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Articles / Applying to College / Will Lack of "Recommended" SAT 2 Subject Tests Hurt Me?

Oct. 16, 2017

Will Lack of "Recommended" SAT 2 Subject Tests Hurt Me?

Question: I am an international student applying for college and I've taken my SAT general tests. I haven't taken my SAT 2 and I won't be able to to meet the deadlines of early decision, if I apply to top universities that say they "recommend but don't require" SAT 2 tests, considering my transcript and results are considerably good, will my lack of sat 2 really affect me?

Most of the “elite" colleges that used to require Subject Tests are now only “recommending" them. This switch was made largely because some students –especially international students like you as well as US students from disadvantaged backgrounds or from high schools that don't typically send applicants to highly selective colleges—were often not well advised and thus didn't take the Subject Tests in time to meet Early deadlines (or at all!)


So when application instructions say that these tests are not mandatory, you can rest assured that omitting them won't hurt your admission chances as an international applicant. But do be aware that the vast majority of applicants to the colleges that “recommend" Subject Tests will have high grades in rigorous classes as well as high SAT or ACT scores. So then admission officials will ask, “What's special?"

Thus, the fact that your transcript and SAT scores are strong will only get you to the outer gates. It's important that your application also stresses what's different about you. If your home country is one that is not already “over-represented" in application pools, that will provide some advantage. However, the most sought-after US institutions usually draw candidates from around the world. Therefore simply hailing from an under-represented nation—even with top-notch academic credentials--is unlikely to be enough to take you beyond those outer gates.

So, as you finalize your applications, don't worry about skipping the Subject Tests but do focus on emphasizing the ways that you stand out in a crowd. Example: Your essay will probably have the most impact if it's not on a topic that your American “competitor" applicants commonly choose (e.g., winning the big football match, participating in the high school poetry slam, learning a lesson from travel). Instead, can you focus on some aspect of your life that might be unfamiliar to Americans such as preparing for a traditional holiday that isn't widely celebrated in the US or volunteering for a political party or organization that is unique to your homeland?

Moreover, if you require financial aid, it's important to recognize that the US admissions process will be extra competitive for you, even if you are targeting colleges that are “need blind" for international applicants. So if your goal is to study in the US, make sure that your college list includes some options where financial aid is offered to international students and where your test scores and grades put you well above the medians.

Finally, although it's too late for you to take the Subject Tests in time for Early Action or Early Decision deadlines, you may have time to schedule a test session before the Regular Decision deadlines arrive. If you excel in an area that's not covered by the SAT (e.g, science, history, foreign language), you might want to highlight this strength by taking the corresponding Subject Test. Again, this is not an admissions imperative, but if taking (and paying for) additional testing isn't a big impediment, then it's something to consider.

Good luck to you, whatever you decide.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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