May Rant from the College Guy; What's Up with the SAT Subject Tests and the ACT?

Hello to juniors and parents of juniors from the College Guy!
I've had a number of new sign ups to my email distribution list of late (you may be one of them!) so a brief reminder that you're now reading one of my semi-regular "College Guy Rants" (get it?) newsletters.
They're intended for class of 2015 students and their parents. They're long, but they contain valuable information that I'll humbly suggest you won't find elsewhere. And they're free.
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Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, read on about SAT Subject Tests and the ACT!
I trust you're all ready for the SATs this coming Saturday, and hope you've all been doing some version of prepping for the test. If you recall I suggested back in March that you follow a mellow eight week regimen of 30 
minutes a day, three times a week prior to test day. I'll remind you of this again in August when it's eight weeks before the October 11th test - which will be the next opportunity you'll have to take it. 
(If anyone is thinking of retaking the test in June give me a call so I can talk you out of it and explain why it's a dumb idea to take the test in successive months...)
Tune in tomorrow night for my tongue-in-cheek annual email with instructions for "The night before the SAT". You'll get a kick out of it, and it's got good suggestions within.
Remember that many colleges give merit money based on your SAT scores (that's something most of them don't like to admit until/unless you're appealing for extra money next spring), so it's in your interest to get the best scores you can on this annoying test.
Anyway, good luck with the test. Right now I want to pull your coat about SAT Subject Tests and the ACT, and who should consider taking these tests.
If you are planning to take Subject tests on June 7th, or the ACT on June 14th, take note that the sign up deadline for each test is May 9th at midnight.
If you're wondering "What is he talking about with these additional fershlugginer tests??!!", read on!
Here's what you should know about the SAT Subjects Tests and the ACTs:
Let's start with the Subject Tests: what they are, who should take them, and what tests to take.
Main thing you need to know is that only about 10 - 20% of high school kids take them. They're only required by 75 or so ultra-selective colleges. I want you all to know what they are and how they might be of use to you, but in the interest of not wasting your time, let me simplify things by saying that the folks who should consider taking subject tests are those who:
(a) take primarily honors level classes,
(b) scored at or above the mid to high "50s" on the PSATs (that's high 500s
on the SATs), and 
(c)  aspire to apply to some reach schools next winter
If one or more of the above factors fit you, keep reading. The rest of you should skip down to the section on the ACT.
Subject Tests used to be called the SAT II tests, and in the old days (when your parents were teenyboppers - yes, these darn tests existed even then!) they were called the Achievement Tests.
They're offered six times a year at the same time and place the SAT Reasoning Test is offered (except for March, when only the Reasoning Test is given). There are 20 of them, each an hour long in a variety of subjects (one literature, two maths, three sciences, two histories, and the rest 
languages). Unlike the Reasoning Test these tests are "content based", which means they are designed to test specific stuff you should have learned in school in that subject. You can take one, two or three of these suckers per test date - that's entirely up to you.
Word on the street is they're hard.
Just like the three individual subscores of the Reasoning Test (Critical Reading, Math and Writing), each subject test is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points. A competitive score is in the 600s or higher. Pay no attention to the percentile score you receive on a subject test - no one knows what they really mean and the colleges don't care. It's all about the numbers: high 500s/low 600s are good; high 600s and above are better!
Remember that although the Reasoning Test and the Subject tests are offered at the same dates and locations, YOU CAN'T TAKE BOTH on the same day - you have to choose one or the other. This is why I recommend you take Subject Tests in June and again next November (to retake or take additional ones). You'll take the Reasoning Test for a second time in October. Then you've still got December and even January (also not too late, despite what others may tell you) to take one or the other test a third time, if necessary.
Got that? If you're confused phone me (number at the bottom of this screed).
As I mentioned above, only a handful of colleges (maybe 75 out of the 2400 four year colleges out there) give a hoot about the Subject Tests and require (or prefer) them. If you plan to apply to one of these 75 schools, you need to take them. Who are these 75 schools? I don't have a definitive 
list for you, but check out this URL to get an idea of who they are:
Better yet, because this list changes, and also because a number of schools have somewhat byzantine "either/or" requirements pertaining to their test 
optional policies, you should check out the "requirements for admission" section you'll find on every college's "How to Apply" section.
As you can see, surprise surprise, the schools which want them tend to be the MOST SELECTIVE schools (which tend to be the ones many people talk, eat, drink, sleep, and worry over all the time - try not to be one of those people!) Yeah, it's a racket to make money for the Educational Testing Service, and don't get me going on that, but what it boils down to is that if you aspire to selective schools, and if your grades are strong and you 
take more honors courses than non-honors courses, then you should probably plan to take some SAT Subject Tests.
The colleges which require the Subject Tests will want to see scores from two or three tests. So, I recommend that if you're going to take thesetests, take three of them.
Now there's a second reason to take Subject Tests EVEN IF YOU HAVE NO INTEREST in applying to the Middleburys, BCs, Tufts, Browns and Pomonas out there. Two additional reasons, actually. They are:
a. if you score well on the Subject Tests you will impress colleges whether they require them or not, potentially improving your chances of admission, and 
b. high standardized test scores can make you more desirable to schools who in turn may offer you merit money, and/or a more favorable need based financial aid package. (Yes, I know, they say they're "need blind", and in many ways I'll advise you to believe that, but in actuality they're not. Ask me about this separately if you're curious about pursuing it).
