Administered by The College Board, the SAT and AP exams are key for gaining acceptance to American universities. Although these exams are everyday concepts to American students, Canadians are often confused about them, and sometimes this puts us at a disadvantage when writing them. The information below may be helpful in gaining a better understanding of these exams.
The PSAT Exam:
The Preliminary SAT (PSAT), also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), is very important for American high school students, as it is the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Canadian students may also take the PSAT, but in general it is not very useful to do so. Although similar to the SAT, the PSAT is not always a good indicator of how a student will perform on the actual SAT exam, and it is probably more effective to write a practice SAT from a prep book instead.
The SAT Exams:
For students only applying within Canada there are few no advantages to writing the SAT as Canadian universities will not ask for the scores. However, the SAT is an important exam for applying to any university in the US. The information in this section is based on the "new" SAT, which came into use in 2005. There are two major parts to the SAT, the Reasoning Test and the Subject Tests.
The SAT Reasoning Test
Formerly known as the "SAT I," the SAT Reasoning Test is the main portion of the exam and is a standard requirement for American schools. The exam has three parts to it:
The Critical Reading section tests vocabulary and reading comprehension. This section is composed only of multiple-choice questions.
The Writing section includes multiple-choice questions on grammar and writing skills, as well as a 25-minute essay which is graded on a twelve-point scale.
The Mathematics section tests mathematical understanding as well as some curricular knowledge. This section has both multiple-choice and free-response questions.
The SAT Subject Tests
The SAT Subject Tests, formerly known as the "SAT II" exams, test much more specific areas of knowledge than the Reasoning Test. The College Board offers a vast number of subject tests, ranging from foreign languages to molecular biology. When applying to a universities, it is important to check how many subject tests are required, as this number can range anywhere from none to three.
Preparing for the SAT
There are many ways to prepare for this exam, but the most commonly used methods are preparatory courses and books. Organizations such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review offer courses in many cities, including Canadian cities. Although these courses are taught by the experts, they have two main disadvantages: they are very expensive, and they cover all three sections of the exam equally, a strategy which can be very time ineffective as your particular weaknesses may fall in only one or two of the sections of the exam.
These same organizations also offer books on preparing for the SAT. The College Board also has an official preparatory book that many students find useful. These books contain strategies for writing the exams, as well as practice tests with scoring guides. Some of them also contain pre-made flashcards for studying vocabulary. In our opinion, prep books are the most effective way to study for this exam. The books are available both for the Reasoning Test and individually for the Subject Tests.
Writing the SAT
The SAT exams are offered locally in most major cities, and usually take place on Saturdays at local high schools. Because the exams are only offered a few times per year, it is a big help to time things right. It is not permitted to write a Subject Test on the same day as the Reasoning Test, and therefore if the universities you are applying to require Subject Tests, it is best to begin writing the exams in grade 11. Students are permitted to write up to three Subject Tests on the same day, but use caution when exercising this right as each test is one hour long and quite tiring. If you are applying for Early Decision or Early Action, it is important to note that the last SAT most schools will accept is the November exam. However, it is generally best to finish by October and use the November as an "update" only if needed. If applying Regular Decision with the standard January 1st application deadline, the January exam is the latest that most universities will consider; however, as with the early application, it is best to finish with the December exam and keep January as a backup. In addition, keep in mind that some schools such as Stanford have earlier application deadlines, and therefore it is important to carefully research all the schools you plan on applying to well in advance.
All SAT exams are graded on a 200-800 scale, with an average score of about 500. Each section of the SAT Reasoning Test uses this scale, such that the highest possible combined score on the exam is 2400 and the average score is approximately 1500. Each Subject Test also uses this scale. There is no limit on the number of times a student can take this test, although some believe that taking it excessively is frowned upon by universities. In our opinion rewriting the tests many times is also a bad idea as it is an extra source of stress and re-writes often do not improve scores.
The AP Exams
AP exams can be useful for all students and are offered by many high schools across the U.S. and Canada. Unlike the SAT, APs are beneficial for Canadian-bound students as universities will generally award credits for any passed AP exams. The AP exams are graded on a 1-5 scale; a score of 4 (sometimes 3) or higher is considered a pass, and will qualify for credit with most Canadian and American universities. Many high schools offer "AP courses," which are essentially college-level classes that prepare students for the AP exam in a given subject. These courses are very worthwhile, and American universities likely are impressed to see them on a student's course schedule. It is also possible to take an AP exam without taking the corresponding course at school, commonly referred to as "self-studying." Although it is certainly impressive have completed many AP exams when applying to a university, it is important to be thorough when self-studying in order to avoid low scores.
The AP exams are held in May each year, which is when AP courses usually finish. Keep in mind that universities will only see your scores from AP exams taken in grade 11 and earlier; although they like to see AP courses on your grade 12 schedule, they will have to make an acceptance decision before your write the exams. Of course, passed AP exams written in grade 12 can still be used for university course credit.
MICHAEL GELBART graduated from Point Grey Mini School in 2006 and is currently studying Physics at Princeton University. In 2004, Michael attended the Summer Institute for Mathematics at the University of Washington (SIMUW). He also participated in Shad Valley at McMaster University in July 2005, and undertook a Shad Valley work placement at Sierra Wireless Inc. afterwards. During high school, he was involved in tutoring other students in math and science, and volunteered at a community-based homework help program on a regular basis.
Image courtesy of user "TheBrassPotato" at Flickr.com via Creative Commons License.