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SAT Subject Tests 101: What To Take When

by Lisa Gelman Ph.D. - Apt Tutoring


SAT Subject Tests, formerly called SAT IIs, are one-hour, multiple-choice tests designed to measure the student’s knowledge of a particular subject. There are 16 Subjects Tests, including:

- Literature    
- U.S. and World History        
- Mathematics Level I {algebra I and II and geometry}
- Mathematics Level II {algebra I and II, geometry, precalculus and/or trigonometry}
- Biology E {biological communities, populations, and energy flow}
- Biology M {biochemistry, cellular structure and processes}
- Chemistry
- Physics
- French
- German
- Spanish
- Latin
- Japanese

When should I take the Subject Tests?
When to take the Subject Tests should be carefully considered. Most students take Subject Tests in June of their junior year or in October or November of their senior year.  When deciding when to take a Subject Test, you should keep the following in mind:

Take a Subject Test when the material is freshest in your mind.  That means it makes sense to take the Subject Tests in June of your junior year as you prepare for your final exams, and possibly, AP tests.  By taking the tests in June you can avoid spending the summer studying for [and worrying about] the tests and devote the fall to filling out applications, interviewing, and polishing your essays.

If, however, you’re going to take the SAT in June, you should take the Subject Tests in May of your junior year or at the beginning of your senior year, preferably in October if you are applying early action or early decision or in November, if you are applying regular decision.

On a given test date, students can take the SAT or up to three Subject Tests.   Keep in mind, however, that if you take more than one Subject Test and you need to cancel the score for one of them, the scores for all of the Subject Tests you took that day will be cancelled.

How many Subject Tests should I take?
The number of Subject Tests you’ll need to take will depend on the colleges to which you are applying. Most colleges do not require any, but more competitive colleges require two or three.  At this time, Harvard and Princeton require three; Penn, BU, Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams require two.  You should take the Subject Tests even if the college to which you are applying only “recommends” that you do so.  Keep in mind that the number of Subject Tests a college requires [or recommends] can change year to year so you’ll want to make sure that you look at the college’s website when its application for that year becomes available [usually mid-July]. Don’t depend on published material like college guidebooks, which can quickly become out dated.  

Which Subject Tests should I take?
Check the college websites to find out if you need to take a specific Subject Test.  Requirements vary by college and may vary by program. Although most arts and sciences programs do not require specific Subjects Tests, engineering programs often require applicants to take the Math Level II test.

If there are no specific requirements, take the tests you think you’ll score the highest on.
Also keep in mind that some Subject Tests are easier than others.

The best way to determine whether you are a good candidate for a specific Subject Test is to educate yourself about that test. Read up on the tests at Collegeboard.com/subjecttests and do some practice questions.  One practice test for each Subject Test is available in the College Board’s “The Official Study Guide for all Subject Tests,” which you can purchase at a local bookstore or online.

How should I prepare for the Subject Tests?
Educate yourself about the test, making sure you understand what the test covers, its format, and how it is scored.  Moreover, you should take a couple of practice tests.  If you need help preparing for the tests, an experienced SAT Subject Test tutor can work with students for three or four sessions.

How can I avoid taking Subject Tests?
Keep in mind that most colleges do not require Subject Tests. Moreover, many colleges only require Subject Tests when students submit SAT scores.  Penn and Amherst are two of many colleges that do not require Subject Tests for students who submit ACT scores.  To get the most up-to-date requirements, check each college’s website the summer before your senior year.

What if I take a subject test and do poorly?
Never fear; Score Choice is here.  The College Board lets you decide to which colleges to send your subject test scores so if you do poorly on one test, you do not have to submit its score with you application.  Keep in mind, however, that some colleges will insist that you submit the scores for all of the subject tests you take.   Check the websites of all of the colleges you are applying for their individual policies.  You can read about the College Board policy at http://sat.collegeboard.com/register/sat-score-choice.

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