Every math, biology, or US history course is taught differently in each and every school throughout the United States. Which makes it almost impossible to compare the caliber of these subjects and the caliber of these students, especially when trying to make decisions on college admissions.
For that reason, an excellent indicator of mastery in a specific subject is an SAT Subject Test. It allows a standardized measure of achievement across the country and can be a valuable indicator of academic ability, in a way the normal SAT or ACT are not.
So to help navigate the ins and outs of this suite of assessments, here’s a quick and comprehensive guide to all things SAT Subject Test.
What are SAT Subject Tests?
Also known as SAT IIs (because the normal SAT is SAT I), the SAT Subject Tests are one hour, about 60-80 multiple choice questions (depending on the subject), and are scored on a scale.
College Board offers these exams in subjects from Chinese to Chemistry to English Literature. Officially, there are 20 different tests in 5 different subject areas that a student can take. On each testing day, you can take a maximum of three tests in whatever areas you wish, in whatever order you would like.
How are they scored?
SAT Subjects Tests are scored from a range of 200-800, using a raw to scaled score conversion. Unlike the normal SAT, there is a wrong-answer penalty for SAT Subject Tests - each wrong answer is a deduction of a quarter of a point (which means some strategy comes into play when taking the tests). Of course, an 800 is the best possible score, but when considering scores for these tests and how competitive your score may be, it’s better to look at the percentile your score is in. A 790 on Math 2 will be a much lower percentile than a 790 in Biology M, which means that your Bio 790 holds more comparative weight.
When should you take SAT Subject Tests?
Ideally, you would take the relevant subject as soon as you have finished the class. This way, the information is not being chased out of your mind by new courses and you are most confident about your knowledge. This can mean taking science Subject Tests, like Bio or Physics (depending on how your school does its science) in your freshmen year.
Although the SAT Subject Tests are offered multiple times throughout the year (except for some Language with Listening tests), the best time to take them is usually June of the year you are taking the course. Some people also elect to study extra during the summer and take them in August or October, which may work for some people, especially if you think that the course taught in your school is not the same difficulty level as the SAT Subject test will be.
What do SAT Subject Tests mean for college admissions and do they really make a difference?
A lot of colleges (more than you may expect) require a certain Subject Test or a certain number of Subject Tests to be considered for admission. This is especially true of top-tier, very selective schools that are looking for another way to find those extra-amazing students in their incredible pool of applicants. Most schools that do require them, require two, usually in whatever subject you would like, but depending both on the university and the school within the university that you are applying to. (For example, Princeton’s engineering degree applicants have different SAT Subject Test recommendations than those who are not interested in pursuing engineering.)
That being said, not all schools require subject tests, in some places they are merely recommended as opposed to required, and colleges understand that if you did not have the financial means to take the tests, they will not hold it against you.
But if you do have the ability and opportunity to take Subject Tests, definitely go for it. Besides fulfilling requirements for more selective universities, you are showing other colleges that you have reached a level of excellence in a particular subject. These Subject Tests are particularly helpful for showing your interest and achievement in subjects and areas you want to pursue in college. (For example, if you want to major in biology in college, it’s a good idea to take and send in your Biology Subject Test scores, even if the school doesn’t require it).
Finally, SAT Subject Tests definitely do make a difference in admissions. It gives those admissions counselors one extra reason to admit you into their incoming class. Plus, many colleges use SAT Subject Tests as a part of their “academic index” when considering their admissions applicant pool (more on how college admissions actually works here). Good Subject Test scores can raise your academic index and make you more competitive in admissions.
Which SAT Subject Tests should you take?
There’s no secret number or combination of Subject Tests you need to take in order to have the highest chance of admissions, but there are a few that I definitely recommend taking.
The first being a Math Subject Test. Even if math is not your forte, this is a test required by a lot of schools, and most of the subject matter is taught in schools up to pre-calculus classes. There are two different math Subject Tests, Math 1 and Math 2, with the latter being the harder one, focusing on pre-calculus and algebra 2 concepts, and Math 1 focusing more on algebra and basic geometry. Math 2, of course, carries a lot more weight in admissions, so try to take that test, but even Math 1 is worth it if Math 2 is not possible.
You should also take at least 2 science subject tests. This means two out of the three: Physics, Chemistry, Biology Ecology/ Molecular (only take one of the two bio tests). Taking two science tests fulfills the requirements for most schools, plus it gives you the choice of picking one of the two (whichever has the highest score) to pair with your Math score if you need to. In fact, I would recommend taking all three of these tests just to give yourself the option of picking which two you do the best in to submit to colleges (if they require two science).
Beyond science and math, there are not usually any tests that are a “must-take”. But generally, I would take the Subjects Tests in courses you have excelled at in school. Maybe you completely rocked that APUSH class and want to take the US History Subject Test. By taking a Subject Test in a subject you excelled at in school, it makes the test itself easier to take and can become an excellent score to include in your score report when sending it to schools. Another reason to take a Subject Test might be to show your language skills. There are 9 different language tests offered by College Board, and getting a good score in these languages can show your versatility and even lead to college credit to fulfill a foreign language requirement. And if you’re already fluent in the language (as in, you are bilingual/multilingual) you can easily take these tests for an easy (or relatively easy) good score.
Which SAT Subject Test scores should you send to colleges?
The ones that you have the highest score in. Unless a school requires a specific test (like Math 2) or recommends (recommends can usually be translated into required) a specific subject test, it really doesn’t matter which one you send in. If you get a 750 in World History and a 750 in Spanish, it will most likely mean the exact same.
Because of that, undoubtedly send in the ones you score the best on. No question. Well, I suppose the only other time you would not send in your two best scores is if you are pursuing a specific subject area in college. If you’re applying as a chemistry major and haven’t taken or done well on the Chemistry Subject Test, that can be a bit shady. But even then, a good score in an unrelated subject can outweigh a bad/average score in the desired subject.
My Experience with SAT Subject Tests
As for me, I took 4 different subject tests throughout high school. Because I took an Honors Bio class in my freshmen year, I took the Biology SAT Subject Test in June of that year. I took the Molecular one (as opposed to the Ecology one) because I felt more confident plus I heard it was supposedly the harder one (my twisted logic was that a higher score would then be worth more - don’t listen to that logic, take whichever one you think you will do better in). I ended up getting an 800, very unexpected.
I took the Chemistry SAT in June of my sophomore year, after taking Honors Chem and self-studying for the AP Chem test. I was definitely not as confident with this one as I was with Bio (I’m not the best at chem), plus I sorta didn’t think it was possible to get an 800 twice, but I somehow got an 800.
I took both Math 2 and Physics in June of my junior year, and I was not super confident about either. This time, no 800s for me, I got a 790 and (ugh) 750, respectively. I definitely underestimated the Physics one.
Anyway, except for the one school that I’m applying to that requires the Math 2 SAT, I am only sending my Bio and Chem scores. The 800s are a nice booster, plus Bio and Chem are related to my prospective major, Neuroscience, so it worked out for me in the end.
I don’t think I will take any other SAT Subject Tests this year, my senior year, although there is a small chance I might take the Spanish one, depending on how confident I feel about getting a 5 on the AP Spanish Exam and whether the college I am going to will accept the SAT Subject Test credit (this is because I want to minor in Spanish and want to get rid of the foreign language requirement and save myself a couple of classes).
But remember, regardless if you get a perfect score or not, SAT Subject Tests are important to take, especially if you want to stand out in the applicant pool!
And as always, thanks for reading!