In this installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we continue our discussion of standardized tests, turning now to subject based tests such as AP, IB, and SAT II exams. How many AP Exams should I take? Do I need an International Baccalaureate diploma? What about SAT II exams? Read on, gentle reader, read on!
When it comes to AP/IB exams, the more you take (and get top scores on) the better. As I mentioned last time, you want to take as many AP/IB courses as you possibly can, and you always want to take the exams at the end and get as high a score as you can. When I was applying to college, many of my friends would even take AP exams for courses they didn’t take: for instance, the European History exam was very popular, since much of the material was already covered in the World History exam they were going to take anyway. They would just buy a prep book and study all the parts that weren’t covered in World History, then go take the exam without ever having taken an AP European History class (they got 5s, too). I never resorted to such methods myself, but I still ended up with 5s on seven exams (World History, U.S. History, Micro/Macro Economics, Physics B, Biology, English Language, English Literature), and 4s on two others (Calculus BC (Calculus AB counts that as a 5, I believe) and Music Theory (took this one freshman year – ear training is hard!)).
Some schools offer the IB (International Baccalaureate) program instead of AP courses (mine offered both, so I did both). From what I understand, the International Baccalaureate program is a relic of the Cold War that allows students who complete IB courses and pass IB exams to qualify for college admission in countries all over the world (mostly NATO countries, for practical purposes), and while it is still useful for students who want to study in Europe (I don’t know why you’d want to – the US is widely recognized to have the best university system in the world), today it is mostly an alternative to AP. If you do the IB Diploma program, you want to get as many 7s as possible, especially on your higher-level exams.
Just as a side note, after you get into your Ivy, AP scores of 5 and HL IB scores of 7 can often be used to place out of entry level courses and may count toward graduation requirements (my credits from AP and IB exams helped me graduate a year early from Columbia – although that may or may not have been a wise decision…).
Ivy league schools generally require you to take at least two SAT II subject exams as well. You can find a list of available exams here. In general, you want to take one humanities and one math/science. I believe I took three exams, actually: U.S. History, Math II (Math II includes precalculus and trigonometry in addition to the algebra and geometry covered on the Math I, so it’s better to take the Math II), and Literature (perfect score on that one). You definitely want above a 700 on each of these exams, and the closer you can get to a perfect 800, the better. These exams are more competitive than the regular SAT, because generally only students aiming to get into elite schools take them. Of course, you do have the advantage of only testing on your best subjects. It’s also wise to take an SAT II exam immediately after you finish the relevant course so all the material is still fresh in your mind from the final, AP, and/or IB exam you just took.
Hopefully, your high school teachers, coursework, and independent pre-test cramming will prepare you for these exams. If, however, you desire more preparation or an extra edge on the competition, you can get extra help from professional experts (Literature SAT II prep, anyone?), and many of the same companies that offer SAT and ACT prep services provide tutoring in these subjects as well.
Now that we’ve covered the nitty-gritty of grades and exams, next time we’ll start to turn to some of the more touchy-feely aspects of your application: extracurriculars.
This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include: