Will Lack of “Recommended” 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.

(Posted 10/16/2017)