What Are the SAT Subject Tests and When Should You Take Them?

Oh SAT Subject Tests. Just when you thought you had enough exams and projects on your plate, the admissions world throws you the SAT Subject Tests, too. We know, there are a lot of options and a lot of conflicting information out there, but let us break everything down for you so you can move forward through your admissions readiness process with confidence.

What are SAT Subject Tests?
These are 1-hour long, content-based tests that assess your mastery of a specific subject. The subjects tested are: Literature, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, U.S. History, World History, Math Level 1 or 2, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Not all language tests are available on all dates. In most cases, students take the SAT Subject Tests for the courses they have most recently completed — and in courses that they excelled in. If you struggled in Chemistry, for instance, it’s likely not a good idea to take the SAT Subject Test because the purpose of the test is to further demonstrate your mastery of the topic. The College Board offers tests in a wide variety of topics – every student should be able to find at least a test or two to demonstrate their academic mastery of the subject.

In most cases, you get to choose which SAT Subject Tests you take (although we’ll explain further down this post that certain courses of study – engineering, for one – do require certain tests to be taken). So it is helpful to review the list of available tests so that you can 1) determine which tests you’re likely to do best on, and 2) can take the tests as soon as possible after you’ve taken those courses. Which brings us to…

When Should You Take SAT Subject Tests?
Typically it makes sense to take SAT Subject Tests during the June administration of the tests. Why? Because all of the information is fresh in your brain! Take advantage of that — let’s not make this harder than it has to be!

Also, you can take up to three SAT Subject tests on any one test administration date. They are offered on the same dates as the SAT, but you cannot take both the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. Which is a good thing: honestly, taking all of those tests in one sitting sounds awful anyway – and would wear down your brainpower and energy enough to certainly lower your score on at least one of those tests – so we’re glad that’s not even an option! Given these restrictions, though, careful planning becomes quite important! Which administration date will you use for the SAT? Which will you use if you need to retake the SAT? And which will you use for SAT Subject Tests? It’s important to plan all of that out so you have ample time to satisfy all of your testing requirements and goals. For this reason it is also important to start early: taking the general SAT in the spring of your junior year allows plenty of room to retake that test if you need to, as well as have the option for several SAT Subject Test dates. And of course do not forget that the ACT is another option for your general test score so that you can “save” some SAT administration dates for SAT Subject Tests while still working toward an elite overall test score on either the SAT or the ACT.

In an ideal world, you would take each SAT subject test at the end of the semester or year that you took that course, ensuring that your memory is as full of that subject as it’s going to be. Even more ideal? You’ll take the AP exam for that subject right around the same time, getting the greatest possible value out of all the time you spent studying as you ace your school’s exam, the SAT Subject Test, and the AP exam all within a few weeks of one another.

Importantly, please visit the official SAT administration calendar to plan when the upcoming test dates are.

How are SAT Subject Tests scored?
SAT Subject Tests have a highest possible score of 800. There are no composite SAT Subject Test scores as there are with the SAT. Your score on each test is evaluated individually. If you would like to see how your SAT Subject Test score compares to other students taking these exams, you can look at this score distribution report from the College Board (the maker of the SAT and SAT Subject tests).

Are you interested in Engineering? We always think it is important to point out that if you score a perfect 800 on the Math 2 exam, that puts you in the 79th percentile for all test takers! It has become increasingly more important to knock that test in particular out of the park, because students are excelling on the Math 2 exam year after year. This isn’t meant to scare you, but to show you how important preparation is! Your competitors for slots at those schools are studying hard for these tests, so you should plan to study, too. The good news, of course, is that if you’re taking these classes in school, you’re already studying by virtue of doing the homework and studying for school exams.

Are SAT Subject Tests required?
Most top-tier colleges and universities require, or at least encourage, 2 SAT Subject Tests in subjects of your choosing. Most top engineering schools require the Math 2 Subject Test, plus either Physics, Chemistry, or Biology. This disparity in the application and admissions process can often be the most frustrating part of the whole process. This is why we encourage you to thoroughly research each school on your list to determine their testing requirements. If even one school on your list of colleges requires the tests, it’s imperative that you take them. And then, of course, those scores will be an asset for you at the colleges where those tests are not specifically required, too. Check the websites of the schools you are applying to to make sure you are taking the right number and type of test. Also confirm when you need to take the tests for them to be considered in your admissions decision!

These tests are very important! They make up roughly a third of the all-important “Academic Index” or AI number that top colleges use to rate you academically. Unless you’re a Rockefeller or have traveled to space, your academic performance is the single most important piece of information on your entire college application – a compelling essay or letter of recommendation can help, but first and foremost college admissions committees want to make sure that you can handle college-level work, and the best evidence of that is your academic profile.

All that said, June is a great time to take these tests on subjects you are currently studying. For those of you taking an AP exam in May, see if an SAT Subject Test is offered in that subject. AP tests are much longer and more rigorous than SAT Subject tests. If you spend all year studying hard and preparing for the AP exam, the SAT Subject Test will likely be a breeze, but not if you wait until the Fall and give yourself all Summer to forget! Besides, over the summer you will likely want to be prepping for the October SAT so that you maximize your overall SAT score in time for the early decision/action deadlines in November and for the general admissions deadlines in January.

As is true for learning anything, you are better off studying for one hour per day than for 7 hours all in one day! That’s just not how human beings learn well – spaced repetition of these topics makes your memory more permanent, and shorter but more frequent sessions helps you avoid burnout or information overload in one sitting.

Are there any drawbacks to taking the tests?
There is almost no harm in taking these tests, other than the usual emotional anguish often associated with standardized testing. Using The College Board’s popular “Score Choice” feature, you can choose which test scores to send to which schools – after you see your score. Many schools will just pick your top 2 tests, but strong scores on 6 Subject Tests will leave a better impression than strong scores on 2 tests. Think about it like AP tests – would you rather have 10 AP 5s on your record or 2 AP 5s? Breadth is important!
Be aware that some colleges (Yale University is one notable example) do NOT accept score choice and will see ALL of your SAT and SAT Subject Tests you ever have taken in your entire life, including that one you may have taken in 8th grade, just for practice. So whenever you do sit for an SAT Subject Test, make sure that you’re prepared for it and that you’re ready to do your best work. You can read more about Score Choice here: https://professionals.collegeboard.com/testing/sat-reasoning/scores/policy

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