SAT Subject Tests: What are they, and why should I take them?

It’s fairly common knowledge: You have to take the SAT (in most cases) to get into college. But then what are the SAT Subject Tests? Are they optional? And if so, why the heck should you take them?

Are the SAT Subject Tests the same as the “regular” SAT?
No. Although the purpose of every college entrance exam is the same—to help admissions officers evaluate how prepared you are for college-level work—the type of “work” being assessed differs from test to test.

The “regular” SAT Exam evaluates critical thinking skills in Reading, Writing, and Math. These are considered baseline skills that every college student will need in order to succeed at a given institution and, consequently, most colleges and universities require these scores as part of their admissions process.

The SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, are more specialized. While there is only one SAT, there are 20 SAT Subject Tests, each of which measure your knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge in one of five subject areas: English, History, Math, Science, and Languages. Typically, these tests are elective; only extremely selective schools will require you to take them.

So do I need to take an SAT Subject Test or not?

If you have the time, resources, and knowledge, it’s a generally a good idea to take one or two of the Subject Tests. However, whether or not you must take these tests depends on where you are applying—so make sure to check the admissions policies of every school!

Extremely competitive schools will typically require two subject tests; sometimes they will even dictate which tests you must take. (CalTech, for instance, requires the Math Level 2 Test and one of the Science Subject Tests.) Slightly less selective schools may “recommend” that you take one or two Subject Tests, in which case it’s essentially expected and will likely hurt your application if you don’t. Finally, schools that neither require nor recommend Subject Tests will often still consider them if you decide to send in your scores.

If my schools don’t require or recommend any Subject Tests, why should I take them?

While dedicating yet another Saturday to standardized testing may sound like a drag, there are a few reasons why you might still want to do it, even if your schools of choice neither require nor recommend Subject Tests. First, if you are applying to a specific college or program within a school, such as Engineering, then a strong Physics Subject Test will help set you apart from other applicants. Second, if you want to demonstrate a strong interest in or aptitude for a particular subject (e.g., Literature), then scoring high on the Literature Subject Test could help you place into more advanced courses. Alternatively, if you are bilingual or fluent in another language, then demonstrating that fluency on one of the nine Language Subject Tests could fulfill a basic language competency requirement—freeing up space in your schedule for other subjects that excite you! Lastly, if you have a passion for, say, History but just cannot wrap your head around Algebra, then a strong U.S. History Subject Test may help to offset a weak Math score on the regular SAT Exam.

Okay, so I think I want to take a Subject Test. Anything else I should know?

Absolutely. First, you will want to make sure that you high school coursework actually covered what is going to be on the test. For example, if you’re looking to take one of the Biology Subject Tests, but your high school curriculum didn’t include the topic of evolution, you may want to reconsider, because evolution and diversity topics make up approximately 15-22% of the questions on the Biology Subject Tests. (You can find more information about the content of the tests on the College Board website.)

Next, you can take the Subject Tests anytime you want, so use this to your advantage. If you ace Chemistry in your sophomore year, you don’t have to wait; you can take the Chemistry test in May or June of that same year while the material is still fresh in your mind.

Finally, as mentioned before, there are 20 different Subject Tests—so exercise your right to choose! Unless you are applying to a school that requires certain Subject Tests, you can take whatever tests you want, which means that you can use them to highlight your strengths and paint the self-portrait that you want college admissions officers to see. If you’re a voracious reader who isn’t great with names and dates, take the Literature Subject Test and skip the History ones. Preparing to be the next Nobel Prize-winning Economist? Take Math Level 2. Your application tells a story, and a Subject Test will help to show what you are interested in, have spent time learning about, and will likely pursue in college.

The bottom line: Even if they are not required or recommended (which you will know once you check each and every school’s admissions requirements), you should still consider taking SAT Subject Tests in areas where you excel. High scores on these tests will strengthen your application and help the admissions officers get a slightly clearer picture of you . . . no matter where you are applying.