What Are SAT Subject Tests and When Should I Take Them?

College admission requirements come in many forms. Some schools require only a one-page application and a transcript; others involve multi-page applications and a laundry list of additional materials. What is asked of you will ultimately depend on your college list because each college or university asks for a specific set of requirements for admission.

One commonly misunderstood aspect of the college admissions process is the role of SAT Subject Tests. The SAT and its importance are fairly common knowledge, but where do Subject Tests fit into the equation?

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that 70% of colleges attribute ‘No Importance’ to SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as the SAT II tests). And of the 30% of schools who do consider these scores, only 6.6% placed ‘Considerable Importance’ on Subject Tests as a factor in admissions decisions. However, before you decide whether you need to take them or not, let’s take a closer look at SAT Subject Tests and their role in the college admissions process.

As their name suggests, SAT Subject Tests are subject-specific assessments that give students an opportunity to show evidence of mastery in a particular academic area. They are hour-long, multiple-choice, content-specific tests scored on a 200-800 scale. Each test is designed to reflect material you may have studied in a high school class, including math, science, literature, history, and languages. For the purposes of college admissions, Subject Tests can reveal the academic areas you are passionate about and/or may want to study in college. Admissions officers love applicants who have a clear idea of their potential academic pursuits because it allows the officers to envision exactly how and where those applicants will fit on campus. As you can see, Subject Tests are another ingredient that can help distinguish your college application from the thousands of others vying for a spot. But before signing up to take any of these tests, it’s important to know which ones to take and when you ideally should take them.
SAT Subject Tests
Math

Mathematics Level I

Mathematics Level II

(Note: Math Level I covers algebra and geometry. Math Level II covers these as well as trigonometry and precalculus.)
Science

Biology-EM (Note: You must choose a focus, either Ecological (E) or Molecular (M). The final 20 questions of the Biology test will be on the focus you choose.)

Chemistry

Physics

History

U.S. History

World History

English

Literature

Languages

French

French with Listening

German

German with Listening

Spanish

Spanish with Listening

Modern Hebrew

Italian

Latin

Japanese with Listening

Korean with Listening

Chinese with Listening

(Note: The Listening tests are a great way to show your fluency in a language, but only opt for a Listening test if you are absolutely confident in your language skills.)

You may take up to three SAT Subject Tests at a time, but doing so may drain you and prevent you from achieving your highest scores possible. SAT Subject Tests are offered on most of the same dates as the SAT (March excluded) with the exception of the Listening tests, which are offered only in November. The ideal time to take any of these tests is after you have completed a course in that particular subject (generally May or June) because the material will likely be fresh in your brain. AP courses are excellent preparation for SAT Subject Tests, but the decision to take multiple college-level exams around the same time of year is a personal choice based on your preparation and your test-taking ability. If you miss the May or June test administrations, consider studying over the summer and taking your Subject Tests in August. No matter when you take them, you should study with practice Subject Tests to make sure you are comfortable enough with the material and test format to reach your highest score possible.

So how do you know whether to take an SAT Subject Test or not? Your college list will provide you with answers, but many students finalize their list of schools during the fall of senior year. In general, you can expect highly selective colleges and universities to require or recommend two Subject Tests. If you are considering applying to a STEM-specific school or program (MIT, Caltech, Harvey Mudd, etc.), you can expect them to ask for math and science Subject Test scores. You can find a list of schools that use SAT Subject Test scores here, but remember to look up each school’s individual policy.

Some schools will factor your scores into your admissions decisions, while others may use your scores for freshman course placement. Do the research and find out exactly what is expected of you so that there are no surprises once you are in the midst of the college application process. So as you go forth and map out your college admissions strategy, figure out whether or not SAT Subject Tests will play a role. If so, make sure you develop a plan to tackle these tests in a manner that allows you to shine your brightest and prove that you are an academic all-star!


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