It’s fairly common knowledge: You have to take the SAT (in most cases) to get into college. But then what are the SAT Subject Tests? Are they optional? And if so, why the heck should you take them?
Are the SAT Subject Tests the same as the “regular” SAT?
No. Although the purpose of every college entrance exam is the same—to help admissions officers evaluate how prepared you are for college-level work—the type of “work” being assessed differs from test to test.
The “regular” SAT Exam evaluates critical thinking skills in Reading, Writing, and Math. These are considered baseline skills that every college student will need in order to succeed at a given institution and, consequently, most colleges and universities require these scores as part of their admissions process.
The SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, are more specialized. While there is only one SAT, there are 20 SAT Subject Tests, each of which measure your knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge in one of five subject areas: English, History, Math, Science, and Languages. Typically, these tests are elective; only extremely selective schools will require you to take them.
So do I need to take an SAT Subject Test or not?
If you have the time, resources, and knowledge, it’s a generally a good idea to take one or two of the Subject Tests. However, whether or not you must take these tests depends on where you are applying—so make sure to check the admissions policies of every school!
Extremely competitive schools will typically require two subject tests; sometimes they will even dictate which tests you must take. (CalTech, for instance, requires the Math Level 2 Test and one of the Science Subject Tests.) Slightly less selective schools may “recommend” that you take one or two Subject Tests, in which case it’s essentially expected and will likely hurt your application if you don’t. Finally, schools that neither require nor recommend Subject Tests will often still consider them if you decide to send in your scores.
If my schools don’t require or recommend any Subject Tests, why should I take them?
While dedicating yet another Saturday to standardized testing may sound like a drag, there are a few reasons why you might still want to do it, even if your schools of choice neither require nor recommend Subject Tests. First, if you are applying to a specific college or program within a school, such as Engineering, then a strong Physics Subject Test will help set you apart from other applicants. Second, if you want to demonstrate a strong interest in or aptitude for a particular subject (e.g., Literature), then scoring high on the Literature Subject Test could help you place into more advanced courses. Alternatively, if you are bilingual or fluent in another language, then demonstrating that fluency on one of the nine Language Subject Tests could fulfill a basic language competency requirement—freeing up space in your schedule for other subjects that excite you! Lastly, if you have a passion for, say, History but just cannot wrap your head around Algebra, then a strong U.S. History Subject Test may help to offset a weak Math score on the regular SAT Exam.
Okay, so I think I want to take a Subject Test. Anything else I should know?
Absolutely. First, you will want to make sure that you high school coursework actually covered what is going to be on the test. For example, if you’re looking to take one of the Biology Subject Tests, but your high school curriculum didn’t include the topic of evolution, you may want to reconsider, because evolution and diversity topics make up approximately 15-22% of the questions on the Biology Subject Tests. (You can find more information about the content of the tests on the College Board website.)
Next, you can take the Subject Tests anytime you want, so use this to your advantage. If you ace Chemistry in your sophomore year, you don’t have to wait; you can take the Chemistry test in May or June of that same year while the material is still fresh in your mind.
Finally, as mentioned before, there are 20 different Subject Tests—so exercise your right to choose! Unless you are applying to a school that requires certain Subject Tests, you can take whatever tests you want, which means that you can use them to highlight your strengths and paint the self-portrait that you want college admissions officers to see. If you’re a voracious reader who isn’t great with names and dates, take the Literature Subject Test and skip the History ones. Preparing to be the next Nobel Prize-winning Economist? Take Math Level 2. Your application tells a story, and a Subject Test will help to show what you are interested in, have spent time learning about, and will likely pursue in college.
The bottom line: Even if they are not required or recommended (which you will know once you check each and every school’s admissions requirements), you should still consider taking SAT Subject Tests in areas where you excel. High scores on these tests will strengthen your application and help the admissions officers get a slightly clearer picture of you . . . no matter where you are applying.
So you’ve done the research, narrowed your list, and come out with one—or two, or three—top schools. These are your dream schools, or at least the ones you want to attend the most. The ones where you can envision yourself walking across campus, wind in your hair, smile on your face, synapses strengthening with every class, friends multiplying the moment you step foot onto the green manicured grass of the academic quad. This is where you want to go to college. Case closed.
