An Overview of AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests

In the midst of February, it can be hard to imagine that the end of the semester is just a few months away. Before the spring fever kicks in, it’s a good idea to take some time to think about the big exams your students will face in May. Regular end-of-term and end-of-course exams can be stressful enough, but AP exams and SAT subject tests are a different matter entirely. If you’re confused about the relationship between these two College Board-administered tests (or whether your student needs to take either), we’re here to help!

AP Exams

AP Exams are the exams connected to AP courses at students’ schools. Each class has a respective exam, which takes place in the beginning of May. You can find this year’s AP Exam schedule here. Even though the exams are in May, students have to register for the exams in the fall of the previous year. If your student is in an AP course, you would have received information about registration and fees last semester. 

Like AP courses, AP exams are meant to measure college-level understanding of the subject in question. The exams vary in terms of their format and timing, and many feature short-answer and essay prompts. The exams are all scored on a scale of 1-5, with a 5 showing the greatest content mastery.

Although the AP exams are the culmination of the AP classes students take in high schools all across the country, the scores they earn on their exams don’t directly affect their grades in the courses. Students’ course grades are determined by their teachers at the end of the course, whenever that may be. The exams themselves are not scored by your students’ teachers; they’re scored by AP officials at the College Board. Those scores are released to families in mid-July, long after students receive their school report card.

Even though their exam scores don’t directly affect their course grades, students should take the AP exams very seriously for one key reason: AP exam scores are used to determine whether a student earns college credit for their AP course. Every college handles AP credit differently, but students who score high enough on their AP exams in high school can earn enough credit to shorten their 4-year college career. Other colleges may use the tests for placement. 

SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject tests are also administered by the College Board, and their subject matter often overlaps the AP courses offered by the College Board. However, they’re not connected to a course, and your student’s school will not contact you regarding registration. 

SAT Subject Tests are 1-hour tests with 60 multiple-choice questions. Students can choose from 20 tests in five different areas: English, history, languages, math and science. Students register for these tests through the College Board website, just like they do for the standard SAT, and they can take up to three tests in one day. They choose which tests they’d like to take when they register, but students can change, add, or subtract tests on Test Day (unless the test they want to add isn’t being offered on that day). Students can’t take the standard SAT on the same day they take SAT Subject Tests.

Unlike AP Exams, SAT Subject Tests are meant to be at the high-school level. The questions focus on fact recall, rather than in-depth analysis. This doesn’t always make them easier, though, especially if students have been taking AP courses all year long. It’s a really good idea to prep for any SAT Subject Test you plan to take, even if you’re in a corresponding AP class. SAT Subject Tests are the arena where top students show colleges their strengths, so average scores tend to be pretty high. It’s a good idea to only send scores that add to your college application portfolio. 

SAT Subject Tests do not count for college credit; however, they are used in the admissions or placement process at some schools.

Should my student take SAT Subject Tests?

That depends! There are about 100 schools in the country that take SAT Subject Tests into consideration during the admission process, and there’s a lot of variation in the way they treat the tests. Some schools, like MIT, require them of all students; others, like Notre Dame, only require them of homeschooled students. Some schools require or recommend SAT Subject Tests for specific programs, like Engineering. 

The number of schools that require SAT Subject Tests has been steadily declining. STEM schools have been the holdouts in requiring the scores, because those are schools where most applicants have very high scores on the math sections of the SAT and ACT. Caltech made news last month when the California school dropped its SAT Subject Test requirement. 

If your student is planning to apply to a top-tier or STEM school, it’s not a bad idea to look into taking SAT Subject Tests in May or June after students complete the course in question. Again, they may need to do some review, but if they’ve paid attention in their classes, there’s no reason they shouldn’t do well.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 212-731-4676 or info@applerouth.com.