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Priya Desai
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SAT Subject Tests + Essay Discontinued: How This Impacts College Admissions

What’s Covered:



On January 19, 2021, the College Board announced some major changes to the SAT. Here’s a summary of these changes and a deep dive into how they’ll impact college admissions. 


Major Changes to the SAT 


SAT Subject Tests Are Discontinued


SAT Subject Tests will no longer be offered to domestic students, effective immediately. There will still be two more administrations in May and June 2021 for international students. 


Domestic students will have their registration canceled automatically, and they will be refunded.


The College Board states that Subject Tests no longer offer the same value as they once did, as AP exams are now more widely available and cover a greater range of subjects. Eliminating the Subject Tests will also open up seats to students who need to take the SAT (and haven’t had the chance to do so during the pandemic).


Colleges that used to require SAT Subject Tests will decide how to adjust their policy going forward.


The SAT Essay is Discontinued


For similar reasons, the SAT Essay is also no longer offered after June 2021. Only students in select states will have access, if they’re taking the SAT through the SAT School Day program.


Students registered for the Essay in Spring 2021 will have the option to cancel the essay at no extra cost.


The College Board recognizes that there are many other opportunities for students to demonstrate their writing abilities, such as the college essays. The SAT will continue to evaluate writing and editing skills through the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections, which are “among the most effective and predictive parts” of the test.


There Will Eventually Be a Fully-Digital SAT


The College Board is making “substantial investments” in developing a digital test, likely encouraged by the pandemic and the difficulty it posed to testing in-person. They state that they will release further details this spring.


Reasons Behind These Changes


Finances and Accessibility


For the College Board, this move is all about finances. Replacing the SAT Subject Tests with AP exams reduces costs. More importantly, it increases revenue because the College Board charges around $30 per SAT Subject Test versus $95 per AP exam. 


By removing Subject Tests, the College Board can save money in administering and scoring the exams, and reduce the operational complexity that goes into setting up testing spaces. Getting rid of the SAT’s essay component makes the test completely multiple-choice, meaning the grading can now be completely automated, and the company saves even more money by not having to pay essay scorers. 


Growing concerns about the SAT catering to more privileged and affluent students may also have factored into this decision. Getting rid of these additional testing requirements may increase perceived accessibility in standardized testing, though students also have unequal access to AP exams. 


The Decline of Subject Tests


Furthermore, SAT Subject Tests were already on the decline. The number of test-takers peaked at 300,000 in 2011, but in recent years, it’s dropped to around 200,000 students. Most universities have eliminated Subject Test requirements, either making the Subject Tests optional or not considering scores at all. Overall, Subject Tests have played less and less of a role in admissions every year, except at the 50-60 most selective colleges in the country. 


The purpose of Subject Tests was to provide another dimension along which colleges could compare applicants. However, top applicants to selective colleges almost always had a score of 750+, usually on multiple exams, so they became less of a competitive advantage and more of a requirement.

In addition, the language Subject Tests were mainly being taken by native speakers, which didn’t give colleges helpful information in making admissions decisions, so colleges started to discount strong scores on those exams 


It had reached the point where not taking the Subject Tests could hurt students’ chances of admission, but there was essentially no advantage to having those high scores.


The Redundancy of the SAT Essay


The SAT Essay similarly decreased in importance in the admissions process. On the old version of the SAT (the 2400 point version), the essay used to factor into your overall Writing score. This meant you needed a good score on the essay in order to have a strong Writing score, and a strong SAT score overall. 


Now that the essay is no longer a part of the overall SAT score (on the 1600 point scale), colleges have been giving it less and less weight in the admissions process. The same is true for the ACT essay, and the ACT might end up cancelling its essay section for similar reasons. 


Furthermore, colleges have many other opportunities to evaluate your writing, namely through college essays. Some schools such as Princeton have also started asking for a graded paper as part of the application.


How will this affect the 2021-2022 admissions cycle?


This new policy is going to have a major effect on the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, impacting current juniors and younger students. Due to the pandemic, most universities went test optional or test-blind for the SAT Subject Tests in 2020-2021, meaning they would not require Subject Test scores in the application, and some wouldn’t even consider them if submitted. Given this announcement from the College Board, our projection is that most schools will probably extend these policies moving forward.


Unfortunately if you already have strong SAT Subject Test scores, this means you probably won’t receive much of a boost from them during this admissions cycle.


One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of special programs at colleges do require SAT Subject Tests. These include guaranteed admission medical programs (BS/MD programs) and Honors colleges. If you’re interested in these types of programs, you’ll need to keep close track of their specific policies. Consider reaching out to the program in a couple of months to see where they’re at in terms of accepting and considering Subject Test scores. Some programs might ask for AP score or minimum grades in specific courses in lieu of Subject Tests. 

Which students will this negatively impact?


This policy could potentially harm applicants who were banking on high Subject Test scores to give them a competitive advantage. 


If you are homeschooled or attend a school that doesn’t offer AP classes or has an unknown or uncommon course system, the lack of Subject Tests could affect your application negatively. Subject Tests traditionally provide a standardized metric that helps admissions officers compare students from these backgrounds to the larger applicant pool. However, this method of comparison is now gone, making it harder for applicants in these situations to easily be sized up in the admissions process. 


Similarly, this change may hurt you if your extracurricular profile doesn’t match up with your area of interest in academics, and you plan on relying on Subject Tests to demonstrate your ability in a specific field. Others have used Subject tests to make up for poor grades in a course or even to compensate for a weaker overall GPA. Now that the Subject Test advantage is gone, if you’re in these positions will have to compensate in other areas of their application.

How can students compensate?


With this new policy in mind, AP exams, SAT scores, and essays will now all play a slightly bigger role in the decisions process.


The main alternative to Subject Tests will be AP (or IB) tests, which can showcase expertise in a subject area on a national, standardized scale similar to Subject Tests. The Biology, Chemistry, Physics, U.S. History, and World History AP exams all test at about the same level as their Subject Test counterparts. That said, the tests have different formats, and APs have free response and other question styles while the Subject Tests were multiple choice. But, the material itself is essentially the same. 


However, not all Subject Tests have an AP test equivalent. For instance, the AP Literature exams test at a higher level than the Literature subject test, and has an essay component as well. Similarly, the Math I and II exams cover high school material, from Algebra 2 through Precalculus. The AP math tests, Calc AB, BC, and Statistics, don’t really include Precalculus, and have additional material, meaning they’re not directly comparable. 


For languages, AP tests have a Japanese, German, French, Latin, Italian, Chinese, and two different Spanish exams. This more or less lines up with the Subject Tests, although there is no comparable AP exam for Modern Hebrew and Korean.


Outside of math and literature, you’re not missing out on too much as long as you take the AP exams. However, the stakes will ramp up for AP scores and you’ll want mostly 5’s with minimal 4’s to be competitive at top schools that have historically placed importance on Subject Tests. 


The SAT itself will also carry more weight, so you might want to consider doubling down on increasing your score. 


Furthermore, admissions profiles for super selective schools now have one less data point, so there’s going to be an increase in the importance of the subjective elements of your application. This is largely driven by your essaysso expending extra effort on this portion of your application could help alleviate the lost advantage from Subject Tests. 


If you’re a future college applicant, know that we are in unprecedented times and these policy changes are probably the first of many to come. As you craft your admissions profile, it is important to stay informed about any changes and consider how they might impact you. Stay tuned to CollegeVine on our blog and livestreams, where we’re constantly working to research and interpret the most up-to-date data in our admissions tips to help demystify the admissions process. 

Short Bio
Priya has been working at CollegeVine for two years in various capacities, including mentoring students, editing hundreds of essays, and creating blog content. She has also interned in healthcare consulting. She is extremely grateful for all the help she received as an applicant and wants to pay it forward by demystifying the admissions process for others.