SAT Subject Tests: Who Needs Them & How to Prepare

A Little History The SAT Subject Tests are not the same as the regular SAT (known sometimes as the SAT Reasoning Test). Subject Tests, like the name indicates, test on particular subjects. They are hour-long multiple-choice exams over specific topics such as biology, French, world history, physics, and math. The Subject Tests have been around for some time, but under different names. From the late 1930s to 1994, they were known as the Achievement Tests. Then from 1994 to 2005, College Board called them the SAT II. (No confusion there!) With the major SAT overhaul of 2005, these tests were renamed the SAT Subject Tests. Subject Tests are offered on most of the same Saturdays as the SAT. Students cannot take both at the same time and not all Subject Tests are offered on all test dates. Students who need Subject Tests for admission need to do a little planning in order to complete their standardized testing before application deadlines.

The Question

Most people haven’t heard of the SAT Subject Tests, so they are surprised to hear their student might need to take them for college admission. Here’s where my potential client’s question comes in. She had called a local tutoring center to ask about SAT prep for her son. They pitched her some test prep packages then told her she should also consider programs for the SAT II. She wanted to know if I had SAT II programs and if I thought her son might need them. Who needs to take the SAT Subject Tests and how should students best prepare?

Updated Answer

Very few students will need to take SAT Subject Tests. This is where my advice from 2015 needed an update. Policies change. The trend has been away from standardized testing. We’ve seen a number of major universities (Wake Forest, University of Rochester, University of Chicago) make the SAT or ACT optional for admission and many have dropped the “extras” such as the ACT / SAT written essays and the SAT Subject Tests. Colleges are more sensitive to the financial barriers additional testing may place on students. Extra SAT Subject Tests seem to be going out of style. Most schools have dropped SAT Subject Test requirements. Back in 2006 when I made College Prep my full-time business (not my side-hustle), most top colleges required applicants to submit three Subject Test scores for admission. The entire University of California System required Subject Tests. The advice then was for a student to take the Subject Test when they knew most about a particular subject (often in the spring of their sophomore or junior years.) Today, I would not encourage any sophomore to take an SAT Subject Test. Some juniors will need to take two tests and I recommend they do so in May or June (before senior year.) Who needs to take the Subject Tests is a little more complicated.

Who Needs Subject Tests?

Today only a handful of colleges and universities require SAT Subject Tests. Some specialized programs require them and some schools may ask homeschool applicants to submit scores. By the spring of junior year, students should have a general idea of the colleges on their list. If there is a possibility that Subject Tests will be required (or strongly recommended), take the tests. Figuring out if one of your schools requires Subject Tests may take a little research.

Lesson in Searching Online (Caution: Wrong Info Everywhere!)

Because I follow issues of college admission and am a member of a number of professional groups that share these details, I keep up to date on trends and changes. But I can’t remember every policy at every school. So I started my research for this article with a quick Google search. There is a lot of out of date information when it comes to SAT Subject Tests. I started with the list on the College Board website. According to College Board (the corporation that sells this exam) there are hundreds of colleges and universities that require, recommend, or use these tests for admission decisions. Based on my general knowledge of these schools, I knew the list was wrong. I did a quick spot check on all the Texas schools listed. College Board listed eight universities. I visited the website for each university. NONE of those eight schools recommends or requires Subject Tests. Austin College is test optional (doesn’t even require the regular SAT) and the TCU website clearly stated, “Subject Tests are NOT required.” Even worse, the one Texas school that does recommend Subject Tests, Rice University, does not appear on the College Board list. Good for me that I knew most of this already; I know how frustrating this process is for parents and students who are learning about Subject Tests for the first time. Lots of online lists are WRONG. If you want to know whether the schools on your list require SAT Subject Tests, you need to do some research. I checked out some of the prep blogs and found their lists to be inaccurate as well. I saw some of the big-name sites with current fall 2019 listings that did not match what I found on the university web sites. If you want the most accurate information, check with each of the schools on your list. Do not rely on lists from prep blogs (even mine!) Colleges are always updating policies and no one cares about the accuracy of information for your schools more than you!

