Once upon a time, getting into college wasn’t the reason for every high schooler’s existence. Malcolm Gladwell describes his college application process in this insightful essay as nothing more than filling out a simple form. Test scores were, of course, considered, but there were no SAT Subject Tests (called SAT IIs until recently).
Nowadays, many selective universities require applicants to complete at least two of these tests in subjects of their choice. They are one hour in length and grill students on one particular area of study. Engineering majors like myself are frequently required to take one in math and one in either chemistry or physics. Sounds simple, right? Not quite. Due to scheduling difficulties, I found myself faced with taking the SAT Chemistry before taking AP Chem. Self-studying would be the only way to prepare.
This challenge did not arise because of poor planning. During my sophomore year, when trying to decide what classes to take as a junior, I signed up for AP Chem. However, due to scheduling conflicts caused by orchestra and so-called “singleton” classes (those that run during only one period) I was unable to do so. I knew that I was going to have to take the SAT Chemistry, however, so I basically considered myself doomed. I would have to sit for the exam without taking the corresponding class.
I opted to take the exam October of my senior year. If I had taken it the previous June, I wouldn’t have had much time to study due to AP exams. By taking it in the beginning of the year, I figured, I could spend more time studying. And trust me, I did. I procured the book only two weeks before the exam, which, in hindsight, was not really enough time to learn everything I needed. In order to cram in the most efficient manner, I dedicated 2 hours every day to teaching myself. I decided to do this immediately after school in order to avoid the tired half-studying that comes late at night. This dedicated regimen was mostly successful; I was able to study the majority of the book in depth and do most of the practice tests.
Come test day, I was incredibly nervous. What if there was something on the exam that my test book totally missed? I was relying entirely on a copy of Barron’s to propel me to success. In the end, my performance was definitely acceptable. It was not as high as it would have been had I completed AP Chemistry, but considering I taught myself, it was not bad. Although that was certainly not the ideal way to prepare for an SAT II, it worked out in the end. Through my experience, I’ve realized a few things that can help those of you going through a similar situation.
1. Ask for help: I ended up taking AP Chem as a senior, and my teacher could have been a valuable resource. However, I didn’t ask for her assistance, so I didn’t receive it. Your teacher can work with you on difficult concepts and provide you with extra practice materials. Another option is to study with a private tutor, which you can do over a few months before the test.
2. Leave plenty of time: Two weeks simply was not enough time to prepare fully. If possible, take some time in the summer to study. You’ll have less going on, and can focus more fully on the work at hand. Plus, it’s no secret that cramming isn’t the best way to learn. Working over a few months will make sure that the information gets into your head and stays there.
3. Plan strategically: In hindsight, it may have been more beneficial to take the chemistry SAT II at the end of my sophomore year. I took honors chem as a sophomore, so basic concepts would have been fresh in my mind. As a senior, however, I had gone a whole year without chemistry. Because of this, I was forced to review some foundation material that I had forgotten. If possible, schedule your exam for a month that best takes advantage of your existing knowledge on the subject. You’ll need to spend less time studying basic concepts and will fare better because of it.
Ultimately, taking an SAT II without taking the exam is totally doable, but it will require a lot of preparation if you want to score well. However, another thing to consider is that colleges see your schedule and they’ll know that you self-studied. With that in mind, the key to success is committing to a study schedule so that you can test your best.