Math 1 or Math 2 SAT Subject Test: Here’s How to Choose

I know the SAT Subject Tests are this weekend. Perhaps you’ve already made up your mind on which math test to take, but please consider your strengths, especially if your decision was based on the advice of others rather than your own experience. As Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics observes, “Experts and pundits are notoriously bad at forecasting, in part because they aren’t punished for bad predictions. Also, they tend to be deeply unscientific.”

We see this play out in academia too.

The concern that experts fall short in their predictions is not a purely (pardon the pun) ‘academic’ concern: it can bedevil teachers at times, even great ones. In the classroom, teachers encounter the added concern of being “unconsciously competent.” Through practiced experience, they can become so immersed in sharing their expertise that they may lose a sense of how difficult an idea is for non-experts. The non-experts? We often call them students.

This concern popped into my head this week as the umpteenth student told me he/she was taking the Math 2 SAT Subject Test. Why the Math 2 test rather than the Math 1? “Because my teacher said we are prepared for it.”

As most parents know, there are two sides to a statement when interacting with kids; the first is what you said and the second is what your child heard. The same goes for teachers:

  1. What was taught?
  2. What was learned/heard?

What’s my point? It’s this:

To the degree that scores on standardized tests matter to you or your child, your goal should be to choose the tests that will yield the highest scores.

It’s not a hard and fast rule. If the Math 2 is required for a particular program or if your college counselor advises you to take it to align better with your profile as a learner, take it.  Otherwise, unless you need a specific SAT Subject Test for a specific requirement (such as a UPenn STEM or business program), you’re better off taking the tests where you are likely to do your best—and score the highest. In other words, go for the scores.

So, back to my head-scratching about Math 1 vs. 2.

The Math 2 is harder. But, to be fair, the curve is more generous. The content is more advanced and more expansive. It may be the better test for you. But, please, as much as you adore your teacher, trust, but verify.

  1. Take a practice test in both Math 1 and Math 2. Timed.
  2. Visit College Board and review the content in the two tests for yourself.
  3. Opt for the test that calls for review, not the test requiring the mastery of new material.
  4. Answer this question honestly: Are you really into math? Or, are you getting the grade, nailing the test, then purging your brain of content? Do you move “station to station”—downloading Chapter 11 from your brain as you move to Chapter 12? If the latter is true, I’d suggest the Math 1 test.

Years ago, I worked with a student who was spectacularly talented on all things humanities. Perhaps you can understand my perplexity when she asked whether she should take the SAT Subject Test in chemistry rather than the history test.

“Are you doing well in chemistry?”

“It’s OK.”


(Rhetorically) “Are you better in that class than in your U.S. History?”

“No, not at all!”


“Did you consider taking the U.S. History?”

“I guess so.”

“Why were you thinking of chemistry rather than history?”

“Don’t colleges want that? I mean, I am already getting an ‘A’ in history, shouldn’t I try chemistry?”

No. Get the scores. Demonstrate your strength!

“But,” you may say, “I already registered for the Math 2!”

With the exception of language with listening exams (not given in June), you can decide the day of the test which test(s) you would like to take.

If you’re headed to take SAT Subject Tests this weekend, choose the one on which you will perform better.

Yes, a 700 on Math 2 is better than a 700 on Math 1. But, a 720 on Math 1 is better than 680 on Math 2.  At the end of the day, it’s best to get the higher score.