Now your job is to ensure that these colleges know they’re your top choices. There are a number of ways to do this, but they all boil down to “expressing interest.” That is, you want to a) demonstrate exactly what it is about each college that appeals to you, b) indicate why you think you’ll be an asset to that college (i.e., why should they admit you?), and c) create a track record of actions that show you’ve engaged with the school.
The following list offers 8 ways that you can demonstrate interest in a school and let them know that they are your top choice. However, before you get started, take note of an item that is not on this list: bombarding admissions officers with questions. Admissions officers are busy people, and they’re dealing with a lot of interested students—not just you. So be respectful of their time, and do your best to research answers to your questions via other routes (the internet, contacting alumni, talking to a rep at a college fair, a campus visit) before emailing or calling an admissions officer.
Now, without further ado, here are 8 ways you can show a college they’re your top pick:
1. Essays. If you’re using the Common App, you will find that schools have supplemental essays where you are expected to be specific about why you’re choosing to apply to that college. No matter the prompt, you should always keep in the back of your mind: Why is the school a good fit for you and you for it? Here are a few ideas to help you come up with an answer: Does your family have a legacy with the school? Is there a specific professor who you’re keen to work with? Is there something unique about the curriculum that other colleges don’t offer?
2. Campus Visit. Not only do most colleges track campus visits as indicators of interest, but a visit will also help you learn even more about the school—information that you can put to good use in your essays and admissions interviews!
3. Admissions Interview. Even if the interview is optional, you should do it. Your willingness demonstrates that you’re serious about attending this college, and in the interview, you can be candid about what drew you to that college and how you became convinced that it would be a good fit. (And don’t forget to add in why you would be a good fit for the college. Sell yourself!)
4. College Fairs. College fairs are the easier, cheaper version of the campus visit. Research local college fairs and if your school of interest will be there, stop by their booth and talk to the representative. Be sure to leave your contact information (either by filling out a card, using a barcode gotocollegefairs.com, or leaving a resume), even if you’re already receiving information from that college—because this is your track record to show you’ve expressed interest!
5. Send Thank-You Notes. It might sound old-fashioned, but thank-you notes are a definite way to stand out. Send them to a rep you met at a college fair, to an admissions officer who interviewed you, to a professor or student or anyone else who helped answer a question you had. This little note will keep you front-of-mind and reflects well on you as a thoughtful, appreciative person. Plus, even for those non-college-admissions officers, you never know who might be asked to weigh in on the admissions decision!
6. Connect on Social Media. Nearly every college these days has a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram account, so connect on your platform of choice and comment or ask questions to show you’re engaged in what’s happening at the school. You might even learn something you weren’t expecting!
7. Request Information. Don’t assume that you’ll wind up on a college’s mailing list simply because you’re a living, breathing high school student. And don’t rely solely on their website, either, because no matter how many times you visit, the college will have no track record of your interest! Send a polite email or sign up online to receive printed brochures and emails from the school.
8. Apply Early Decision/Action. Applying early decision tells a school that they are your absolute number one top pick. (You can only apply to one school early decision, and if you are accepted, the decision is binding.) However, if you are having trouble choosing between several top schools, then early action shows that you are interested enough to get your application submitted early in the admissions cycle, but, if you are admitted, the decision does not bind you to one school.
As the parent of a college-bound student, you want to do everything in your power to get your child to the school of their dreams. And while there is a fine line between “helping” them and “taking over,” there actually are some things you yourself can do to help, such as research schools, look for available scholarships, become financially literate. However, there is also a long list of things you can’t do, including keeping up their high school GPA, taking the SAT . . . or attending a college fair for them.
College fairs offer excellent opportunities to browse “what’s out there” and get answers from college representatives. However, this experience is for the student. Let’s repeat: the college fair is for the student, not the parent. Your student is the one ultimately choosing where to spend the next four years of his or her life, so they need to be the one taking charge of the college search and, in this case, the task of attending a college fair.
That said, there are several things you can do to help your child get the most out of their college fair experience.
Review the list of participating schools. There is a lot to be said for going into a college fair with a plan of attack. Sit down with your student and help them to look through which schools will be in attendance and prioritize accordingly. Circle the “don’t-miss” schools and highlight others that might also be of interest. This will ensure that, on the day of the fair, your student doesn’t become overwhelmed and waste their opportunity to research schools and make a good impression.