Another way to look at this is: besides $55 (if you take three) and a Saturday morning sleep, what have you got to lose??? Colleges that require Subject tests need to see them, and you don't need to send them to the 
colleges that don't ask for them (since the advent of "score choice" you have total control of which of your individual subject tests to send, and to whom...)
So once you've decided to take the Subject Tests, the next question is which ones should you take? Remember that these are hour-long tests, and you can take one, two or three at any given administration. Some will advise you to take no more than two on a day - they're grueling. My take is that if you're
going to drag your butt out of bed to be at the test center by 7:30 AM anyway, you may as well take three of 'em. If you did well on the Critical Reading portion of the Reasoning test, take the Literature. If you're a math
/ science type, take one or two of the maths (there's a Math I and a Math II) and one or more of the sciences. If history is your thing, consider the American History and/or World History tests. If you're in the fourth year or
higher of a language, you might consider taking the test in that language.
But don't just listen to me - do these two things to determine which other tests are right for you:
First, ask your teachers from each particular subject area: such as "Excuse me Mr. Archimedes, knowing what you know about me and math, would you recommend I take the Math I or the Math II SAT Subject Test?" If Mr. A starts laughing, that's not a good sign, but remember teachers, like everyone else, have opinions, and that doesn't necessarily make 'em right.
But ask anyway.
The second way to determine is to bury your nose in the pamphlet you'll find in your guidance office called "Taking the SAT Subject Tests", flip to the section in question, and spend 15 minutes checking out the sample questions. If the questions look like Hebrew (and it's not the Hebrew test!), it's probably a good idea not to take that particular one. So go check it out yourself.
There's a book put out by Collegeboard called "The Official Study Guide for all SAT Subject Tests" which you will want to get your hands on once you decide to take the test. It can be found at most good book stores or ordered on line at:
or here:
This book has entire sample tests for each subject, which is worth reviewing prior to actual test day. Talk to your classroom teachers too - s/he may have a book or test samples they can give you.
If you're still confused about whether to take SAT Subject Tests in June or next fall, or which ones to take, call me and we'll shmooze.
Another thing: go ahead and sign up now, and don't worry too much about which tests to take because YOU CAN CHANGE THE TESTS YOU TAKE ON THE TEST DAY (with the exception of any "language with listening" tests). So just get registered before the deadline - perhaps sign up for the Literature, Math I and the American History, and you can take time afterwards to fine tune which test you'll actually take.
And for the final word on "what the heck are the subject tests, here's another take right from the horse's mouth:
I want to make sure you know about and understand a second standardized test 
called the ACT which EVERY U.S. college will accept scores from in lieu of the SAT. I won't go in to the history of the two tests here - you may ask me about that if you wish. Suffice it to say they are business who compete against one another for market share (think Coke versus Pepsi) who are eager 
for your money, and neither of them are very good at predicting how smart you are or how well you'll do in college. However, because of the high stakes of these tests, and because some folks do better on one test than the 
other, you might consider taking the ACTs AS WELL AS the SAT Reasoning Test. 
The significant differences about the test are summarized on various web sites - here are two for you to refer to:
You can get sample ACT questions and a practice ACT test from their web site (, and there should be information as well in your guidance office.
As you'll see, they cost about the same, and take about the same amount of time. The ACT has a science section, is a bit more math intensive, a bit less verbally tricky, and it exacts no penalty for guessing. If I were to 
generalize from my experience, I'd say that kids who are stronger in math and science than they are in English tend to do better on the ACT. Also, kids who are not good test takers (those who have disappointing PSAT and SAT scores) may find they do better on the ACT, because it's a less ambiguous test.
Purportedly the ACT strives to measure the knowledge you’ve acquired, meaning that the test focuses on subjects and skills taught in high school; while the SAT tries to assess “innate ability” by using tricky and confusing 
phrasing to determine your test-taking skills (i.e., your performance under pressure and your ability to identify what’s being asked).
Another attractive feature of the ACT is that it gives four subscores (in English, Writing, Math and Science) which are accepted by many of the selective colleges in lieu of SAT Subject tests. Thus the ACT is a versatile test which can count as BOTH an equivalent for the SAT Reasoning Test AND 4 subject tests.
The ACT test will be offered this June 14th, and next fall on September 13th,  October 25th and December 13th at various sites around the state. Because scores tend to go up with familiarity, I suggest you plan to take 
the test twice. Thus I recommend a June and October schedule or a September and a December schedule.
If you decide to take the ACT, make sure you elect to do the optional writing portion. If you wind up submitting ACT scores to colleges in lieu of SAT scores, they'll require the writing test...
That's all I'm going to write about the ACT at this point. Do your research, talk to others, and let me know if you have questions about it.
Okay, that's about it for this rant. It's staying light till 8:00 PM, my Yankees are doing well and spring is about to be bustin' out all over and summer vaca is just around the corner. What's not to like?
Take care of yourself and get plenty of rest, from your testing trainer, your collegiate connoisseur, your multiple-choice maven, your higher education enthusiast,
Gary the College Guy
Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711
College Placement Services provides high school students and their families assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application and financial aid process.
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