What’s The Big Deal About SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Test Tutoring, Newton

By Jason Breitkopf, Director of Faculty, Chyten.

For students applying to the most prestigious and competitive colleges and universities, an additional step in the testing and application process is taking the SAT Subject Tests.  Since only a small minority of the two million students who take the SAT each year take even one SAT Subject Test, many student and parents are confused, with questions arising such as: “How many Subject Tests should I take?”, “Which Subject Tests are the best?”, and “Are the Subject Tests even necessary?”  In order to answer those questions, it is first a good idea to know what the Subject Tests are.

The Subjects Tests are a series of 20 one-hour long multiple choices tests written and administered by the College Board.  Covering topics such as English Literature, United States history, world history, biology, chemistry, physics, math, and almost a dozen non-English languages, Subject Tests are offered during the same testing dates as the SAT, except the March test date, but students cannot take both the SAT and the Subject Tests on the same date.  Because each Subject Test is only one hour in length, students can take up to three different subjects on the same date.

The Subject Tests were first administered by the College Board in 1937, over 10 years after the SAT premiered, and were originally known as the Achievement Tests.  The College Board changed the name to SAT II: Subject Tests in 1994 in conjunction with a content revision of the SAT.  In 2005, the Subject Tests underwent another renaming to the current name during a similar content revision of the SAT.  It was during this time that the Writing Subject Test, which included a 20-minute essay along with a 40-minute multiple choice section, was retired due to the SAT gaining a Writing section, which contained sections of multiple choice grammar questions and a 25-minute essay.  The core SAT test still contains a grammar section and an essay, although the essay is now both optional and 50 minutes in length.

The Subject Tests are generally used as admissions criteria by highly competitive and highly selective colleges due to the large number of applicants they receive.  These colleges find that the Subject Tests provide them with additional information to help them parse through a large pool of otherwise qualified candidates.  Interestingly, the number of colleges that require Subject Tests has shrunk over the years to the point that fewer than fifty of the over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States require Subject Tests for admission.  A larger pool of colleges request Subject Tests, and a community of less competitive colleges require Subject Tests for admission to particular prestigious programs within the school while not requiring Subject Tests for general admission to the college.

To answer the last common question first, “Are the Subject Tests even necessary?”, the answer depends on to which colleges a student wants to apply.  If a student is applying to colleges in the Ivy League or comparative schools, or highly competitive programs at other schools, then the Subject Tests are absolutely necessary.  It is also wise to take the Subject Tests when applying to schools that request, but do not require, them, since taking them, and scoring well, will provide both additional information points for a student’s application, but may provide an advantage over students who chose not to take the Subject Tests.

Most colleges that request or require Subject Tests will ask for at least two from different topics areas.  This means that a college is unlikely to accept both the Math Level I and Math Level II Subject Tests.  Instead, a student should take and submit to colleges a combination of two of one of each of the math tests, one of the science-base tests, one of the history-based tests, one of the foreign language-based tests, or the Literature test.  In fact, it is often wise to take three Subject Tests in total during a student’s high school career in order to have a choice of tests to submit to colleges.  More than three, however, may prove to be unnecessarily stressful for no additional benefit.

Given the wide variety of Subject Tests, the question of “Which Subject Tests should I take?”  often arises in conversations between students or parents and teachers, college counselors, or tutors.  The answer to this question is unique to each student.  A student should ask herself two questions.  First, in which subjects do I feel most strong?  Unless a student is applying for a program so specific that the college requires a particular Subject Test, students are free to choose which Subject Tests they would like to submit.  Second, what classes am I taking now?  Several Subject Tests, such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, US History, and World History line up relatively closely with school year curricula.  It is wise to take a Subject Test in those subjects at the end of a school year in which a student has taken that subject, preferably during the May or June test date.  This is true even before junior year.  Students can take Subject Tests after completing honors level or higher classes in the sciences or history subjects as freshmen or sophomores.

While the Subject Tests can add some stress to a high school students college application process, for students applying to highly competitive schools and highly competitive programs within certain institutions, the may prove necessary.  Students should check with the admissions offices of the colleges to which they are applying in order to confirm if any of those colleges require particular Subject Tests.  Students should take Subject Tests in areas in which they feel they will be successful, especially upon completion of a class in that subject.  The College Board has published a selection of practice tests that students can take, and tutoring is available from reputable providers.  With proper preparation and confidence, students can transform Subject Tests from an obstacle to be overcome to an asset in their application packets.