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AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests:
Similarities & Difference

Last Updated: Apr 16, 2019 12:37:25 PM

Here’s one major point that AP exams and SAT Subject Tests share in common: both are products of the College Board (CB), which writes and administers them. There are other similarities, too. Both of them test specific subject knowledge acquired in high school courses – see below for a very important proviso – and performance on each of the tests can affect a student’s planning for college.

SAT_subject_test-1As to the differences, one of them is that AP exams have the potential to allow students to earn credits for introductory college courses, thus bypassing intro college courses to either complete their undergraduate degrees sooner or take other courses. Perhaps the greatest divide between AP and Subject Test is the type of questions. The Subject Tests, all one hour long, are comprised of strictly multiple-choice questions. These are straightforward, and correct answers are virtually all fact-based, with no interpretation, analysis, or synthesis required; memorization of subject matter details is critical.

student writing - ben-mullins-785450-unsplashBy comparison, AP exams range in length from 1½ hours to 3¼ hours, with most of the 38 tests lasting between two and three hours with short breaks. They’re comprised of two sections, multiple-choice, which comes first, and free response. Doing well on AP free response questions requires “deeper” knowledge of the subject matter – and the ability to synthesize that knowledge while analyzing documents, to respond to open-ended questions, and to craft essays.

None of the above should be interpreted to mean that there’s no cross-over effect when it comes to knowledge required to do well on each of the tests: A student who scores the maximum possible 800 on a Subject Test knows enough about the subject matter to do well on the multiple-choice section of the corresponding AP exam, and a student who scores the maximum possible of 5 on an AP exam should do very well on the corresponding Subject Test.

With respect to AP exams affecting a student’s college career, we’ve noted that they can allow students to earn credits for or bypass introductory college courses, and either complete their undergraduate careers sooner (if credits were awarded) or take other courses (if “advanced standing” rather than credits were awarded). Be warned, though: each college makes its own decisions about awarding credit – or not! A school will have its own policy about placement, including minimum scores required to earn credit for a given AP exam, the amount of credit awarded, and how those credits will be applied. You can explore AP exam credit policies at varying colleges at this CB link1; however, you’ll find the most up-to-date policies on each college’s website. We’d like to add that even if a college in which you’re interested doesn’t award credits for AP exam scores, doing well on the tests and in the courses leading up to them demonstrates a student’s willingness to accept challenge, which, in turn, improves chances for admission to selective universities. Ultimately, AP courses and exams can signify that a college applicant is well prepared for the rigor of college academics.

While students won’t earn college credits for SAT Subject Tests, regardless of how well they do on them, taking two (or more) of those tests is required or recommended2 for admission consideration at some schools, especially the more selective STEM schools (e.g., MIT and Caltech). To gain admission to those schools, students will need to take and do very well on at least one science and the higher-level math Subject Test. Each school has its own policy regarding Subject Tests, which you can explore at this CB link[1] (as above, check each college’s website for the most current information). Doing well on SAT Subject Tests may help a student’s chances for admission to college, whether or not the tests are required.

As you’re planning your testing calendar, keep in mind our many years of success in preparing students to do their very best on AP exams and SAT Subject Tests. Call us and we’ll get you started.

Download our Study Tips for the AP Exams

1 Because colleges’ own websites reflect the most current information, we strongly recommend that you double-check AP and Subject Test policies there.

2 “Recommended” in college-admissions parlance means “required”!

Topics: AP Exams College Admission Subject Test


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