SAT/ACT and AP/IB:
SAT? Past a certain point, the SAT simply becomes luck – it depends on how you were
feeling that day, how moody your essay grader was, etc. I would say that a competitive score is
2250+ because, at about that level, you’re only missing around 7 questions. However, there are
many who get in with scores barely over 2000. SATs can range because of athlete recruitment,
alumni legacy, etc. All of these hooks drastically lower the requirements to get in. But for the
average, non-hooked person, strive for 2300+, but 2350 is even better if you are Asian. But what if you want to retake to get that higher score? Do it – it doesn’t cost that much money and it’s only around 4 hours of your time, and your score will probably go up even if you don’t study. I took the SAT 3 times and my score went up each time despite not studying for a single minute. You just get more familiar with the test and testing environment. Pro tip: try to take the test at the same testing center each time so you can get comfortable with the testing environment. But PLEASE don’t make SAT your top priority–it is really a useless (learning-wise) and insignificant test in the grand scheme of your application; there are far better things to focus on to distinguish yourself (like standing out nationally or internationally in something).
ACT? 34-36. Enough said. WAIT! Does it matter which one you take? I think the SAT is
preferred, but it really doesn’t matter which one you choose, as they’re not too significant. Some people do better on the ACT, especially if you’re good at science since there is a science section on the ACT but not on the SAT. Personally, I never bothered with the ACT. If you’re in the midwest, ACT is more common and SAT is more prevalent on the coasts.
SAT IIs? Even. More. Useless. Hence the II on the back? Our Big Kahunas could care
less which ones you take or what you score, as long as you have the capability of getting over a
750. If you are applying to the top tier schools, I would still recommend you take up to 5 SAT
II’s in a variety of subject areas and make sure you get 800s on them. Some of the SAT II’s are notorious for being very generous with their curves – the Math Level 2 has about 10% of TOTAL TEST TAKERS getting the maximum score of 800 and the Chemistry subject test has about 5% getting 800. Hence, if you don’t get a 800, that will be a red flag on your application, especially if your other academic credentials are top notch. In fact, I retook my Math Level 2 when I got a 790 to get that 800 on the second try. It only costs $9 for each extra subject test you take as long as it’s on the same day, and I suggest that you max out (take 3 subject tests) this limit whenever possible to save both time and money. Note that some universities, most notably the UC system, require a certain amount of SAT II subject tests (usually 2 or 3).
APs? The significance of these tests is ambiguous. Many of those I know who have
gotten into top tier colleges have taken typically 7-8 AP tests and up to 11, scoring 5’s on
most or all of them (we each took 8 by the end of our Junior Year and I graduated with about 17). Anything less than a 4 can seriously endanger your chances (or 5 on IB). While some of these tests are ridiculously easy (AP Chemistry), some may require some intensive last-minute preparation that may be stressful
(if you have a lot of other things going on in April/May, like national level competitions or sports tournaments, many of which are in May). Maybe more importantly than focusing on
the number of AP’s you are taking, you want to be taking the hardest possible curriculum. This is important especially at larger high schools because your counselor will note the difficult of your course load in her recommendation. You especially want to be careful around the math/science APs that offer more than 1 level in a subject. Whenever possible, you want to take AP Physics C instead of AP Physics B and AP Calculus BC instead of AP Calculus AB (same for AP CS AB instead of AP CS A) for example.
IBs? I did both AP and IB, and I will say that IB requires you to jump through a lot more hoops. While the AP courses require just a single test at the end to determine your grade, IB requires essays/thesis, projects, and community service in addition to excelling on the test. IB is also significantly more expensive. If you’re in America, I would recommend AP as it is more well known and widespread. Especially if you plan on attending a US college, you will typically get more credits for AP compared to IB. However, if your school only offers IB, make sure you do it because it is known to be a challenging curriculum and will garner respect from admissions counselors, especially if you score in the 40s. Getting a 7 on an IB test (especially Higher Level) is much harder than scoring a 5 on the comparable AP test.
Ready to move onto the next section? The dreaded college essays.