What are the SAT Subject Tests? Should I take them?

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

This page provides information pertaining to the SAT Subject Tests, including the intended audience for each test and pieces of advice for your preparation for individual tests. Keep in mind that AOC and COC curriculum may differ from the material covered on subject tests - you must act accordingly to ensure that you are prepared for the material offered on the test. To learn about each individual test, click here.

What are SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT Subject Tests are 60-minute tests that assess knowledge in specific subjects. Certain colleges REQUIRE subject tests as a part of the application process, including MIT,  Harvey Mudd, and CalTech. Other competitive, specialized colleges, such as the Samueli School at UCLA and the School of Engineering at UC Berkeley, HIGHLY recommend taking them. It is important to note that many of these institutions expect SAT subject test scores to be submitted, despite the given “recommended” label. Keep in mind that each school has its own expectations. Finally, it is important to take SAT Subject Tests right after you have completed the recommended classes, because the material will still be fresh in your mind.

Each test is scored out of 800. Keep in mind that the percentile for each test varies, in addition to the significance of your percentile. For instance, an 800 in Math II is the 76th percentile, typically with 5 incorrect answers. Contrastingly, an 800 in Physics may be the 86th percentile with 10 incorrect answers.

Who Should Take Them?

Several competitive engineering or nursing colleges require or strongly recommend subject tests as a way to bolster the competitiveness of your application. As opposed to the general nature of the SAT and ACT, subject tests assess knowledge of specific subjects that you aim to display mastery in. This demonstrates an understanding of the subject beyond a typical A-/A/A+ letter grade.

The most competitive colleges take subject tests in consideration as a standardized way of measuring your academic readiness in comparison to other applicants around the country. Considering the competitiveness of the applicant pool, it is important that you strongly consider taking Subject Tests (if your academic plans include applying to the most prestigious universities). Here are common majors that test-takers are applying to:

  • Engineering​

  • Pre-Medicine (Nursing most common)

  • Computer Science

  • Public Health Sciences

Example: Carnegie Mellon Engineering recommends at least one lab science subject test (Biology, Physics, or Chemistry) and a Mathematics Level II subject test.

Certain selective programs may require submission of subject test scores as a part of their admissions process.

Example: Caltech requires two SAT Subject Tests: one in Mathematics Level II and one SAT science subject test in Biology (ecological or molecular emphasis), Chemistry, or Physics.

What Colleges Recommend or Require Subject Tests?

Click here to view a table sorting colleges alphabetically or by policy. You will find the college name linked to that school’s standardized testing policy.

When Should I Take Them?

With just a few exceptions, you should take a particular Subject Test at the end of the school year when you have taken a corresponding class of appropriate rigor. May or June of 11th grade is thus the most popular window when the majority of Subject Tests are taken. 10th and even 9th grade students may be advised to take a Subject Test, if they are excelling in a COC class or advanced class in a subject that they will not continue in before 12th grade.

Keep in mind that you can’t take the SAT and the Subject Tests on the same date (we wouldn’t wish that on anybody even if it were possible). This is one of the reasons why we recommend a December, January, or March test date for a first sitting of the SAT.

The fall test dates are generally unpopular for Subject Tests. Thoughtful exceptions include an October tester who took an intensive summer school course or a November tester who wants to take the version of a Language test with a listening component (often preferred by native speakers). An unfortunate exception would be a student who somehow missed or failed to heed the advice to take Subject Tests at the end of the school year when students are most typically peaking in a particular subject.

It is strongly recommended to finalize your testing attempts by September. Failing to do so will mostly likely interfere with academic commitments and with the college application process.

Any Advice?

The best way to avoid tactical errors is to ensure each of these decisions is informed by the results of practice tests. We recommend taking an initial diagnostic test—one hour per subject—no later than 5 weeks before the official date you are considering.

NOTE: Keep in mind that COC and AOC curriculum may differ from the material covered on subject tests - you must act accordingly to ensure that you are prepared for the material offered on the test.

These are your keys to success:

  • Choosing the subjects in which you have the most potential

  • Nailing the timing of when you take the tests

  • Ensuring that there are no gaps in your preparation

Which tests should I choose? Can I retake them?

Optimal selection of Subject Tests is critical, and the best choices are usually those that align with your most advanced classes and your academic strengths. Practice tests are critical to diagnosing your current ability to receive a high score; plan to study your gaps of knowledge in the subject matter. As you register, keep in mind that you can take more than one subject test in one sitting.

Generally, it is okay to retake subject tests. The most typical retesting scenario would be to take the next available test date. Another common scenario would result from taking classes that build upon one another. For example, consider a 10th grader taking Honors Pre-Calculus. The content of the Math Level 2 aligns quite well with most Honors Pre-Calculus classes, so from that perspective the end of the 10th grade may be the optimal window. A 10th grader in this situation may be able to bank a top score on Math Level 2 and thus have less to worry about in 11th grade.

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