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Harvard changes admissions requirements SAT II subject tests now optional

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It just became a little easier to be admitted to Harvard University, the university recently changed its admission policy, and they are now making the SAT II subject tests optional. The move puts the Ivy League university apart from the rest of the elite universities. It is no doubt an attempt to level the admissions playing field for under privileged high school seniors who cannot afford to prepare and take the exams. The policy change is immediate and will affect the admissions criteria for the class of 2019.

The SAT II subject tests are standardized exams in specific subject matter, currently there are exams in 20 academic subjects. SAT II exams are administered by the College Board, the same organization that is in charge of the general SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) that are required to be admitted into an overwhelming majority of colleges and universities. This is part of a move to remove some of economic inequality in the college admissions race.

On Harvard University's admission page, the website now states their new rules regarding the subject tests, which reads; "While we normally require two SAT subject tests, you may apply without them if the cost of taking the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them."

The 20 subject exams are divided into five areas; "English, history, languages, mathematics and science." Students usually take three hour-long subject exams, math, a science and subject where they excel if no other specified subject is required by the university's admissions policy. Each exam has a scoring scale of 200 to 800 points. The exams cost $24.50 for a set of three subjects, language exams with the listening component is $24, and to individually take a subject exam costs $13 each.

Some universities no longer consider standardized tests a predictor of college success, and have eliminated it as an admission requirement. Still 80 percent of universities including the top colleges and Ivy League require the SAT or ACT. The move comes on the heels of the College Board's announcement in March that are redesigning the SAT exam to make it fairer to lower income students.

"Leveling the playing field" for low income and minority students was most probably the reason behind Harvard's admission policy change as well. Yale's Cross Campus blog noted that Harvard's Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons has been a proponent of making the admissions fairer and more equal for students applying from all socio-economic backgrounds.

It is widely believed including by Dean Fitzsimmons that students from middle class or higher income backgrounds have a lopsided advantage in the college admissions and standardized tests game. Aside from having attended elite private high schools, participating in of every available extra-curricular activity, these students and the parents spend without limits for exam preparation courses and materials. Lower income students do not nearly have those advantages.

That what the reason why the College Board changed the regular SAT, making the exam shorter, making the essay optional, reverting back to the 1600 top score scale and applying it more to the high school curriculum in attempt to make the exam fairer for all socio-economic groups. The new exam however will not be available until 2016.

At the time of the unveiling of the new revised SAT in March President of the College Board David Coleman addressed the fairness issue in his remarks to the press, stating; "It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country. It may not be our fault, but it is our problem."

Dean Fitzsimmons participated in the National Association for College Admission Counseling commission in 2008 which determined that the "test-prep industry benefits more affluent students." The Harvard Admissions Dean is not also a fan of standardized tests as an indicator of college success; still he finds them necessary in making decisions where there are so many students with the same grades and activities, that sometimes exam results might be the only criterion that sets some students apart.

Until now the SAT II exams was helpful also in defining students in the admissions process especially when considering them for the majors and specialized program they were applying to. The subject specific exams indicate an aptitude for the subjects of specialization. As the College Board website indicates "they provide a more complete picture of your academic background and interests." Universities often use them for course placement or provide advanced credits for introductory courses.

All the eight Ivy League universities require that in addition to the regular SAT I exam all students have to have taken a certain amount of subject tests. Yale University's Cross Campus blog although pointed out that many none Ivy League elite universities do not require the subject exams, including; Stanford University, University of Chicago, and the University of California system. Stanford also made the subject tests optional in the 2014 admission cycle with the class of 2018 benefiting from the policy change. Stanford's new admission rules state they are "Recommended but not required."

Stanford is the most selective university in admissions, having the lowest rate of all the elite competitive universities, and beating out Harvard with a class of 2018 admission rate of just over 5 percent, while Harvard's is just under 6 percent. In the most exclusive competitions Harvard is stepping up its game so it can gain in the number of applications that allows for low admission rates.

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are academic & universities news, particularly history & library news.

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