Colleges can and do change their testing requirements, and students should carefully review the testing policies at each college they are considering sending an application. In this way you can avoid the unpleasant experience of finding out at the last minute that there is a required or recommended exam. In 2009 College Board announced Score Choice and this move made it seem as though students were the final decision makers regarding what scores to send out to colleges. In fact, colleges set their own admission requirements, and each applicant must adhere to each college's testing requirements in order for his or her application to be considered complete. Think about it logically-- all your scores must be visible to colleges?or else how could they validate your self-reported 'best scores?' Simple fact?ultimately most colleges can and do view all your scores.
Let's take a specific example about how colleges vary their testing requirements. Each year, the requirements and recommendations around SAT Subject Tests grow more diverse. SAT Subject Tests are one hour exams, best taken at the completion of related high school coursework, when the material is freshest in students' minds. For example, it is often best to take the SAT Subject Test Math Level 2 at the completion of pre-calculus and the SAT Subject Test in Chemistry at the completion of AP Chemistry. SAT Subject Tests are sometimes confused with AP Exams, but they are different tests and one does not substitute for the other.
Colleges may find Subject Tests helpful, but they are not always in agreement about how they are helpful. So the general trend is toward greater flexibility. The University of California (UC) dropped the SAT Subject Test requirement in 2011 for Class of 2012. For all students, pressure was lessened to schedule additional standardized testing and for many underserved students, who were otherwise qualified, an important barrier was removed to accessing a UC education. Before this change, the UC was the only public higher education system to require students to take two subject examinations. See Nancy Griesemer for the history of this change.
But following this change is where the picture grew murky. UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry as well as UC Berkeley's College of Engineering still consider an SAT Science and Math Level 2 a 'plus' and UC Santa Barbara's College of Letters and Science states that subject test scores can add 'value' to the application review process. The other UCs have different recommendations.
In addition, many selective private colleges and universities nationwide still require or recommend that applicants demonstrate academic competence by taking one or more (usually two) SAT Subject Tests. Some colleges have policies that somehow 'take scores into account' and encourage sending them, especially if they are strong scores. Strong scores can serve to strengthen or 'enhance' the student's application. Exactly how colleges use Subject Test scores and under what conditions a set of scores will benefit a particular student applying to a particular school for a particular major can be unclear.
Students should ask a seasoned college representative or trusted advisor these questions directly to gain clarity about how the policy applies to his or her unique application. And, as a general rule, all standardized testing should include sufficient preparation time in order to achieve your best scores, since all scores may be visible to each college you send an application.