Posted on: March 14, 2019
Originally published January 30, 2019; updated January 15, 2020
Many of you took a PSAT this year, and that’s great. Your results will be super helpful when you begin thinking about whether the SAT or the ACT is right for you. But please don’t worry about that yet. Unless you’re a heavily recruited five-star athlete or you’re heading off to Spain for the entirety of junior year, you’ll have plenty of time to worry about the SAT or ACT after you make sure you crush sophomore year. That being said, some of you might have the opportunity to get ahead by taking a SAT Subject Test in June.
The SAT Subject Tests are one-hour, multiple-choice tests that allow students to demonstrate their academic skills in certain subjects. So if you’re taking the relevant class this year, you might be able to knock out a subject test in the spring so that there’s one fewer test crowding your calendar next year. Taking one now is really a chance to get ahead for students whose schedules line up just right. If you don’t take any subject tests this year, it’s not a problem at all – you haven’t fallen behind in any way.
No matter which test you choose, always be sure to take a practice test to be sure you’re barking up the right tree. Here is some more specific advice for tests you might be considering:
Math 1 or Math 2: The Math 1 and Math 2 tests are kind of like cumulative, multiple-choice math final exams that test everything you learned in high school up to algebra 2 (for Math 1) or precalculus (for Math 2). In general, we do not recommend sophomores take these tests. Yes, you might have seen all the content for the Math 1, but if you’re thinking about this now, you’ll likely be doing some sort of SAT or ACT prep next year. And all that practice answering multiple-choice math questions will definitely help on the Math 1 or 2. The one exception here is if you’re on a super advanced math track and are currently taking – and doing really well in – precalculus. In that case, you might want to check out a Math 2 practice test, since the calculus you’ll be taking next year won’t be on these tests and you’d likely need to review next year some of the precalculus that you know well right now.
Biology, Chemistry, or Physics: If you’re currently excelling in your science class, you might want to check out the relevant subject test. Taking an AP-level course is the best preparation for a subject test, but students acing honors or on-level classes might also be able to look to an early subject test, especially if they don’t mind working with a book or tutor for a few weeks to learn any material not covered in their class. Your upcoming course schedule also matters: if you’re currently in Chemistry 1 and taking AP Chemistry next year, you should wait. But if you’re currently in Honors Biology and not planning on taking AP Bio at all or until senior year, now’s your chance. Your best bet is to take a practice test sometime in early April or so. By then, you’ll have covered enough material for the results of the test to be meaningful, though they will certainly be lower than your target. Take a detailed look (or consult with a teacher or tutor) to see whether you’re missing material you should know, material that’s yet to be covered in the class, or material that won’t be covered in the class at all. Then make your plans from there!
World History or U.S. History: Are you taking AP World History (entirely possible)* or APUSH (rare, but a few schools do this) as a sophomore? If so, and if the class is going really well, your AP prep can do double duty getting you ready for the June subject test. Like the tests mentioned above, the two history subject tests are essentially cumulative exams on all the history you’ve learned in school so far. But unlike the AP exams, with their essays and short-answer questions, the US and World History subject tests are all multiple-choice tests that reward rote memorization much more than critical thinking and synthesis. Sure, there will be a handful of questions that require you to make comparisons across different historical periods, and there’ll be some that ask you to interpret quotations, charts and tables, maps, paintings, posters and political cartoons, or other images. But the vast majority of questions will be old-school “do you know this fact or not?” questions. If you are comfortable with that, this might be a good option for you. And the good news is that both history subject tests have somewhat generous curves, so perfection is not your goal here.
Also, this might seem obvious to you, but AP European History does not prepare you for the World History subject test. We only bring it up because once upon a time, this exam was the subject test in European History and World Cultures, and back then, AP Euro + supplemental study would have prepared you – but not anymore. So if anyone who took the subject test in its previous format recommends you do so as well, be clear that the material covered has shifted dramatically.
Literature or Language: The College Board offers one subject test in Literature and nine tests in foreign languages – Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Modern Hebrew, Latin, Japanese, and Korean. The Literature test is entirely based on English-language prose, poetry, and occasionally drama, and other than testing you on various literary terms, this is a skills-based exam, not a content-driven one. The language tests, on the other hand, require extensive content knowledge. Basically, if any of these tests is a strong option for you, you’ll almost certainly be taking an AP course in the relevant subject in 11th grade**, and there’s absolutely no reason for you to take them as a sophomore.
Again, you are not falling behind if you don’t take any subject tests as a sophomore. We’re saying all this to suggest when taking one as a sophomore might be a good idea.
Want to know more about the specific content on any subject test? Check out the College Board’s Student Guide for subject details.
* 2020 update: So, here’s the complication. As you know if you’re taking AP World in 2019-2020, you know that this is the first year that APWH starts coverage in 1200 CE, rather going all the way back to the Paleolithic Era. However, 25% of the content on the World History subject test covers the Paleolithic Era to 500 CE, and another 20% covers 500 CE through 1500 CE. So… 35-40% of the subject test now covers material not in your AP World History class. Eventually, the College Board plans to introduce an AP Ancient Civilizations class, but no date for that has been publicly announced. In the meantime, you may well want to take a practice World History subject test – offered at PrepMatters – to see if you’ve learned enough of the pre-1200 CE material in other courses to make it worth your time or to study extensively outside. Chances are that unless you have taken an earlier course, it may well not be worth the effort.
** sorry, students of Modern Hebrew or Korean; there’s no AP course for you – but if you’re approaching fluency in either of these languages, there’s still no reason to rush to take these as a sophomore.