6 Things to Know About SAT Subject Tests

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Stressing over the SAT Subject Tests? Here are six things to know for August:

  1. You may not need SAT Subject Tests.

A student of mine made himself crazed by trying to add SAT Subject Tests to his busy schedule. He believed he had to take them because everyone else was. Okay, fine. But, he had his list of schools and his friends had theirs.

While many selective colleges and universities recommend or require SAT Subject Tests for admissions, most do not. While there is always value in taking the opportunity to showcase your academic strengths and interests, keep in mind that your high school grades are the most important criterion for admissions. Take a hard look at anything that could get in the way of you focusing on this primary goal. Additionally, talk to your school counselor and parents about the colleges you’re considering—they’ll help you determine whether you need to take SAT Subject Tests at all.

  1. You may still need SAT Subject Tests, even if you take the ACT.

You may have heard that you don’t need to take SAT Subject Tests if you take the ACT. That’s not completely accurate. Yes, many colleges do not recommend or require SAT Subjects Tests for students who take the ACT (e.g., Amherst, Brown, Columbia) but others still do (e.g., Dartmouth, Northwestern, Yale). Again, do your homework. Finding clarity on testing policies will help give you the information you need to make sound decisions about your own testing.

  1. Show strength: take your best tests.

Years ago I had a student ask me which SAT Subjects Tests she should take. Claudia was totally a humanities scholar. She excelled in English, history, and philosophy. As her school had lined her up to take the AP exams in English Literature and US History, I recommended that she take those SAT Subject Tests as well.

“But won’t colleges want me to take the chemistry one?”

“Are you good in chemistry?”

“Ugh, not really. It’s hard for me.”

“Well, then I think you should take the Lit and History Subject Tests. Your core strengths are there, those will be your teacher recommendations, and those are things you are likely to study in college. Take the Subject Tests where you will shine. Let the chemistry geeks worry about the Chemistry Subject Test.”

When choosing SAT Subject Tests, look within first. Don’t say to yourself, “College X wants this many Subject Tests, therefore, I must take these Subject Tests.” Rather, ask yourself where your strengths and interests lie (looking at your grades in high-level courses is a good place to start). Also, consider things like your schedule. Sometimes the busy lives of students preclude them from taking as many SAT Subject Tests as their eager minds would want—another reason to plan ahead of junior year.

  1. Don’t sweat percentiles. It’s the scaled scores that matter.

I routinely have students and parents obsess over the percentiles of their SAT Subject Tests.

“Should I retake the Math 2?!? I mean, I only got 71st percentile!”

“True, but wasn’t your score 760? And, weren’t your reading and math scores 700 and 730?”

“Yes, but, the percentiles were so much higher.”

However, keep this in mind: Percentiles reflect one’s performance relative to other test-takers. Here is the guidance offered by College Board: Please note that the population of test-takers differs from test to test and from the larger group that takes the SAT®. For this reason, scores and percentiles of different SAT Subject Tests cannot be compared.

What you should keep in mind is that the students taking the SAT Subject Tests are a subset of students who take the SAT. So, percentiles will be lower on the SAT Subject Tests because the population of test-takers is more competitive. By example, a perfect score of 800 on the Math 2 is the 85th percentile. This means 15% of test-takers scored a perfect score. On the SAT, a math score of 800 would be in the 99th percentile, with only 1% of test-takers earning a perfect score. Admissions officers use the scores, not the percentiles, as a common yardstick. As it’s the scores that matter most to admissions officers, those scaled scores (not percentiles) are what should guide you as well.

Consider, for example, the Korean with Listening Subject Test.  A perfect score of 800 is 56% percentile, meaning 44% of test-takers earned a perfect score.  As few American high schools teach Korean, test-takers are presumably fluent speakers (and therefore listeners) who have learned Korean at home. There isn’t a large group of test-takers who are only so-so on that SAT Subject Test. Honestly, that’s the reality with most SAT Subject Tests, making the percentiles seem out of whack. Solution? Ignore the percentiles.

  1. APs aren’t the same as SAT Subject Tests: know what matters for your circumstances.

No college requires AP exams. None. Yes, there are certainly reasons to take them: you can get college credit, you may be able to place out of introductory college courses, you can demonstrate academic strength. But, AP exams do not “replace” SAT Subject Tests, except at a very few colleges such as NYU and some UK universities. If a college recommends or requires SAT Subject Tests, those are what matter.

  1.  You can take the SAT Subject Tests more than once, so long as they are available.

Years ago, I had a new student with plans to prep for SAT Subjects Tests in October, to meet an Early Decision deadline.

“Which tests are you planning to take?”

“Math 1 and Latin.”

“Umm…the Latin is only given in June and December.”


SAT Subject Tests are offered the same dates as the SAT, but with caveats:

  • The March SAT is only for the SAT. No SAT Subject Tests.
  • A student cannot take both the SAT and Subject Tests on the same test date.
  • Some SAT Subject Tests are only given on certain dates (World History and Languages have restrictions)

But, those restrictions aside, College Board applies its policy of Score Choice to SAT Subject Tests.  So, some students may find it beneficial to take, say, US History or Math 2 in both May and June, while the content is fresh. Or, if a score in the spring falls short of your target, it may be worth brushing up to take it in the fall.

Some more general advice:

You can make a game day decision: sign up early and decide later. Often students will delay registering because they are not sure which SAT Subject Tests to take. With the exception of language with listening exams, you can decide the morning of test day which SAT Subject Tests you want to take. You can have registered for Math 2 and switch to Math 1 or jettison Chemistry for Literature. You can also add or subtract an exam the morning of (fees may apply), so if you registered for only one test and want to add another, you can decide to sit for a second right after finishing the first. Or, if you registered for three, but have to get to a friend’s graduation party, you can drop a test and leave an hour early.

Finally…practice! One of the biggest surprises students get is that, although they’ve done well in their classes, there are topics they’ve forgotten or that their teachers never fully covered. College Board offers free practice materials or drop a few bucks to buy a preparation book or work with a tutor. If SAT Subject Tests matter for the colleges you plan to apply to, take them as seriously as you take the ACT or SAT. Don’t take them cold!

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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