SAT Subject Tests: Who, When, and Why. What Students Need To Know

Students working in classroom

This spring all juniors should take the SAT and ACT at least once, but some students also need to take SAT Subject Tests.  Juniors may need Subject Tests, but there may also be some freshman or sophomores who would benefit from taking SAT Subject Tests this spring while all the information from recent AP exams is fresh in their minds.


What Are SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Tests are very much what the name suggests — tests over a specific subject. You’ll have a lot of choices:  World History, Chemistry, Biology, Spanish, German, French. Because there are many options, often you’re given the opportunity to pick some of your best areas to take as Subject Tests.

You might find if you’re applying to an engineering program, they request you send Chemistry and Physics Subject Test results. Hopefully, if you’re applying in engineering you’re stronger in those areas than you might be if you were taking the U.S. History test.

Subject tests are very specific tests unlike the SAT and ACT which tend to focus on more general information – reading, math, and grammar. Subject tests allow you to delve in-depth into a particular topic.


Why Do College Want SAT Subject Tests?

Why would colleges want more tests?  They find that this additional piece of information is helpful in finding students who are going to be most successful in college.  It is also beneficial to have additional testing data when making highly selective admissions decisions.

A number of years ago The University of California system did some extensive studies on using Subject Tests (they were then called SAT IIs) to help predict who was going to have the best grades their freshman year in college… in other words, who was going to be the most successful.

What they found is when they used Subject Tests in addition to a student’s GPA, class rank / transcript information, plus regular SAT scores, the Subject Test information allowed them to be more accurate in finding students who were able to perform well their first year in college.

A lot of competitive universities are asking for Subject Tests as one more piece of information to help them make an admissions decision. It allows students to demonstrate ability in a subject of their choice, hopefully, a subject they are strong in. It gives the universities additional information to look at when making an admissions decision.


When Should Students Take SAT Subject Tests?

My hint with the Subject Tests: take them as soon as you finish that particular class in school even if you’re not getting ready to apply to college immediately. For example, if you’re taking World History your sophomore year, especially if you’re studying and preparing for something like an AP exam, go ahead and take the Subject Test that spring. I know it’s only the spring of your sophomore year, but you’re probably not going to know any more World History after waiting a year or two forgetting the details.

So take Subject Tests upon completion of a course. Your sophomore year you’re probably not ready to take math because you’ll be taking math again your junior year. Take SAT Subject Tests when the information is freshest in your mind, and that way you’ll have a good choice of scores to send when you’re applying to college.


For a list of subjects, partial list of schools requiring Subject Tests, and additional information, see my article from June 2012 “SAT Subject Tests:  Did You Miss Your Best Exam Date?”



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Answering Your College Admissions Questions

Today I’m answering your college admissions questions.  I’d also like to encourage you to ask questions on my Facebook page or via email.  Starting in January I’m moving to a new once a week email newsletter format and I will be answering one question a week in additional to a full length article.  I’d love to hear from you.


What are the strongest ballet departments?

The answer to this question depends on your goals.  Ballet dancers, especially women, have a fairly short window of time to move from training into a company which is why many serious dancers actually delay college and train in a professional company like School of American Ballet (SAB), Joffrey, or Royal Academy of Dance (RAD).  Following this type of performance training program isn’t exactly a well-rounded education, but there will always be time for that later.  Some students want college programs in a conservatory setting.  Schools such as Juilliard or Boston Conservatory are well recognized, but the curriculum will include a lot of modern dance in addition to ballet.  Finally, you may want a more well-rounded education found in a liberal arts college or traditional university setting.  You will find many well regarded programs; your goal is to match the program to your goals and ability.


Are there things a student should never say during a college interview?

Whether interviewing with a university’s employee or an alumni, remember that they love their school!  Nothing sinks an interview faster than a lack of interest. “I’m applying here as a backup” or “because my dad made me” indicates you are unlikely to attend, even if admitted. Lack of interest also shows if you ask questions that easily would have been answered by looking at the school’s website before your interview. Finally, “Do I really need to study?” and “Yeah, I’ve got an easy senior schedule,” are comments that speak volumes about your lack of interest in higher education overall.


How can a student figure out which standardized tests to take, when, and how many times?

