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SAT Subject Tests // What are they? Why do I need them?

Elton Lin

sat subject tests what are they how many do you need

With the recent changes in the SAT (and to a lesser extent, the ACT), college admissions offices have been redefining guidelines for standardized test scores, with many schools no longer requiring applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores. So what should a sophomore or junior do with that information? Are SAT Subject Tests even necessary anymore? Should you be registering for SAT Subject Tests this year?  Today, we’ll be tackling some FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) regarding these exams. Let’s start off with some basic information.

What are SAT Subject Tests?

Your parents may have known them as Achievement Tests. Your much older siblings may have called them SAT II tests. But regardless of their changing name, the 20 different SAT Subject Tests remain hour-long, multiple-choice, content-based exams designed for students who have completed the honors level of that particular subject. For example, a student who has completed Honors Biology at school may consider taking the Biology SAT (unless you’ll take AP Biology later—see below).

SAT Subject Tests are all scored out of 800, and they range in subjects as diverse as Modern Hebrew to Chemistry. As you might imagine, there are many language exams offered (nine total), and most of the language exams have both a listening portion and a reading portion.

When are they offered?

The most popular SAT Subject Tests are offered six times a year—on the same dates that the SAT is offered (Aug, Oct, Nov, Dec, May, June), so they may not be taken on the same date as the SAT. Many of the less popular tests, including ones like World History, Latin, or Japanese are offered fewer times a year. For current dates, check this link. Students should generally take them in either May or June, at the end of the academic year, to maximize their in-class preparation.

Do I need to take SAT Subject Tests to get into college? 

Many schools are no longer requiring the submission of SAT Subject Tests, but what does this mean for applicants? Only a handful of schools currently require the submission of SAT Subject Test scores, including Carnegie Mellon and Harvey Mudd. Some colleges, like Tufts or Wellesley, require either the submission of ACT scores OR the SAT with two different SAT Subject Test scores. Other schools “strongly recommend” the submission of these scores (e.g., Duke and Georgetown).

Our suggestion? If you are targeting a top-50 university or liberal arts college, you should plan on taking at least two different SAT Subject Tests. Although they are not a required element of your application, they could give further proof of your readiness to take on college-level material, particularly in your intended major, and perhaps balance out a lower grade in that subject on your transcript.

Additionally, SAT Subject Tests may give you some more options come application season. Some schools, such as NYU, Brandeis University, and the University of Rochester, are allowing students to submit SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of SAT or ACT scores.

Which ones should I take?

Our general advice for all students is to take the Math Level 2 SAT. Not only is higher level math critical to success in STEM fields, selective colleges also want all of their admitted students to be proficient in math.

After Math Level 2, students should be taking exams in the subject(s) of their academic interest. If you’re hoping to become a social science major, take the World History or the U.S. History exam. If you’re a prospective English major, signing up for the Literature SAT makes sense. If you’re going to be a Chemical Engineer when you grow up, definitely take the Chemistry SAT (and maybe even the Physics SAT).

If you’re taking an AP course, you may want to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test since you’re probably studying for the AP exam in May anyway. For example, you may want to take the World History SAT in June if you’re enrolled in AP World History, even if you have no intention of becoming a history major—you are already studying the subject; you might as well take two tests!

What kinds of scores should I aim for?

Broadly speaking, if the test is in your area of potential major and you are applying to a very selective school, you should be aiming for a 750+ on that particular exam. However, our best advice to you is to look at the percentiles. Keep in mind that many native speakers take the language exams. For example, a score of 790 out of 800 sounds very impressive. But if you earned that result on the Korean SAT, you’d only be testing higher than 42% of all test takers (for the Chinese exam, a score of 790 means that you’re only in the 48th percentile—the bottom half of all test takers!). This is why it’s often not worth it to take the Chinese or Korean SAT since high scores do not mean much in terms of percentiles.

Summary

The bottom line is that SAT Subject Tests are an important but not critical part of your college application.  Like AP exams, they are another way for admissions offices to assess your mastery of certain subjects using a standardized test. Applicants to the top colleges should definitely consider taking these exams, but maintaining a high GPA and earning a great SAT or ACT score will always take precedence.