AP Exams vs SAT Subject Tests: Overview, Differences and Preparation Strategy

SAT Subject Tests vs AP Examswhich is better to appear for? Or shall I take both exams if I am targeting top schools? How to prepare for them.  Both SAT subject tests and AP exams can demonstrate that you have challenged yourself academically and hence improves your college admission chances. The SAT subject tests are high school-level tests. Whereas, the AP exams are a college-level exam. In this article, we will talk about the in-depth differences between AP exams and SAT Subject Tests, and the preparation strategy and tips for those tests.


AP Exams vs SAT Subject Tests

Overview, Differences and Preparation Strategy


Co-authored by Parinita Gupta



Overview of AP Exams


Advanced Placement examinations (AP Exams) are offered by the College Board and are taken each May by students. The tests are the culmination of year-long Advanced Placement (AP) courses. All AP exams (with few exceptions) have a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. They offer university-level courses and exams that you can take while you’re still in secondary school. AP Studio Art requires students to submit a portfolio for review. AP Computer Science Principles requires students to complete the Create and Explore tasks, which are part of the AP grade for the class.


The AP exams grew out of programs initiated in 1951. Part of the rationale for advanced placement given in 1952 was that “advanced standing at the normal college-entering age after high school graduation is more desirable, for many reasons, than an acceleration of able students out of high school at age 15-16 years”. The first Advanced Placement exams were administered in 1954 by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to students limited to 27 schools participating at that time. In 1955, the College Board assumed leadership of the program and testing, while retaining ETS to design and score the tests. The exams were given nationally for the first time in May 1956, and students could take whichever tests they wanted for a single $10 fee.


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The exams themselves do not grade the students’ mastery of the course material in a traditional sense. Rather, the students themselves set the grading rubrics and the scale for the “AP Grades” of each exam. The grades that are reported to students, high schools, colleges, and universities are on AP’s five-point scale:


5: Extremely well qualified

4: Very well qualified

3: Qualified

2: Possibly qualified

1: No recommendation


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Overview of SAT Subject Tests


SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, are different from AP Exams. There are 20 multiple-choice standardized tests given by the College Board on individual subjects. They are typically taken to improve a student’s credentials for admission to colleges in the United States. Typically, the subject tests are administered in August, October, November, December, May, and June. A calendar of test dates and registration deadlines can be found on the respective College Board’s official website.


Many colleges use the SAT Subject Tests for admission, course placement, and to advise students about course selection. Some colleges specify the SAT Subject Tests that they require for admission or placement; others allow applicants to choose which tests to take. Students typically choose which tests to take depending upon college entrance requirements for the schools to which they plan to apply. From their introduction in 1937 until 1994, the SAT Subject Tests were known as Achievement Tests, and until January 2005, they were known as SAT II: Subject Tests. They are still commonly known by these names. Every test is now a one-hour timed test. Historically, the exception to the one-hour time was the writing test, which was divided into a 20-minute essay question and a 40-minute multiple-choice section. The writing test was discontinued in January 2005.


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Differences between AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests


AP Exams vs SAT Subject Tests


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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.


AP Tests generally measure a student’s mastery of college-level subject matter through questions that touch on the main points of a year-long AP curriculum. The AP Test scores actually judge the student’s hard work in class and confirm that students learned the subject matter thoroughly. Students who do well on AP Tests are likely to be successful in college classes, so selective schools are interested in them for their predictive value. Another key difference between the two tests is what they show about the student.


SAT Subject Tests are slightly different because they measure students’ readiness for college-level work. The SAT Subject Tests show mastery of one specific subject, while AP Tests show mastery of months of the 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 colleges. AP classes offer a lot of insight into the student as a whole as they produce both an exam grade and a cumulative class grade. They also validate students 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 have the confidence that the student will be a strong performer at the next level.


Another noted difference is, the AP exams offer a great opportunity to earn college credits before you even start. Gaining AP credits will help lessen your course burden in college. However, having AP credits don’t affect your admission into college (although having successfully taken AP courses is considered in determining your admission).


SAT subject tests, on the other hand, can affect your admission chances at the schools (mostly the highly selective schools) which require them. Those schools also may use the subject tests for course placement and to advice about course selection.


AP Tests are associated with specific AP classes, and their content tends to be more challenging than that of SAT Subject Tests. AP Tests ask students to demonstrate college-level analytical skills while SAT Subject Tests require more basic knowledge of high school curriculum. AP exams are offered once per year while Subject Tests are offered multiple times per year.


Here with AP Exams, all the scores are sent to colleges while with Subject tests, students can decide which subject test scores they want to send to colleges. AP exams require higher order thinking skills, the need to synthesize information, make connections, and draw conclusions. On the other hand, SAT Subject Tests require students to have factual knowledge and to be able to churn through the content at a fast pace.


AP Tests and SAT Subject Tests differ in many ways, although they both can have an impact on your chances of admission at competitive colleges. As per their own requirements and career perspective, students should prepare wisely.


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Which is harder – AP Exams or SAT Subject Tests?


AP Tests demand a deeper understanding of the material than SAT Subject Tests. They also require students to possess more in-depth knowledge and analytical abilities when it comes to interpreting primary source materials.


A student who gets 70% of questions correct and a student who gets 100% of questions correct might both end up with 5s on an AP test.


However, it is technically easier to get a 5 on an AP Test than an 800 on an SAT Subject Test. On most AP Tests, you can still earn a 5 if you get a fair amount of questions wrong, whereas there’s almost no room for error on subject tests if you want a perfect score.


Preparing for AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests


While the AP exams and SAT Subject Tests cover similar topics, the details of each topic, types of questions, and depth of knowledge required varies from test to test and subject to subject. Additionally, it is important to note that not all AP courses have a corresponding Subject Test.


You don’t need to stress too much about the SAT subject tests. Like school finals, these are knowledge-based tests, so if you got good grades in these subjects, you’ll probably do fine with just a little refresher study before the exams. If you’re not applying to any schools that require them, don’t bother to take them.


According to IvyWise, if a student is interested in STEM and taking a biology class sophomore year, they should sit for the SAT Biology Test in that same year. That way, students aren’t doing double the prep. The same applies to students taking AP courses or self-studying for AP exams – they should aim to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test either right before or right after they sit for the AP exam.


When to take these exams?


You should take SAT Subject Tests before you start Grade 12 (Class XII). For AP exams, you should take them in May of Class 12.


However, in order to lower the study load, you should take the AP exam first (in May of Grade 11), followed soon after by the SAT subject tests (which many claims are much easier). The reason is that you’ll then only have to study once (with maybe a refresher).


AP Exams vs SAT Subject Tests


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If your school schedule allows for the preparation of one test, and if your shortlisted colleges do not ask for mandatory SAT subject test, then choose the exam that is emphasized more heavily in your top schools’ admissions materials and website.


If you are less confident in your abilities, or you are on a shorter time frame,​ the general scope of SAT subject tests can make them seem easier for some students. You can also often take an SAT subject test more than once since most are offered multiple times throughout the year.



Co-author Bio: Parinita Gupta is a full-time banking professional. Additionally, she is also a passionate blogger and digital marketer.

She mostly writes about the Banking & Finance, Technology, and FinTech sector. But, she also enjoys writing on other topics as well.  You can follow her on Twitter.




Original Source of Featured Image: Hamilton Education

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

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