List of Schools That Require / Recommend Subject Tests

This is a rough list to give you an idea of the policies at different institutions. This information is accurate at the time of publication (January 2020). I’m including links to the testing policies for schools that require / recommend Subject Tests, so you can see the specific wording. (Caution: you are about to see a list of highly competitive and hard-to-get-into schools. Do NOT assume these are the only schools that require Subject Tests. There are some notable exceptions outlined below, so keep reading.) Very few schools require all students to submit scores for admission. The majority of these schools are engineering focused. Require Subject Tests for Admission
  • California Institute of Technology (website)
  • Harvard College (website) — two tests required unless it presents a financial hardship
  • Harvey Mudd College (website)
  • McGill University (website)
  • MIT (website)
Many schools stop short of actually requiring Subject Tests by recommending them instead. Viewing the actual language on the admission website can tell you how serious the recommendation is. For example, Georgetown is not subtle in telling you they want additional scores, “Georgetown does not require, but strongly recommends submission of three subject tests.” (They will accept AP scores in place of Subject Tests.) Recommend Subject Tests for Admission One step down from recommending tests are the schools that will consider scores if sent. This means applicants aren’t expected to send scores, but if you did well and it might help your application, you should. I like the way Notre Dame phrases this, “SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and IB tests are not required and are only used in the application process if scores enhance an application. They may also be used for credit and placement in the first-year program.” Subject Tests Considered for Admission
  • Columbia University (website)
  • Cornell University (website) scores are optional for engineering and not required by any other program
  • Georgia Tech (website)
  • Johns Hopkins (website)
  • Notre Dame (website)
  • Stanford (website)
  • Vanderbilt (website)
  • Washington University in St. Louis (website)
I am not suggesting this is a complete list of all schools that might consider your test scores, but it gives you a good idea of the policies and types of schools that might require or recommend the SAT Subject Tests.

Notable Exceptions

There are some exceptions to the lists above. Some schools require SAT Subject Tests for particular programs. Homeschool and international applicants may be required to submit Subject Tests or other test scores in addition to the regular SAT or ACT requirements. Specialized Programs Specific departments or programs within a university may require SAT Subject Tests even though the school in general does not. Here are a few examples of the schools and programs that do:
  • Northwestern (website): “While SAT Subject Tests are optional for most undergraduate applicants, scores from SAT Subject Tests are required for applicants to the Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME), the Integrated Science Program (ISP) and applicants who have been home-schooled.”
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (website): Applicants to the accelerated law and medicine programs must submit the ACT or SAT & two Subject Tests. (Note: the ACT takes the place of multiple College Board exams. This is true in many situations. The ACT can be used to replace the SAT + Subject Tests!)
  • Union College (website): Only applicants in the “Leadership in Medicine” program need to submit Subject Test scores.
  • University of California Schools (UCLA, Berkeley, etc) (website): UC does not require any SAT Subject Tests to meet freshman admission requirements. However, Subject Tests may be recommended for some majors at some campuses.
Homeschool & International Applicants Homeschool applicants may be required to submit additional test scores for evaluation. SAT Subject Tests often satisfy the requirement, but students may be allowed to submit AP or IB results as well. International applicants may be asked to submit additional test scores to demonstrate language proficiency. This is usually the TOEFL or IELTS, but some universities will allow students to submit scores from AP exams or the SAT Subject Tests. Placement / College Credit Unlike the above exceptions where certain students are required to submit Subject Tests for admission, this exception deals with the option to use scores for course placement or college credit. In addition to AP scores and university administered placement tests, results from SAT Subject Tests can be used to determine a student’s level of proficiency in a subject. Here’s an example from the Lehigh website: “SAT Subject Tests are not required for admissions, but are recommended as college credit may be awarded for scores of 700 or higher. Please read the Advanced Placement section of the course catalog at for more details.”

Could Sending Subject Test Scores Help?

Let’s say you love test taking. You get amazing scores and you have time to add SAT Subject Tests to your junior year. Will colleges give you “bonus points” for top scores? Will they consider them if Subject Tests aren’t required? Maybe. Some schools will consider additional data, including SAT Subject Test scores. Others won’t. Check with each school on your list to verify their policies. Keep in mind, the admissions office is already busy evaluating all the elements they DID ask for, so sending scores that are neither required nor recommended may not help your case. Schools that will consider Subject Test, AP, or IB scores usually state this on their websites. Harvey Mudd (a highly-selective engineering college) puts it this way: “Remember more is not always better. In fact, it is rarely better.” They don’t want extra scores, resumes, phone calls, or recommendations.


Unless you are considering a highly selective university or specialized program at a particular college, you probably don’t need the SAT Subject Tests. (Homeschool and international students are notable exceptions.) Students who may need Subject Tests for admission should plan to take them in the spring of their junior years to avoid missing fall admission deadlines. The SAT Subject Tests are NOT like the regular SAT or ACT. They are very content based, so the primary means of preparation should be learning the material in school. Like with any exam, students should familiarize themselves with the tested content and format prior to taking the test. You can find official SAT Subject Test practice material from College Board (here or in the Official Study Guide available from Amazon or any bookstore.)

Back to the Question

Back to the question that got me started on this subject:
“The tutoring center is highly recommending my son take the SAT 2. This is new to me; I’ve only heard of the SAT. What are your thoughts?”
I think the tutoring center is trying to sell programs her son likely doesn’t need. (She confirmed that he is considering state universities and none of the schools listed above.) And by referring to these tests at the SAT 2, the tutoring center is either behind the times (not recognizing the current exam name) or they are trying to cash in on parents’ concerns regarding the SAT to sell more programs. If you have questions about the ACT, SAT, or college admissions, join my free Facebook group. (You have to answer three questions which help us verify members.):]]>

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