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The truth about SAT Subject Tests™

Amherst College, MA
Amherst College, MANancy Griesemer

Fortunately, SAT Subject Tests are not ordinarily part of the admissions rat race. Mostly "selective" colleges either require or strongly recommend submission of these tests as part of the application process.

Cal Tech requires SAT Subject Tests regardless of whether the ACT or SAT Reasoning Test is submitted.
Cal Tech requires SAT Subject Tests regardless of whether the ACT or SAT Reasoning Test is submitted.Nancy Griesemer

In fact, Subject Tests appear to be taking on a diminished role in admissions. This year, four colleges are dropping them: Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University are now fully test optional, while Olin College of Engineering and Boston College no longer require them at all.

And last spring, Harvard announced a small adjustment in Subject Test policy. On its website, Harvard notes that “we normally require two” SAT Subject Tests. New language adds, “…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.”

In an email to alumni interviewers, William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid noted concerns about strong applicants—including many high-achieving minority students—who lack access to solid college counseling. “Such students often struggle with poor or no advice from the counselors, the expense of taking yet more standardized tests, and even the time required to take the tests, which may interfere with home responsibilities and employment.”

But despite the shift in policy at Harvard and other institutions, there are still a number of reasons why colleges might like to see Subject Tests.

Sometimes they want specific Subject Test scores from students interested in particular majors or programs of study. Or they might be required of students hoping to enroll in accelerated or specific honors programs. And homeschooled students are often requested to send Subject Tests to confirm what they’ve learned.

It’s definitely something to consider as you develop standardized test-taking strategies in high school, and you might want to schedule specific Subject Tests as they coincide with Advanced Placement or other advanced coursework.

Yet regardless of good intentions, it’s sometimes hard to squeeze in all the testing in time to meet deadlines, especially if you’re planning to apply Early Decision or Early Action.

And if you’re feeling a little panicked about Subject Tests either because you never got around to taking them or because your scores weren’t quite as high as you had hoped they would be, there is an alternative: a number of colleges will allow you to substitute the ACT with Writing for SAT Subject Tests.

Not only does this represent an economical solution to the problem—you only need to pay for one test instead of several—but because the ACT is given in September, you have a chance to prepare over the summer and take a test that is guaranteed to yield results in time for early applications. In other words, you avoid “rushing” scores from October test dates or worrying about whether or not the College Board will transmit scores in time to meet deadlines.

So for those of you thinking about the ACT solution to the Subject Test problem, here is a list of schools accepting the ACT with Writing in lieu of both SAT Reasoning and Subject Tests:

  • Amherst College, MA
  • Barnard College, NY
  • Brown University, RI
  • Columbia University, NY
  • Duke University, NC
  • Haverford College, PA
  • McGill University, Canada
  • Pomona College, CA
  • Rice University, TX
  • Swarthmore College, PA (see other testing options)
  • Tufts University, MA
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Vassar College, NY
  • Wellesley College, MA
  • Yale University, CT

But note that the opposite of this policy also exists. Some schools require submission of Subject Tests regardless of whether the applicant takes the SAT or the ACT. These include

And the fun doesn’t end there.

Locally, Georgetown University continues to strongly “recommend” three Subject Tests. To the north, Johns Hopkins reduced its recommendation to two Subject Tests, while to the south, Washington and Lee still requires two “unrelated” SAT Subject Tests for students choosing College Board products. UVa, however, “strongly recommends” the submission of two Subject Test scores whether the student submits SAT’s or ACT’s.

Catholic University recommends either a Subject Test or an AP/IB exam in language for Arts/Sciences and Philosophy candidates. GW requires or recommends Subject Tests for accelerated programs: BA/MD candidates must take both a math and a science Subject Test, and the Honors Program recommends two Subject Tests.

Several colleges will “consider” Subject Test scores if submitted. Randolph-Macon, William and Mary, and the University of Mary Washington fall into this camp.

No doubt, College Board execs are watching these developments closely. With market share and revenue at stake, each shift in admissions policy has some impact on their bottom line. What started as a conversation about the role of SAT’s and the College Board in admissions has turned into a clear trend toward less reliance on scores and greater flexibility for students.

Thanks to Cigus Vanni, NACAC Professional Development Committee, as well as to the folks at Fair Test and the Compass Education Group for working so hard to keep ahead of shifting sands in standardized testing.

For the most accurate and up-to-date information, students are advised to go directly to individual college websites.