A Guide to SAT Subject Tests

A Guide to SAT Subject Tests

You finally conquered the SAT, having taken countless practice tests and sacrificed hours of precious sleep in favor of tackling practice problem after practice problem leading up to test day. But before happily deleting your Collegeboard account, take a moment to consider that for some of you, your battle with standardized testing is far from over. Instead, you’ve simply entered the next stage: subject tests!

What is a subject test?

SAT subject tests, also known as SAT IIs, are standardized tests focused on a single topic. As of the time of writing, there are 20 subject tests available, of which you can take three on a single test date. Each subject test is only an hour long, and they’re mostly* administered on the same dates and at the same locations as the regular SAT. The tests are scored from 200 to 800 points, as opposed to the regular SAT which is scored out of 1600 points.

The subject tests span the five general subject areas of English, history, language, mathematics, and science. Here’s a list of test topics offered:

English

  • Literature

History

  • US History
  • World History

Mathematics

  • Math Level 1
  • Math Level 2

Science

  • Biology- Ecological
  • Biology- Molecular
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Language

  • French
  • German
  • Spanish
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Latin
  • French with Listening*
  • German with Listening*
  • Spanish with Listening*
  • Chinese with Listening*
  • Japanese with Listening*
  • Korean with Listening*

*In particular, the language with listening tests are only offered once a year on the November test date, which means that venues fill up pretty quickly and that it’s much better to register sooner than later. I learned about the existence of subject tests fairly late in the game and registered late for the Chinese with Listening test, which led to a pretty awful test experience— but that’s a story for another day.

How do you know if you need to, or should, take a subject test? 

The two main reasons for taking subject tests are to 1) to demonstrate your proficiency on the topic of the test, or 2) simply because colleges that you’re planning on applying to require that you take them

If you’re fluent in any of the languages listed above, then it may be worthwhile to spend a Saturday morning sitting a test that you won’t need to spend much time preparing for. (If you’re taking a “with listening” test, all you’ll need to do is borrow or purchase a CD player— which you’ll likely never use again 🙁 .) If you’re planning on majoring in pre-med, then you may want to consider taking a biology test to strengthen your application, just as a prospective English major might consider taking the literature test. Scoring well on a subject test may also help compensate for a poor grade in a course on the same subject, or corroborate your passion for a topic to demonstrate your ability to excel in that field. In these cases, subject tests aren’t necessarily required components of your application, and are simply extra data points that you can use to your favor.

However, there are some colleges and majors that require (or recommend, or consider) SAT subject tests. Here’s a list— oftentimes subject tests are only required for specific majors, commonly a math test and a science test for STEM majors. On the website linked, you’ll see that some colleges list subject tests as “recommended” or “strongly recommended,” which I interpret as a different way of saying “required” to be considered a competitive applicant. If the college(s) that you’re planning on applying to don’t require subject tests or simply “consider” them, subject tests can still help emphasize your strengths, but they aren’t necessary to apply. 

In addition, with the help of Collegeboard’s score choice feature, many colleges allow you to pick and choose exactly which subject tests you want to send to them. This means that you don’t have to send “bad” subject test scores on official score reports to colleges if you’re not happy with your score, so a disappointing score on a subject test won’t necessarily tarnish your record.*

*However, not all colleges participate in score choice— some schools require that you submit ALL of your SAT scores but allow you to choose which subject test scores you want to send, some schools require that you submit ALL of your scores on both the regular SAT and the subject tests, while some schools allow you to submit only your best scores on both the regular SAT and on the SAT subject tests. You can find a brief list of colleges and their policies on using score choice here, but DO NOT entirely rely on the information listed there! Colleges can change their policies from year to year, and there are often exceptions depending on which department within the college you are applying to. Once you compile a list of colleges to research, visit their individual websites to figure out their requirements and which of the three score choice policies they fall into, in addition to whether they require subject tests at all. Tedious, I know, especially when some colleges’ websites are frustrating to navigate, but it’s important to do your research so you know all of the facts beforehand!

 If you are planning on applying to a college that won’t even look at your application without subject test scores— such as MIT or Caltech— you might want to start planning which tests you need to take ahead of time. Try not to leave subject tests to the last minute, despite how hard it might be to juggle schoolwork, the SAT, and subject tests all at once— you’ll thank yourself when senior year rolls around and you’re able to invest as much time as possible into your actual applications!

When should you take a subject test? It’s best to take a test on information that is still fresh in your mind, so I would suggest taking a subject test right after the class you’re taking on the same subject at school has ended. For example, if you take biology during freshman year in high school, you might want to consider taking the biology subject test immediately afterwards while you still remember random facts like that crayfish have gills. If you’re able to figure out which subject tests you are going to take early on in your high school career then you’ll be able to work towards saving yourself from subject-test-induced stress come junior or senior year. 

If you’re taking a test on a subject that isn’t offered at school, take a practice test available on the Collegeboard website or in Collegeboard’s Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests. Depending on how many points you want to improve by, decide how long you need to practice, schedule a test date, and study away! Self-studying can be difficult, but there are plenty of resources to help you along the way— just keep your eyes on your goal (and your textbook).

In addition to differing in duration and topic, there is another important area in which subject tests are different to the regular SAT: the negative-quarter-point reign of terror. Unlike on the regular SAT, each multiple-choice question on a subject test has five possible answer choices. If you choose an incorrect answer, you’ll not only fail to gain a point awarded for a correct answer, but you’ll also lose ¼ of a point. 

For example, if you see a question like this:

Q. What is the color of a perfectly ripe banana?

  1. Red
  2. Yellow
  3. Orange
  4. Green
  5. Brown

Selecting b. Yellow would give you one point, while selecting any other answer choice, e.g. a. Red would leave your score at -¼ points.

On the regular SAT, you aren’t penalized for answering incorrectly— answering a. Red would leave you at zero points instead of docking an extra quarter point. In that case, it makes much more sense to randomly bubble in an answer to a question that you have no clue how to respond to versus not answering the question at all, but taking a subject test requires a different guessing strategy.

Because of the risk attached to choosing the wrong answer choice, I would recommend only randomly selecting an answer choice if you are able to eliminate 1-2 of the choices to begin with, as you’ll then have a decent chance of randomly earning yourself a point. Just remember to keep this difference in mind when testing, and try to be deliberate in deciding to either take a guess or just leave the question empty.

Whether you decide to take one subject test, multiple tests, or choose to skip taking them altogether, I hope that this article has helped you understand a little more about the SAT’s lesser-known sibling in order to prepare you for this step in your college application journey. As always, best of luck! Let me know if you have any questions or if there’s a topic that you’d like to see an article on and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Until next time!


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