At a minimum, juniors should take the ACT and SAT once, but many students re-test multiple times to achieve their personal best scores. If you want to re-test, focus on whichever standardized test best highlights your academic strengths. You can retake both the SAT and ACT senior year, but pay attention to application deadlines—some fall test dates may be too late. Students applying to highly selective schools also may be required to take SAT Subject Tests, and international students may need additional tests such as the TOEFL. Specific details on which tests you need and when you need to complete them will depend on where you choose to apply.  Check with each college and university to make sure you satisfy all testing requirements.


How can parents help students with the college search and application process?

Parents should emphasize academic achievement and extracurricular involvement starting when their children are in elementary school. Offering encouragement and guidance throughout the school years will help ensure students take challenging classes, earn the best grades possible, seek out extra help in academic problem areas, and participate in meaningful extracurriculars. From freshman year on, parents can encourage students to explore colleges, make college visits, and compare top choices. When the real application process starts, though, it’s important that parents step back, offer advice and encouragement but allow the student to do the work.


Send me your questions.  I’m happy to help.  

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SAT Subject Tests: Did You Miss Your Best Exam Date?

Everyone talks about the SAT, but do you know if you need SAT Subject Tests?  Too often the SAT seems to get all the attention while the SAT Subject Tests are overlooked until it is too late to adequately prepare.

What are SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Tests focus on specific academic areas.  Parents, you may remember these tests under their former name, the Achievement Tests.

Students can chose from 20 different tests:

   Subject                        SAT Subject Test

English                        Literature

Math                           Level 1, Level 2

Science                        Biology (Ecological or Molecular), Chemistry, Physics

History                       US History, World History

Language (reading only)  French, Spanish, German, Modern Hebrew, Latin, Italian

Language (with listening)  French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

Each test is one hour long and consists of fewer than 100 multiple-choice questions.  Like the SAT, the Subject Tests are scored on a scale of 200-800.

The Subject Tests are offered six times a year on the same days the SAT is given.  Students can take up to three Subject Tests per day, but cannot take Subject Tests on the same day they take the SAT.  Additionally, not all tests are given on all days.  Language tests are the most and are often offered only in November, December, or June.

Who needs SAT Subject Tests?

Colleges can require or “strongly suggest” SAT Subject Tests for use in admission or course placement, so you will need to ascertain the admissions requirements for every school you are considering.

Typically, Ivy League and other highly selective schools require Subject Tests of all applicants, so if you are looking at schools like Rice, Duke, MIT, Boston College, Amherst, etc., you will need to take at least two Subject Tests.

Some colleges require homeschool applicants to submit Subject Test scores to demonstrate strength in academic areas.  Some schools such as Notre Dame and Vanderbilt “strongly recommend” Subject Tests.  Pomona College in California requires homeschool students submit scores from four Subject Tests.

Not all students will need Subject Tests.  The problem is that is that most students won’t know if they need Subject Tests until fall of their senior year when application are due.  Unfortunately, this if often too late to adequately prepare.

How can one prepare for SAT Subject Tests?

Students should take Subject Tests when the material is fresh in their minds.  For subjects like Literature and Math, there is no best test date because these are subjects students study each year.  Science and history courses contain material that is unlikely to be repeated each year, so students should take the Subject Test when they finish the course in school.  You won’t know more US History, Biology, or Chemistry by waiting.

Students who prepare for an AP or IB tests in the spring, will have adequate preparation to take the corresponding Subject Test in May or June.  Students should review sample test questions available on the College Board website or in the Subject Test review book.

What type of schools require SAT Subject Tests?

To give you an idea of the type of schools that require Subject Tests for admission, I’ve prepared a preliminary list with links to the requirements listed on each university’s website.  This IS NOT a complete list.  Please check with each school you may apply to view current requirements.

The following schools require two subjects tests of your choice unless noted.  (Generally students may submit Math Level 1 OR Level 2, but can’t count both toward the total of two tests.)


Boston College

Caltech  (requires Math Level 2 + Bio, Chem, OR Physics)



MIT (requires Math Level 1 or 2 + Bio, Chem, OR Physics)

Pomona College


Tufts (Math + science recommended for science & engineering applicants)

UC Berkeley

UCLA (engineering applicants strongly encouraged to take Math Level 2 + a science)


Subject Tests give students another opportunity to show colleges strength in academics.  As early as freshman or sophomore year, strong academic students may take subject tests in history or science.  Juniors should set aside one test date to take two or three exams of their choice.  If you plan ahead, you will not find yourself scrambling senior year, unable to meet early deadlines because you haven’t satisfied the SAT Subject Test requirements.