How to Stand Out in College Applications Without SAT Subject Tests

Padya Paramita

How to Stand Out in College Applications Without SAT Subject Tests

If you’re a high school student hoping to be admitted to a top college, you might have had your eyes on one of the SAT subject tests in order to show your prowess in a certain field. Now that the College Board has announced that these tests will no longer be administered, you’re left with the question of how to stand out in college applications without SAT subject tests. To help guide you through the next steps, I’ve outlined what this means for the admissions process and the different ways through which you can demonstrate your strengths in your favorite and strongest subjects.

Impact on College Admissions Process

The elimination of subject tests brings the question of what’s next for prospective college students. How does this change impact your college application process and admissions chances? We know from our vast network of Former Admissions Officers that selective US Colleges have never made admissions decisions solely based on the results from the SAT subject tests (or AP tests) a student takes. Compared to school course grades and interesting and meaningful extracurriculars, SAT subject tests (and other standardized tests) are much less important—they only complement information that can already be found throughout other components of your Common Application profile.

As you consider how to stand out in college applications without SAT subject tests, remember that admissions officers are much more interested in seeing students doing interesting and meaningful exploration of their interests and/or contributing to their communities than studying for another exam. So, not having any SAT subject tests will NOT negatively impact your chances, especially if you dedicate the extra time towards leadership and collaboration initiatives that can make a tangible impact on your community.

Even though we haven’t yet seen colleges respond to this announcement, we anticipate that many colleges will continue to make SAT subject tests optional, or even be test blind for SAT subject tests (i.e. won’t consider them even if you submit your scores).

Demonstrating Academic Prowess

With no SAT IIs gone, the question on your mind is how to stand out in college applications without SAT subject tests. Are there certain ways to highlight that you’re particularly strong in biology or math, which you would have previously conveyed through SAT subject test scores? 

One option is to take a challenging course load. SAT subject tests are just one of the many ways to demonstrate your academic capabilities. Other factors include your high school course rigor, your high school grades, your teacher’s letter of recommendation, and your exploration of academic interests outside of school. Not having SAT subject tests available means that the other components will become more important in evaluating your application. As a result, you must push yourself in the semesters to come. Make sure that you’re taking the most challenging courses available to you in your field. With hard work comes strong letters of recommendation. Schools will be using these to evaluate your academic prowess.

You might be wondering, with the dismissal of these tests, whether it means that you should primarily focus on AP classes since the College Board also administers the AP tests. If you are taking AP courses at school, then you should definitely register for the AP exam of those courses. If your school is on the IB curriculum, then doing well on your IB assessments is a lot more important than taking AP exams. AP exams are not necessary if you’re on the IB curriculum.  If your school does not follow the IB curriculum AND does not offer AP courses, BUT your course covers many of the topics covered in an AP course and you’d be well-prepared to take the AP exam, then you can consider taking the AP exams for which your courses best prepare you. If you are not sure, talk to your teachers at school. They will have the best idea on whether your course curriculum will prepare you well for any AP exams.

Strong Recommendation Letters

Another way to answer your query of how to stand out in college applications without SAT subject tests is through the recommendation letters from your teachers, particularly in subjects you’re good at. For example, if you wish to be accepted into a college such as MIT, but aren’t obviously able to take the Math II SAT subject test any longer, you can urge your instructors to vouch for your abilities in the classroom. MIT, for example, asks for two letters of recommendation—one from a math or science teacher, and the other from a humanities, social science, or English teacher. Your teachers can add to why you’re a valuable candidate, and how you can contribute to MIT’s campus, and how you’ve showcased your strength in a certain field. As a result, you should keep building your relationship with them.

Extracurricular Activities, Leadership, and Projects

If you’re passionate about a certain area, you don’t need the SAT subject tests to convey so as you consider how to stand out in college applications without SAT subject tests. If you know that you’ll be looking into a top-tier prestigious university, it’s extremely crucial that you go beyond just joining clubs that already exist at your school. Colleges want each student to contribute meaningfully to campus through their unique interests and talents. One way to highlight your love for your area of interest is through self-directed projects. These are initiatives that you go out of your way to pursue, and develop strong leadership and teamwork skills while you’re at it. Here are some ways you can lead projects and demonstrate your talent without needing the subject tests:

  • Enjoy writing? Write your own book or poetry collection.
  • Love movies? Direct your own documentary.
  • Aspiring doctor? Start a local clinic or blood drive.
  • Hoping to excel in computer science? Code your own app!
  • Passionate about the environment? Start a community garden or recycling initiative in your town.

A lot of these projects aren’t just for your benefit. Whereas SAT subject test scores would only showcase how you fare on paper, showing admissions officers that you’re not just all talk. Plus, you help the people around you in the process, which is a wonderful added bonus and shows that you’re not just pursuing things for the sake of adding them to your Common App!

Ultimately, the most important factors when it comes to building a strong application are to make sure you’ve continued achieving high grades in school and taking steps to stand out as a leader in your extracurriculars. A strong GPA is the result of a sustained effort in the classroom—focus on taking challenging subjects and performing well in them, and hopefully, you’ll put yourself in a strong place academically, without requiring SAT subject test scores. With extracurriculars and community impact, you’ll be able to show that you’ve carried your interests outside the classroom as well. And hopefully, you’ll have figured out how to stand out in college applications without SAT subject tests. Good luck!

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