and taking the test as they require a lot of time and preparation. Nonetheless, there are exceptions: if you’re taking AP classes, have already covered the majority of the content, are typically a good test-taker, and have already scored well on a practice test (indicating only needing limited additional study), then you should still take the SAT II tests.
This article will first analyze the 2 ways these CollegeBoard cancellations change things in college admissions and then give you 4 ways to take advantage of these changes.
Change #1: Increased emphasis on GPA
In the past, colleges evaluated students’ academic ability through their GPA, SAT/ACT score, and SAT Subject Tests scores. Without a Subject Test score, and with many colleges changing to be test-optional in light of the current pandemic, the measurement of a student’s academic ability will be shouldered by the student’s GPA.
Change #2: Need for essay alternatives
The SAT essay assesses a student’s skill in reading, writing, and analysis. The discontinuation means that students will need to find another way to show their writing and critical thinking skills. This may convince some students to take the ACT instead, where the optional essay is still offered. However, the structure of the ACT essay is different and will require further preparation. Without SAT essays to gauge student writing abilities, colleges will look elsewhere. This may result in a higher emphasis placed on English and writing grades in school, as well as the personal statement and supplemental essays.
Opportunity #1: Take care of your GPA
With increasing uncertainty surrounding the future of standardized tests, students should maintain their GPA and grades. They should focus on ensuring their classes have sufficient rigor and reserve the most challenging courses to subjects they care the most about. Not only does this help build a clearer profile for colleges, but it also helps students identify their future career paths. Students should take care not to spread their time and energy too thin.
Opportunity #2: Show off through your extracurriculars
For many families and students aiming for the most selective colleges, a perfect test score shows student proficiency in academics while extracurricular activities show students’ leadership abilities and care for their community. With test scores no longer being enough to demonstrate a student’s proficiency, students should seek alternative academic activities to prove their knowledge in an area of their interest. Through these, they can develop expertise and demonstrate their mastery in a specific subject, which is what a Subject Test was designed to do.
For example, if a student is interested in computer science, they should take AP Computer Science and other coding classes. In addition to that, they should also launch projects such as building a website or a program to help solve a problem that affects a specific community or field. Similarly, if a student is interested in politics and economics, they can hold a civics debate tournament to encourage other students to stay informed, or build an online archive of historical documents on an under-researched topic. By pursuing a more academic type of Spike, it shows expertise in a specific field and preparation for being able to handle college-level academics.
Opportunity #3: More time for personal statement
While the discontinuation of the optional essay is a minor inconvenience in some senses, the time spent studying an SAT-approved essay structure and breaking down arguments in articles can instead be used to perfect their personal statement. Students should revise their personal statements to showcase both their writing skills and their self-reflection skills as well as an accurate representation of themself. Learn more about what makes a good personal statement here.
Opportunity #4: Alternatives to Subject Tests
A viable alternative to Subject Tests is AP exams which can also show a student’s subject-specific prowess. As they cover more subject depth and breadth, additional preparation will be needed for students who don’t take AP classes. While there are limitations to AP exams (colleges place more emphasis on doing well in AP classes compared to the actual exams), they are standardized and prove the rigor of student classes. For students who don’t want to take additional AP classes or are unable to take any AP classes, we recommend using the time to work on other aspects of their application instead.
While the sudden discontinuation of the SAT Subject Tests may feel alarming, this is a great moment to take stock and reassess priorities in order to make the most of the situation.
For students who are considering taking AP exams in place of SAT Subject Tests, this is also an opportunity to ensure that their profiles (extracurriculars, classes, etc.) align with their story. Are they academically challenging themselves? Do their extracurricular activities reflect their academic interests and show their individuality? Colleges care about these things, but students should consider these questions not only for their applications, but also to better understand and cultivate their passion and interests.