Beginning with the earliest school years, tests are an essential element to every curriculum. They act not only as a benchmark for how much a student has—or hasn’t—learned throughout a course, but also as a means of grading overall performance. Typically, students don’t have much say in the material they’re tested on, or the format in which the questions are presented. However, when students are buttoning up their educational portfolios toward the end of high school, the options change. AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests provide students with some control over how they demonstrate what they’ve learned in school to colleges and universities. These tests are similar, and cover close to the same material, but they also cater to different students’ needs and goals.
Both tests provide students with the opportunity to highlight one or more subjects that they really excel in in order to compile the strongest college application possible. Many students will choose to take both. A majority of colleges require SAT scores in order to be considered for admission, and just as many consider an applicant stronger if they took AP classes and their corresponding exams. So, if you don’t want to take both tests, how do you choose? Is one looked at more favorably than the other? Should you take a Subject Test and an AP Test in the same subject? Let’s answer some of those questions. But first, a little background on the format of each type of exam.
AP and SAT the Details
- SAT Subject Tests are multiple choice, based on a scale of 200-800 points, and last one hour.
- AP Exams are a mix of multiple choice and long-answer questions, based on a scale of 1-5, and can last several hours.
- If you were to base your decision on popularity, the AP test would win. With 2.3 million students taking AP Exams annually compared to only about 500,000 opting for the SAT Subject Test. Another reason for the AP Exam’s popularity is the opportunity to earn college credit. A high enough score can exempt students from lower-level college classes, making them a quick way to get ahead.
- A third reason is that only selective schools require SAT Subject Exam scores. They are more of an opportunity to showcase your specific strengths without being tied to a year-long course.
Another key difference between the two tests is what they show about the student. The SAT Subject Tests show mastery of one specific subject, while AP Tests show mastery of months of material taught at the high-school level.
AP Tests do a good job of predicting how a student will perform at the college level, which is why they are looked highly upon by college admissions offices. Because AP classes produce both an exam grade and a cumulative class grade, they offer a lot of insight into the student as a whole. Not only how they perform on tests, but also how they perform in the classroom throughout the year. If admissions counselors see that a student did well in AP classes, they can bet that the student will be a strong performer at the next level.
Does that mean AP Exams are more difficult than SAT Subject Tests? Possibly. Do they require a deeper understanding of the subject? Yes. Because AP Exams require essays to be written from scratch, they show a student’s ability to develop original ideas and share them thoroughly and eloquently. Though AP Exams are generally more taxing, it’s also easier to earn a higher score, since they are only out of 5. The scoring system makes it so that you can get many questions wrong on an AP Exam and still earn the highest possible score.
When it comes to the Subject Tests, you have to get almost every single question right to maintain a perfect 800. AP Exams do tend to be more complex, meaning that a student who earns a close to perfect score on a Subject Test might not get a 5 on an AP Exam.
When it comes to the questions themselves, the AP Exam questions tend to require more critical thinking. More than one of the multiple choices will likely be correct in some way, leaving the student with the task of deciding which answer is most correct. Being able to make this differentiation stems from having impressive knowledge of complex trends on the whole, rather than knowing surface-level facts. The SAT Subject Tests are more straightforward, testing students’ ability to repeat information presented to them. Knowing the answers to SAT Subject Tests requires only basic knowledge of each subject—but a lot of it.
You can debate long and hard about which test you think you’ll have the most success with, but it ultimately depends on what your college is looking for. If the application requires two or three SAT Subject Tests, you might as well choose the subjects of your AP Exams so you can focus your studying in those areas. For example, many engineering programs require applicants to take SAT Subject Tests to show their mastery of math and science, which doesn’t require the analytical thought creation that an AP Exam would. For that reason, it’s smart to take SAT Subject Tests immediately following the corresponding subject.
With all of that information, which test should you take? Let’s consider the following.
- Does your school accept both? One? If one, that’s an easy choice. If both, not all schools require AP Exams, but a strong performance in the class and on the exam will strengthen your overall application immensely. Taking both the AP and SAT tests will show that you not only challenged yourself throughout the year academically, but that you were willing to go the extra mile.
- What are you trying to show? If you want to illustrate your wealth of knowledge and expertise in an area, the SAT Subject Tests could be the route for you. If your main goal is to earn college credit to get ahead, AP is the route for you.
- Does the course matter? It’s possible to take an AP Exam without having taken the AP course. It’s also likely that taking an SAT Subject Course isn’t directly connected to a class, but instead to a subject area. If you didn’t do well in your AP class, you don’t have to take the Exam. If you did really well in a class that doesn’t offer an AP Exam, the SAT Subject Test is the right route.
The Next Steps
If you feel like you have incredible mastery of one area and you want to show it off, take both! Go for it. But there’s no need to spread yourself too thin and try to take every exam. Chances are your coursework and overall performance will show admissions offices the kind of student you are, and the scores will only support that.
Stutorialz offers AP PREP through an extensive learning management system with course material and questions that can help you excel in advanced classes and increase your AP exam scores. Our tutors have the applicable knowledge of advanced math and science subject to design a custom lesson plan around the concepts you need to work on.