SAT Subject Tests

Can-Am.logoWhat Are SAT Subject Tests? The SAT Subject Tests are a series of 1-hour exams designed to measure specific knowledge in particular academic areas like biology or world history.  Although the SAT may get most of the glory, at many universities the SAT Subject Tests are just as important when it comes to college admissions.  This is particularly true at highly selective schools such as MIT and in highly competitive programs such as Engineering.

How Do SAT Subject Tests Differ from the SAT? The content of the two tests are not the same.  There are 18 different Subject Tests from which you may choose.  The key word here is choose.  So, if you have a particular strength in Latin, then this is the time to shine.  The SAT, on the other hand, gives you no such choice, Math, Critical Reading, and Writing – that’s what you’re stuck with.

Test length: The SAT is much longer!  The SAT is an exhausting 3 hours and 45 minutes.  Each Subject Tests lasts only 1 hour, so it tends to be a bit more manageable.  BUT, you can take up to three different SAT Subject Tests at one time; so if you decide to take three in one day, well, then you’ll be there for a lot longer than an hour.

Scoring: Scoring on the two tests are different. The SAT has a maximum scaled score of 1600 with no penalty for incorrect answers whereas each SAT Subject test has a maximum scaled score of 800 with each incorrect answer costing you 1/4 of point.

The most important difference?  The SAT (or its rival, the ACT) is required by the majority of colleges and universities while SAT Subject tests are not. In general, only highly selective universities require or recommend that you take 1-2 Subject Tests for admission.

Should you take SAT Subject Tests if they’re recommended but not required?  If you’re applying to a selective school, recommended translates into required.  When you’re going up against applicants who have submitted Subject Test scores and you haven’t, your application will look pretty bare.

Which Subject Tests Do Universities Prefer?  Some universities have specific requirements while others do not.  Do a little investigative work before you start taking SAT Subject Tests. Once you find out what the required tests are, if any, part of your decision making is done. Particular departments of universities may require Subject Tests and some may even specify which tests they want.  For example, some will only accept Math II and not Math I.  Since the tests are given in specific academic areas, some universities use them to decide whether an applicant can earn an exemption from certain required courses.  For example a high score may excuse you from a school’s foreign language requirement or place you in a higher level science course. If you are planning on majoring in a scientific field at university, it may be a good idea to take a science-related Subject Test to show your expertise in that subject area.  On the other hand, an engineering-focused school like Caltech will certainly care about how you do on the Math Level II or Physics Subject Tests. Many engineering schools require subject tests.

When Should You Take SAT Subject Tests? It’s best to take SAT Subject Tests as close as possible to the corresponding course work you may be doing.  For example, if you plan to take the Chemistry Subject Test and you are currently taking chemistry in high school, don’t postpone the test until next year because you may forget much of what you have learned.

Normally, if you have taken an AP (not pre-AP) course in a particular discipline you’ve covered the great majority of the material tested on the Subject Test.  So, if you take your AP Exam in May, you may want to take your Subject Test in that subject in June.  This might require some additional self-studying or work with a tutor.  Purchase the College Board or Princeton Review guide for the Subject Test you have in mind and make sure you have covered all the material being tested.  Some students may want to accelerate the study of one subject area in order to finish it by the end of grade 11 in preparation for taking subject tests.  Please see us to discuss this further.

For subjects such as math and languages, you should probably wait you’ve had about 3 years of the subject before attempting the Subject Tests.  Aim to be finished with all of your testing and test retakes by the end of grade 11, if at all possible.  You do not want these tests looming over your head the summer before grad year or during 1st term of your final year when you are working on applications and essays.

Other Items to Note:

  •         Calculators may be used only on the Mathematics Level 1 and Level 2 Subject Tests. Students may not use calculators for other SAT Subject Tests and must put them away when not taking a mathematics test.
  •         Students must indicate which SAT Subject Tests they plan to take when they register for a test. However, they may change which tests they take up to the test date—except for Language with Listening Tests and some tests that are not offered on every single testing date.. For example, if you register to take SAT Math level 2 but decide to take level 1 on test date, you can do so.
  •         Students with documented learning disabilities may request writing accommodations, allowing them extra time for testing. This must be done months in advance. Please see us for details. Also, please note that this must be arranged through your school counselor.
  •         It is advisable to register two months in advance to avoid a penalty for late registration and to get your test center of choice rather than having to drive to Bellingham and spend the night in a motel to test in the US.
  •         Students are responsible for registering for testing: http://sat.collegeboard.org/register
  •         The fee you pay for testing, includes the forwarding of test results to 4 universities of your choice.  Please discuss the advisability of this option with us, prior to specifying any universities. Waiting to see your test results before forwarding them to universities might be a better option depending on circumstances.
  •         College Board’s policies and test content changes from time to time and students are responsible for checking the accuracy of this information with the College Board website.

Don’t leave your SAT and ACT testing to the last possible date. Unforeseen emergencies and illnesses might keep you from attending the exam.