Test Prep 101: AP Exams vs. SAT Subject Tests

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

AP Exams vs SAT Subject TestsThese Tests Can Help Demonstrate a Specialty But How Do They Compare?

Colleges are looking for well-rounded classes made up of specialists, and outside of extracurriculars and taking courses of interest, another way for students to demonstrate a specialty is through advanced courses, exams, and test scores. Students need to take AP exams in order to gain college credit for the advanced coursework, and many highly-selective schools require SAT Subject Test scores are part of the application process. Do what do students need to know about these subject-specific exams, how much do they overlap, and how can students prepare for each?

When it comes to test prep, we advise students to align their testing with their coursework as much as possible. For example, if a student is interested in STEM and taking a biology class sophomore year, they should sit for the SAT Subject Test in bio that same year. That way, students aren’t doing double the prep. The same applies for students taking AP courses or self-studying for AP exams – they should aim to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test either right before or right after they sit for the AP exam.

While the same concepts might be tested on both the AP exam and the corresponding SAT Subject Test, the tests are very different. Here are some of the similarities and differences between the two.

Both AP exams and SAT Subject Tests:

  • Are created by The College Board.
  • Can help students stand out to admissions committees through demonstrating a specialty or a mastery of a certain subject area.
  • Are single-subject focused so only one subject is tested per exam, unlike the SAT or ACT where multiple subjects are tested.
  • Require in-depth expertise of the subject matter! There are a wide range of possible topics covered, much like a final exam.
  • Should be prepped for in advance. Cramming will help students reach their goal scores.
  • Should be taken as close together as possible if you plan to take both. For example, if you take an AP course, you could plan to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test in the spring.

Although the AP Exams and SAT Subject Tests have many similarities, they have even more important differences.

AP Exams vs. SAT Subject Tests

AP Exams

SAT Subject Tests

Students can earn college credit based on their performance on the AP exam, but AP exams are not required for admission.

Some schools require SAT Subject Tests, in addition to SAT or ACT scores, for admission.

AP exams are intended to assess competence with material that would be presented in a first-year college class.

Subject Tests are designed to assess proficiency of high school curricula.

There are 38 AP courses and corresponding exams.

Currently there are 20 SAT Subject Test options.

AP exams are three hours in length.

Subject Tests are one hour in length.

AP exams include multiple choice and free response questions.

Subject Tests only have multiple choice questions.

AP exams are offered once per year. They are given over a two-week period at the beginning of May.

Subject Tests are offered multiple times per year. Students can take up to 3 tests per test date.

AP exams are scored on a 1-5 scale.

Subject Tests are scored out of a possible 800 points.

There is no penalty for guessing and students can receive partial credit for free-response questions.

There is a penalty for guessing.

All AP Exam scores are sent to colleges.

Students can decide which Subject Test scores they want to send to colleges.

AP exams require higher order thinking skills, the need to synthesize information, make connections, and draw conclusions.

Subject Tests require students to have factual knowledge and to be able to churn through the content at a fast pace.


Preparing for Both
We advise students to take both the AP exam and correlating Subject Test in the spring after they complete the AP course. Although it can help students be more efficient with their test prep, it is crucial to understand the differences between these two assessments. While the AP exams and SAT Subject Tests cover similar topics, the details of each topic, types of questions, and depth of knowledge required varies from test to test and subject to subject. Additionally, it is important to note that not all AP courses have a corresponding Subject Test. Here’s a chart of the correlation of content between the two tests. 

AP Exams

SAT Subject Tests

AP Chemistry                                                  Chemistry

The content of these exams is well correlated. However AP Chemistry tends to be more application based where SAT Chemistry is more fact based. 

AP Physics 1 & AP Physics 2                      Physics

In the AP Physics 1 & 2 sequence, a great time to take the Subject Test is around December of the second year (one semester into Physics 2). AP Physics 1 does not perfectly correlate with all of the content on SAT Physics, and unfortunately students are more likely to forget a lot of AP Physics 1 material if they wait until the end of AP Physics 2 to take the Subject Test. 

AP Physics C                                                             Physics

AP Physics C incorporates a year of Mechanics followed by a year of Electricity/Magnetism. Together these equate to 2/3 of the material on SAT Physics. With either intense study or comprehensive review combined with a strategic test date (similar to the strategy outlined above), AP Physics C coursework can correlate to success on SAT Physics. 

AP Biology                                          Biology E or Biology M

Both molecular and ecological concepts appear on the SAT Biology E and M tests. Students need to decide whether to further specialize in ecological or molecular biology when selecting to take either the E or M tests.  Often, students enrolled in AP Biology choose Biology M. However if they do so, students are encouraged to supplement their prep with SAT E specific materials.

AP Environmental Science                  Biology E or Biology M

Both molecular and ecological concepts appear on the SAT Biology E and M tests. Students need to decide whether to further specialize in ecological or molecular biology when selecting to take either the E or M tests.  Often, students enrolled in AP Environmental Science choose Biology E. However if they do so, students are encouraged to supplement their prep with SAT M specific materials.

AP Calculus AB/BC                                                   Math II

If a student has done well in these classes, they have most likely learned the requisite material required to succeed on the Math II subject test. However, many topics seen on the Math II test are covered at the beginning of a students’ calculus sequence.  Therefore, emphasis should be placed on reviewing previously mastered material to best prepare for the Math II test.

AP English Language and Composition             Literature      AP English Literature and Composition

Typically, but not always, students take AP English Language as a junior and AP English Literature as a senior.  Each class incorporates the interpretation of form and content of literary pieces. AP English Language tends to focus on rhetorical analysis and tone of persuasive works, while AP English Literature tends to emphasize literary devices, character, and theme.

AP US History                                                   US History

The content of these exams is well correlated. However SAT US History includes a large amount of factual information: names, dates, places, wars, whereas AP US History requires students to consider themes, trends, and the “big picture.”  

AP World History                                         World History*

The content of these exams is well correlated. However SAT World History includes a large amount of factual information and a greater focus on Prehistory – 1500, 1900-Present, and Asian and European History.

AP Language Exams                                       SAT Languages

The content of these exams is correlated. The Subject Tests are designed for non-native speakers with three to four years of exposure to the language. They are based on years of cumulative knowledge, so if enrolled in an AP course it is likely a student will have the foundational knowledge to succeed on the Subject Tests.

AP Latin

Latin *

AP German Language & Culture

German with Listening *

AP French Language & Culture

French or French with Listening *

AP Spanish Language & Culture

Spanish or Spanish with Listening *

AP Chinese Language & Culture

Chinese with Listening *

AP Japanese Language & Culture

Japanese with Listening*

* These tests are not offered on every SAT test date. Check your registration dates carefully as you decide on your testing timeline.

AP exams and SAT Subject Tests are an important part of the college admissions process. If you plan to take either of these tests, it’s important to know where you stand with your test prep, what areas you need to improve, and how to create an effective test prep strategy. At IvyWise, we work with students to provide comprehensive test prep and tutoring services for both AP exams, SAT Subject Tests, and more. We also provide academic support for students who may need additional help mastering their current coursework. For more information on our tutoring and test prep services, contact us today!

You can also download our free Academics and Test Prep Checklist here in order to see where you need to be in the testing process.

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