Tips for a successful school year

SAT Subject Tests: What You Need to Know

Whether the weather where you are is reflecting the arrival of Spring, it is on its way, and with it, SAT Subject Tests.  There is some good and bad information about these exams in internet-land and so we will, as always, try to give you the real scoop.


SAT Subject tests are an additional metric used only by the most elite schools in order to further differentiate the best applicants from the very best.  Unlike its well-known big brother, the SAT Reasoning Test, the SAT Subject Test, in its various subject-specific iterations, actually tests you on your knowledge of specific subjects.  It does that by asking multiple-choice questions across a one-hour time span.

The first question you should ask yourself is whether you need to take any of these.  That’s simple.  Look at your college list and cross-check the application requirements to find out if those schools want SAT Subject Tests.  I’ll save you a bit of time and tell you that all of the Ivies, Duke, some of the Claremont schools, Boston College, and Amherst all do (you’ll need to do some of your own research here – comprehensive “lists” I’ve found in research online don’t always include updates which reflect schools’ changing requirements).

If it’s Spring of your junior year and you don’t have at least a preliminary list, we need to talk.  But if you do have a list (good!) and not a single one of your schools requires a Subject Test, skip them.  Taking these tests is just more of a drain on your time, wallet, and spirit.  However, if even one of the schools on your list requires them, then you have to take them.


You’ve now figured out that you have to take these tests.  So – when?  We recommend the May Test Date of your junior year.  Our reasoning is that AP tests are at the beginning of May and that students, whenever possible, should simply piggy-back on the sunk cost of studying for those AP exams.  Meaning, if you’re studying for the quite difficult 3-hour multiple choice AND multiple-essay AP exam in US History, why not knock out the significantly easier 1-hour SAT Subject Test in US History at the same time? (The date is within a week or so, depending on when your AP Exam is and when the May test date is, as that varies year to year.)  We strongly encourage test-taking at this time – or in June as an alternative – because you are at the end of a full year studying the subject (June might also be more favorable for those students who are in IB, not AP programs).

There is no better time to take these tests than at the end of the academic year.  The reason we generally discourage June Subject Test-taking is because we like to keep that date open for another SAT Reasoning Test, should the student not have been satisfied with a previous result.  We discourage waiting until Fall of your senior year to put your best test-foot forward.  It muddies the water of the summer before Senior Year, which should be spent with your best test score “in hand,” not “in hope.”  You simply cannot get a sense of where you can/should apply without knowing your actual scores.


Which tests can you choose from?  You have Math, Science, History/Literature, and Language.


There is a Level I, but that is generally only going to be accepted by some schools, and even then those schools might express a desire for Level II.  If a student is looking at any major that has strong math and science requirements, they should take Level II.


You have your choice of Chemistry, Biology, and Physics.  Again, take the one you are currently studying.

History and Literature

You can choose from US History or World History (not always offered in May) and Literature.  Again, check your requirements.


These are simply “gimmes” to native speakers.  Median scores in these exams hover around 780 (out of 800) – nearly perfect.  So, unless you have spent at least 6 weeks speaking the language in an immersive environment, steer clear.  If you are planning to major in the language, however, you may be required to take this test just to place in a language level. (Some schools use SAT Subject Tests as placement tests for Freshman subjects, but those same schools often also have internal exams, written by their respective departments, which are more “fair” as tests.  Something to keep in mind.)

Take Three to get Two

A lot of schools want 2 scores, so, if you’re well-prepared, it makes sense to take 3 exams and grab your best 2 scores to send on to your schools.  By the same token, some schools want 3 so you might as well “max out” and take 3 on your test date of choice.

We realize there are lots of twists and turns in this process.  That’s why we’re always here if you have questions.  Just give us a call!

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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