Response to Theron: A-levels, SATs, and decisions, oh my!

March 20, 2007 at 5:31 pm 5 comments

Posted by Dee

Prepare for a long comment folks! From Theron in England:

“Hi, I’m posting because I have two worries concerning college applications, one of which concerns SAT scores.

1) In the Sat I received a score of 2220, with 800 in Writing and 800 in Critical Reading but 620 in Maths. I am planning to apply to the top colleges in America, and am therefore wondering if I should retake the SAT in the hope of receiving a higher Maths score, as I realise it’s below average for a top university. However, I don’t think it’s worth the effort to retake the entire exam for the sake of a few extra points, as this is a good reflection of my current ability in Maths (I was getting 580 in practice tests). I attend school in England, meaning I have A levels to study for and I don’t think I can devote more time for Maths, which I’m not taking at A Level. Any guidance as to whether I should retake the SAT 1 is much appreciated.

2) My second problem is the fact that the SAT 2 (subject tests) don’t really fit my abilities. I am doing Geography, Economics, Medieval History and English for A level, so I have decided to definitely do Literature as one of my subject tests, but the other three subjects aren’t offered as SAT subjects. I have to decide whether it’s worth me spending a large proportion of my time studying for the French Subject Test or Biology Subject Test when I have to revise for my A Levels between now and May as well. Although I am relatively good at French and Bio, I have looked at the preparation books for these tests and I will have to make a serious commitment to receive a high mark in the SAT tests.

Any feedback is much appreciated, and sorry my post is so long P thx.”

Well, Theron, before being able to offer any guidance, I had to first decode half of your comment. Haha. No really though, what are these “A levels” of which you speak?

Apparently, A-Levels, short for Advanced Level, are optional exams taken by students in the UK in various subjects. The tests are graded A through E, with a U for a failed grade. Apparently, as compared with similar US exams, like APs, A-Levels provide more depth into each topic, but they’ve been criticized for exactly this reason in that most A-Level students will only take three, maybe four, subjects in their last year which doesn’t provide much breadth of study, especially when many students choose related topics (and compare that with the usual six to eight classes most US high school seniors take in varying subjects). But, A-Levels also come in tons of different flavors — unlike our 20 SAT Subject Tests and 37 AP courses available — totaling nearly, if not more than, 100! (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

So, now to your problem #1.

I think it’s clear you know that you should not retake the SAT exam. A 2220 is a very decent score, and believe me, I’m thoroughly impressed with your two 800 scores! Yes, your math score is low, but with your insight that you doubt it will improve plus saying you don’t really have time to make it improve drastically, I say, what’s the use in a retake? Read the post titled, “Response to Britt on SAT retakes” for the details on our thinking on that note.

So, problem #1 is solved satisfactorily I think. The overall 2220 score is totally fine, and after all, it’s not like you’re applying to be a math major! … Right?

Now onto problem #2.

Well, Theron, you’re right about this one that they definitely don’t offer three out of your four A-levels in SAT Subject Test form. So, definitely do the Literature SAT Subject test, and then from there I guess you have two options: 1.) revise your A-Levels to fit with the SAT Subject Tests — like doing French or Biology to replace one or two of your A-Levels — or 2.) study for an additional, or two additional, SAT Subject Tests on top of your A-Level course load.

Keep in mind too that many top US schools (like Harvard) are actually requiring three SAT Subject Tests, so definitely check the Subject Test requirements at the schools you’re applying to and confirm if they want two or three.

If they only require two SAT Subject Tests, then I guess you may be okay keeping your A-Level courses, doing the Literature Subject Test, and studying in addition for either Bio or French, but if you’re going to need three Subject Tests, then you should probably change either one or two of your A-Levels to Bio and/or French.


Entry filed under: A-Levels, Academics, Admissions, Answer, AP, Biology, Economics, England, English, French, Geography, Harvard, Literature, Major, Mathematics, Medieval history, Reading, Reading comprehension, SAT, Senior, Subject test, Wikipedia, Writing.

Response to BB: how many years of language is enough? As BB said, we are helpful… so add us!

