SAT Subject Tests: A Primer

Let's face it: the junior year in high school is fraught. It's the most important year in terms of academics. It's when you take the SAT or ACT, when you start putting together your college list, and when you are likely hitting your peak in whatever sports or extra-curricular activities you're involved in. In short, it's probably the most stressful year you'll experience until after you've graduated from college.

Into that mix, you need to add often poorly understood SAT subject tests. Generally, my clients have some notion of the SAT. An increasing number even know a thing or two about the ACT. But it's very rare for them to have any accurate information about the SAT Subject Tests (and, with surprising frequency, they don't even know they exist at all!).

So without further ado, here's an introduction to the SAT Subject Tests.

What Are The Subject Tests?

The Subject Tests are a series of one hour exams the focus on a variety of academic subjects. They ask multiple choice questions and produce a score on the familiar 200 to 800 scale used by the SAT. For more details and a list of subjects, check out this page of the College Board website.

Do I Need to Take Subject Tests?

This is the first question a lot of people have for me. The answer is: it depends on where you're applying to school. Here is a list of schools that require, recommend, or list as "optional" SAT Subject Tests. If you plan to attend to any school that requires or recommends the Subject Tests, you should absolutely take the required (or recommended) number (almost always two). Note that some schools have particular requirements (e.g. most engineering schools require Math Level 2). Only submit scores to schools where they are optional if the scores will enhance your application.

Once upon a time, if you took the ACT, you didn't need to take the Subject Tests. This is still true at a few schools, but most schools have abandoned that policy. Check with the schools you plan to apply to before assuming that taking the ACT will get you out of needing Subject Tests!

When Should I Take Subject Tests?

First of all, in a perfect world, you'd be asking me this question freshman year. Why? Because, depending on the subject, freshman year might be the best year to take the test. You should take a Subject Test at the end of the academic year that you complete the relevant coursework. Interested in taking Biology? If your coursework in Biology is freshman year, that's when you should take the test.

All other things being equal, you should try to have at least a first crack at the Subject Tests done by the end of your junior year; a lot of students save the June test date for exactly that purpose.

Two other important considerations: Subject Tests are given on the same days as the SAT (except the March test date, which is SAT only), so make sure to plan appropriately. Also, the language tests with listening are only given in November.

Which Tests Should I Take?

Obviously, you want the tests that will make the best impression. What does that mean?

  1. If the school has particular requirements (or even recommendations), follow them. Some schools require particular tests (usually the Math Level 2 and/or a science for engineering programs). Other schools require that your two tests be from different "areas" (the areas are usually defined as math, science, humanities, and foreign language). In short, make sure you're aware of any particular requirements.

  2. If possible, try to show breadth. In other words, it can make a better impression to show you're good at both a math or science topic, and a humanities or language. That said, don't try to show breadth if your scores will suffer a lot as a result!

  3. Math Level 1 doesn't fly at top schools. If you're applying to one of the very top schools, the Math Level 1 will be considered a real weakness. Better to avoid math altogether than to take the Level 1 in many cases.

4. Showcase your strengths. The bottom line is that you want to take the tests that will produce the best scores for you. If this ultimately means you need to disregard items 2 and/or 3 on this list, then disregard them!

5. If you are a native speaker, don't take the language test! College admissions officers aren't dumb. No one is impressed by a native speaker of Spanish knocking it out of the park on the Spanish Subject Test.

What Matters: The Percentile or the Score?

This is a tough question to answer, actually. Let's consider how this works using my favorite test: the Math Level 2.

As of the most recent released statistics, a perfect score on the Math Level 2 is only the 89th percentile. This has, over the years, led to any number of freak-outs and, frankly, a lot of bad advice. I've heard tutors who I very much respect claim "this means if you can't break [insert number greater than 750 here], you shouldn't take the Math Level 2!"

As my grandfather would say: piffle.

Why is a "perfect score" only the 89th percentile? You have to think about who is taking this test: people applying to the absolute top engineering schools in the country. Top math students applying to highly competitive schools. If 11% of these students weren't strong enough at math to garner a perfect score, something would be wrong. SAT subject tests are, quite simply, curved differently. For the most part, just worry about getting scores that are roughly equivalent to your SAT scores (or, if you took the ACT, to the average SAT scores for your school).

Summing Up

Find out what the schools you're applying to require in terms of SAT Subject Tests, schedule them when you'll be most ready to take them (usually at the end of the relevant academic year), and take the tests the will present the best picture to the admissions committee.

Find a college that fits your personality here or learn more about the SAT and ACT.

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