SAT Subject Tests & AP Exams Explained

Both the SAT Subject Tests and Advanced Placement (AP) exams share similarities, but there are some critical differences as well. For high school students weighing their options, here’s a breakdown of what these exams have in common, and where they stand apart.

First, what do they have in common?

Both look great on any college application. Both SAT Subject Tests as well as AP exam scores are excellent additions to your university applications. Including these scores can often give students a serious edge over other applicants.

Both can provide college benefits. A passing score on an AP exam will often provide full college course credit, depending on the school’s requirements. In addition, high scores on SAT Subject Tests often allow students to be exempted from prerequisite courses or placement testing requirements.

Both of these exams are based on a specific subject. While this allows students to really hone in on their studying, it also means that both tests require an in-depth level of understanding and expertise to achieve desirable scores.

Okay, so what makes them different?

Test format and overall commitment. Although it can’t be said that either test is “harder”, AP exams generally require a bigger commitment and higher overall stamina. AP exams are usually paired with an AP class that spans the length of the school year, which is intended to help students prepare for the exam. Signing up for a year-long class is a larger commitment, and the test itself is longer as well – usually between two and three hours. In contrast, a single SAT Subject Test is only an hour long. As a result, specific corresponding classes may not exist and aren’t as much of a requirement. Finally, AP exams require writing skills and include free response questions. SAT Subject Tests, however, are 100% multiple choice.

Availability and options. Due to the format differences outlined above, both of these tests have widely different availability. AP exams are intended to be taken towards the end of the school year after completing the corresponding AP course. As a result, they are offered only once a year during May. SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, are offered year-round. At each testing date, students have the option of signing up for three separate subject tests. Speaking of options – AP exams offer slightly more variety in this area, with 38 tests currently offered. In contrast, there are currently 20 SAT Subject Tests to choose from. All this considered, the stakes are higher on AP exams, with only one shot at taking the exam. With SAT Subject Exams, you have the option of retaking them throughout the year to improve your scores.

Academic level of qualification. AP classes and exams are, put simply, college-level. As a result, a passing score on these exams can often give students full college course credit when they begin taking classes at a university the following year. For instance – passing AP English Language and Composition may offer college credit for English 101, exempting the student from having to take that class. On the other hand, SAT Subject Tests are designed to test high-school level mastery. High scores may offer some form of credit in a college environment, but it’s more likely these will fulfill prerequisites, placement exam requirements, or entry-level courses. In general, SAT Subject Tests are best taken with the intent of creating an impressive college application and improving your chances of admission. That being said, AP exams are never mandatory for college admission. However, many colleges and universities do require SAT Subject Test scores to be submitted.

Tutor Doctor’s Recommendation: Don’t limit yourself to either one of these exams, as both will help you on your college application immensely – and depending on the school, SAT Subject Tests may be required. We recommend taking an AP class as well as its corresponding exam, and in addition sign up for a related SAT Subject Test. For example – if you’re enrolled in AP U.S. History, take the AP exam for this course in addition to the SAT Subject Test for U.S. History.