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. RalphB  |  March 21, 2007 at 5:44 am

    Hmmm…I find a lot of your advice pretty helpful, but I’m not sure about this one. If she can only take three or four A-Levels she should take the ones she’s really passionate about because she’ll do better on them. As long as you also maintain a good GPA, don’t stress about the SAT2’s too much. I had two 670’s on math and chem and I still got accepted to MIT, so it’s okay. (PS I think they notice that you’re international and SATs are inconvenient and take that into account)

  • 2. Dee  |  March 21, 2007 at 7:06 am

    Ralph you’re totally right that students should be passionate about the classes they are taking, and I’m the last one to want people to take classes they don’t like just for the heck of it! It’s always tough though having limited information in people’s comments, and I hope everyone reading understands that any advice we give here doesn’t purport to know the full story and all your interests, etc. I read Theron’s comment as having a willingness to indeed be okay with switching to take Bio or French instead of one of the four chosen; it didn’t seem Theron was totally tied down to those exact four but rather that taking Bio or French instead would just be more difficult/challenging.

    Also I’m glad you pointed out Ralph that schools will take into account whether a student is international and that leads me to think that we really do need someone here at AdmitSpit writing about applying from outside the US! I’ll work on it…

  • 3. Paul Mulkerrin  |  March 25, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Since we can know only part of the elephant that is selective college admissions, I can give Dee’s comments on retesting here a strong endorsement: they exactly match my experience.

    One improvement I can suggest is for Theron to ask the international admissions person at each of the schools to which she’s applying how they view A-level results. At the colleges with the largest applicant pools & admissions staffs, the committees are very familiar with the material tested, the range of actual results and the conversion or transferability of those British letter grades. Each of the HYPS-level schools have seen hundreds of applicants from UK and British Commonwealth schools annually for more than a decade now.

    Another independent counselor (that is, one other than me) tells me that the UK’s A to E grades correspond roughly to the 5 to 1 scores that we Americans see from AP tests. Makes sense.

    So, Theron, you should:

    1.) Check with each school you’re considering (finding the individual to e-mail & tweaking a standard e-mail for each should be trivial) to ask if you can substitute A-level scores OR AP test scores for SAT subject tests. [Every US college with which I’m familiar has a higher confidence level in the conclusions they draw from AP test scores than the results of SAT subject tests.]

    2.) If necessary, you can also make a compelling financial case for considering your A-levels. Taking any of the College Board’s subject or AP tests abroad are unbelievably expensive; generally more than 100 Euros or $120 each.

    3.) Just as Dee says, use your time to do well on the A-levels for which you enjoy the work.

    4.) Finally, we’ll all cheat you if we don’t tell you that this testing talk is, unlike in the UK, about a small part of your application. You’ll get much further investing time in demonstrating (not just saying) that you have a clear passion for some aspect of life on your chosen American campuses.

    Three Stooges marathons, ultimate frisbee & naked parties are unique to US campus life. But you’re better served by thinking through why you want to attend a 4-year US liberal arts college instead of a 3-year, ‘pick your major when you apply’ UK university. Then, make the case for your position and your ambitions briefly & persuasively in your essays.

  • 4. zhao  |  May 24, 2007 at 5:43 am

    i got 670 in my SAT math 1 and 660 in my physics
    are my score ok?

  • 5. Theron  |  May 24, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Hey, it’s Theron. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to my questions!! I have found the information you’ve provided me with to be very useful. I especially appreciate Paul’s feedback .

    So, I’ve now taken the French and Literature SAT Subject Tests, and ended up with scores of 500 and 710 respectively. I’m pleased with both of these, especially considering the difficulty I had with the French paper. I’m definitely going to look into taking APs or substituting A Levels for Subject Tests, as both these options sound very attractive.

    You’ve got me slightly worried, however! I sincerely hope Stanford and Princeton (the two US colleges I’m 100% sure I’ll apply to) will be content with two SAT 2s + A levels!!

    Anyway, I found your response to be extremely helpful, Dee, and truly appreciate the time it took you to reply to my etensive problem 🙂


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