Brainstorm questions to ask each school. College fairs can be intimidating. Lots of students are vying for the attention of a limited number of college representatives, and when they finally get the floor, students can suddenly freeze, forget everything they were going to say, and squander the opportunity to learn what they really want to know about a school. One way to help your student avoid this “blank-out” is to brainstorm with them ahead of time and write down the questions they want to ask. These questions can be applicable to all of the schools they’ll speak with, or specific to a particular school. A few example questions include: What kind of student does your college try to attract? Is your school known for a particular program? What sorts of activities are popular in the community off-campus? What public transportation is available?
Listen and (if asked) offer advice. If this is your child’s first college fair—or even their hundredth!—they may be nervous. Listen to their concerns and, when appropriate, offer advice. The college search can feel grueling, so reassure your child that you’re in this together . . . and that it will all be worth it in the end.
Then, back off! This is an information-gathering session for the student. College reps want to talk to your child, not to you. So if you’re in attendance, stand back, observe, offer moral support, and let your child gain as much information as they can for the long, formative journey they have ahead.
As a brand new college student, the term “education record” probably sounds neither scary, nor sexy. After all, that’s just grades right? And your senior year English teacher used to staple A+ papers to the classroom bulletin board, so there’s no real confidentiality when it comes to who earned what . . . right?
Well, in fact your education record is more than just your grades, and there’s a whole law written to protect who can see it. So now that you’re a legal adult, and before you get too wrapped up in library study sessions or Frisbee on the lawn, it is a good idea take a few minutes and learn what this FERPA stuff is all about. You never know when it might come in handy!
- What is FERPA? (And why should I care?)
FERPA stands for the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. It was signed into law in 1974 to protect the privacy of students’ education records. Basically, thanks to this law, you get to control who sees your information (with some exceptions, of course), and if you find any mistakes, you can take formal steps to have them corrected.
- Why do we need this law in the first place?
Education records started back in the 1820s, when schools in New England started to record data on their students. By the mid 1900s, those records had grown to monstrous proportions, with little regulation. School officials could add nearly any comment or anecdote to a student’s record at will, no matter how slanderous or damaging, and often without the student’s knowledge. There was no process to have these judgments challenged or removed. Parents could be denied access to their student’s records without explanation, while other third parties were given access with almost no questions asked. Finally, in 1974, FERPA was drafted and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in order to address these issues of privacy of and access to education records.
- What exactly is my “education record”?
The term “education record” is defined as those records that are: (1) directly related to a student, and (2) maintained by an educational agency or institution (or by a party acting for the agency or institution). Because this definition is so broad, it’s actually easier to list what an education record is not.
An education record is not:
- Legal records maintained by a law enforcement unit
- Medical records
- Employment information unless your employment is contingent upon you being a student (e.g., work-study)
- Information obtained after you’re no longer a student (e.g., alumni records)
- Can anyone access my education record without my consent?
Yes. School officials (defined as “those who engage in instruction, supervisory, advisory, administrative, governance, public safety, and support functions of the institution”) may access your education record whenever doing so is necessary for them to perform their duties to the school. Also, certain U.S. officials (e.g., Attorney General, Secretary of the Department of Education) may access your education record without your consent. Then, there are two circumstances under which your records may be disclosed: in the case of a health or safety emergency, or if the school receives a judicial order or subpoena specifying that you not be notified, it may disclose your record without your consent.
- I want to see my education record. What do I do?
Write up your request, being as specific as possible about what you want to see, and submit it to the College Registrar. The school then has 45 days to respond. You will be given access, but don’t expect them to mail you a copy; only if circumstances prevent you from being able to review the record in person will the school send you a copy. So if you do go in person, be sure to take a valid photo ID!
- I want to grant someone else access my education record. How do I make that happen?
To grant a third party access to your education record (or a part of that record), you need to provide written consent to the Office of the Registrar. This consent must include the name of the person(s) you want to allow to see the education record, a description of the record or information that may be disclosed, the reason for allowing that party to see the record, your signature, and the date that the consent was signed.
One last thing to note: while institutions may not release your education record without your consent, they are permitted to release what is called “directory information.” This is information that, if released, would not be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy (e.g., name, address, class year, enrollment status, etc.). If, for whatever reason, you want to keep this information private, you may write to the Office of the Registrar with your request. Just keep in mind: graduate schools or future employers may contact the university, and without that directory information, the university cannot immediately confirm that you graduated . . . or that you were ever even enrolled