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So you’ve probably heard of the SAT and ACT (I hope, at least). Since most colleges require either the SAT or ACT as part of the application process, it’s no surprise those tests are more widely known. However, some schools recommend or require the SAT Subject Tests, so make sure you’ve fulfilled the testing requirements before you hit submit.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT Subject Tests are taken to demonstrate your knowledge of specific subjects such as history or mathematics. Each test is one hour long, and like the SAT, includes multiple-choice questions (some also include true/false and grid-ins) along with the guessing penalty (1 pt for correct, -1/4 for incorrect, 0 for blank). You are allowed to take one, two, or three tests on a single test date. Note that you CANNOT take the SAT and SAT Subject Test(s) on the same test date. There are also specific dates certain tests are offered, so check the College Board website for test availability.

When should I take them?

Most students take the SAT Subject Tests during their junior year (usually in June) or at the beginning of senior year. The earlier you take them, the more time you have to focus on your application or take/retake the SAT, SAT Subject Test(s), or ACT. However, only take the SAT Subject Tests when you feel adequately prepared. Feel free to use online resources and/or review books for preparation.

Some schools specify which test(s) are required to apply; others don’t. Therefore, it’s up to you to decide which tests will help you stand out as an applicant. Now, let’s go over some of the options you have with the SAT Subject Tests.

What are my options?

I categorized the tests based on the context of each subject:

Humanities – Recommended for students who are interested in humanities

  • Literature (English)
  • United States History
  • World History            

Mathematics – Recommended for students interested in the STEM fields

  • Mathematics Level 1 (calculator permitted)
  • Mathematics Level 2 (calculator permitted)  

Science – Recommended for students interested in the STEM fields

  • Biology (Ecology or Molecular); Note that you cannot take both Biology E and Biology M on the same test date.
  • Chemistry (calculator NOT permitted)
  • Physics (calculator NOT permitted)

Languages – Recommended for students who are interested in linguistics or international studies or want to demonstrate mastery of a foreign language

  • French
  • German
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Latin
  • Spanish
  • Chinese with Listening
  • French with Listening
  • German with Listening
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening
  • Spanish with Listening

*You are only allowed to take one listening test per test date.

Native speakers are usually not recommended by colleges to take SAT Subject Tests in their native language. However, there are some cases where native speakers take the test in their native language to waive foreign language requirements. If you do take a test in your native language, I would recommend you also take another subject test as well.

It is highly recommended that you have prior knowledge of the subject before taking the test (whether you have taken the course or self-studied), but no experience is required as long as you study (practice tests are a huge help) for the exam(s).

Recommendations and Advice

If you know you excel or are interested in a particular subject, definitely look into taking that subject test! If you’re still unsure, here are some recommendations and advice:

Humanities

I recommend taking the US History or World History test right after taking the course or self-studying. These tests involve heavy amounts of information and can take a lot of studying if you don’t have prior knowledge.

I recommend Literature (English) for students who excel in reading and writing. Although the Literature test is known to be one of the more difficult subject tests, if you know you excel in English you shouldn’t have too many problems.

Mathematics

If you’re unsure of your math abilities, take Math Level 1. If you’re comfortable with your math abilities, take Math Level 2. There’s no real need to take both tests. Students who have taken precalculus or are in the process of taking the course are recommended to take Math Level 2, but in my opinion, it’s better to have finished precalculus before taking the test. Math Level 1 covers through two years of algebra and a year of geometry. Math Level 2 also includes Math Level 1 material in addition to some trigonometry and precalculus. I would highly recommend bringing a graphing calculator for either test. There are some schools that prefer Math Level 2, so always check the schools’ preferences or requirements.

Science

Biology is split into two separate exams: Biology E and Biology M. You answer 60 “general” biology questions before you take a specialty section (Ecology or Molecular), which includes 20 questions. If you excel and/or absolutely love biology, take Biology M. If you are unsure, take Biology E. Biology E is usually easier than Biology M, but it all depends on the test.

The Chemistry and Physics tests are definitely easier if you have already taken or are in the process of taking a college-level (whether it be AP or IB) course. The tests require basic knowledge of concepts and formulas, so make sure you have at least one year of coursework experience. Also make sure you can do simple calculations WITHOUT a calculator since you can’t use one.                                                                             

Languages

Language tests are recommended for non-native students who have had solid preparation (usually three years of more) in a foreign language. While the Listening and non-Listening tests both include reading, the Listening test also includes a listening portion (obviously). Therefore, if you are uncomfortable with answering questions based on spoken information in a foreign language, it is recommended that you take a non-listening test.

So what’s a good score?

Each test is scored out of 800. While there isn’t any specified range, a higher score is always better, and many schools want scores in at least the 650-700 range (some ask for scores in the 700s). One thing to note: for extremely competitive schools, the average range may be around 750 or higher. Certain tests have harsher curves than others (e.g. Math 1 vs. Math 2), so there’s not an obvious answer when comparing scores between different tests.

The Bottom Line

Even if you don’t get the score you want, don’t fret. The SAT Subject Tests are only a small part of your application. Try your best, but don’t overstress. Remember, scores aren’t everything!



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the author

Raised in the outskirts of Austin, Texas, Eric Po is a freshman at Harvard University studying Economics. He loves listening to country music (particularly Rascal Flatts and Brad Paisley), but you can’t blame him; he’s a Texan after all! He also enjoys outdoor activities, including soccer, running, and Ultimate. While he’s not sweating outside in the heat, Eric enjoys volunteering for nonprofit organizations that work with youth. Although he hopes to be a financial analyst in the future, he eventually wants to work with students as a counselor.

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