SAT Subject Tests and AP Tests enhance your chances of admission to more selective colleges

The tests and scores that can help you gain admission to more selective colleges are changing. I see this as a tutor; though I am not an expert in educational statistics, I cobbled together some data that illustrates current trends.

Starting in 1926, the SAT pioneered standardized college admissions tests. It provided valuable objective measures of academic potential. The SAT greatly improved equality in college admissions: in the 1930’s and 1940’s, selective colleges were reluctant to take excellent students from smaller unknown high schools because their risk of failure was higher. The SAT also reduced reliance on interview performance and social connections in admission decisions. Colleges gained experience at balancing test scores and grades with indicators of creativity and unusual achievements.

In the 1930’s, about 10% of college-age Americans (about 25% of high school graduates) attended college. Because academic potential, finances, and personal preference all affect who goes to college, I estimate that the SAT evaluated academic potential of roughly the top quarter of adolescents. The core task of the SAT was to differentiate young people in the 75th and 98th percentiles of academic potential.

By the 1980’s, the situation had radically changed. Roughly half of college-age people attended some college, and that percentage remains about the same today (2016). In 2010, about 3.2 million students took the SAT or ACT, compared with 4 – 4.4 million people in each U.S. adolescent cohort. Since some students take these tests several times, and some test takers are not residents of America, I would estimate that roughly 60% of young Americans take the SAT or ACT. The core task of the SAT and ACT is to differentiate students in the 50th through 95th percentiles of academic potential. The ACT was better suited than the SAT to address this expansion of the market, so it gained substantial market share. Starting with the new SAT of 2016, the SAT is aggressively competing for its share of the expanded market with a simplified test. (Although not-for-profit companies produce both tests, revenue and market share are important to them.)

As a result of responding to this expansion of the college market, the SAT and ACT are no longer as effective at evaluating the top 5% of students. The most selective colleges, who admit students in the top 2-3% of measured academic potential, find it harder to use these tests in admission and placement decisions.

As an example, I examined the admission statistics for 2015 at my alma mater, MIT.
  • A score of 740 on SAT Math or 33 on ACT Math is in the first quartile (bottom 25%) of admitted students. 
  • Verbal scores are not as demanding: a score of 680 on SAT Reading, 690 on SAT Writing, or 32 on ACT English, are in the first quartile of admitted students. The website does not report scores for ACT Reading.
MIT requires other tests to supplement the SAT and ACT.
  • SAT Math Level 1 or Math Level 2 exam (read this as the Math Level 2 exam). In 2015, a score of 750-760 was in the first quartile of admitted students.
  • An SAT Subject Test in Physics, Chemistry or Biology. In 2015, a score of 730 on the science test was in the first quartile of scores of admitted students. The website does not report scores for ACT Science.

A perusal of college guide books indicates that dozens of selective colleges have score ranges on the SAT and ACT that suggest they experience similar problems with relying on SAT and ACT scores in admission decisions. In my tutoring, I see many students with AP credit who are not applying to the most selective colleges.

In 2015, roughly 2/3 of admitted students at MIT took the SAT and 1/3 took the ACT. The 2016 SAT is significantly easier than the old SAT, and it feels more like the ACT. Therefore I expect the role of the SAT and ACT in admissions decisions at selective colleges will decline further.

I did some research on what tests are required for admission to German universities. It seems that German universities generally rely on secondary school performance and scores of 3 or higher on three or more Advance Placements tests.

In conclusion, good scores on SAT Subject Tests and AP Tests greatly enhance your chances of admission to a highly selective college.


Richard P.

Math, physics, economics, business, test prep

1250+ hours
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