How to Choose Which SAT Subject Tests to Take

Many schools no longer require SAT Subject Tests. A handful still require them of all applicants, while others only require them for specialized programs or majors. The requirements change year to year, so it’s important to confirm on the school’s website to see the current requirements. Regardless, there are several guiding principles to keep in mind.

Overall, one theme prevails: most schools that require SAT Subject tests are STEM-focused schools, like MIT and Harvey Mudd, or engineering or accelerated medical programs within larger universities. These schools believe the SAT and ACT don’t represent a rigorous enough assessment of the prerequisite areas of math, physics, and chemistry.

For liberal arts colleges, even though most programs don’t technically “require” SAT Subject Tests, their “recommended” means that they still really want to see those tests, and often expect them barring financial hardship. Even if a school doesn’t recommend subject tests, they’ll almost always take a look at them if you send them, and in an increasingly competitive landscape, these tests can be a great way to add to your profile and show additional mastery of academic material.

SAT Subject Test scores will serve as the icing on the proverbial cake in your admissions application, so remember to focus your SAT Subject pursuits on tests that truly show your strengths. If you plan on studying visual art but have always had a knack for math, why not take the Math Level 2 and show off a little bit? Or, if you know you want to study history, go ahead and take the SAT Subject Test in U.S. or World History to show how serious your commitment is. If you are applying to STEM programs, be sure to check with your program about which tests are preferred.

For STEM-focused students

Biology: We recommend this test for students interested in pre-med and science programs. Many students take biology in 9th grade, so this is a popular test to take at the end of that year of study. It is typically most appropriate for students in an honors-level course. If you plan to take AP Biology as a junior, it can be a good idea to wait to take the test until the June SAT testing date after you have already studied for the May AP exam as the coursework overlaps with the content tested on the SAT Subject Test.

Chemistry: Colleges often recommend this test for students interested in pre-med and engineering programs. The SAT Subject Test in Chemistry is arguably one of the toughest of the SAT Subject Tests, so it is wise to take the opposite approach to that of the casual Biology test-takers: only take this test if you excel in your chemistry class (again, usually honors-level) and plan on doing a healthy level of extracurricular study. Calculators are prohibited, and the test requires a high level of conceptual understanding.

Physics: We recommend this test for students interested in engineering or majoring in physics or computer science. The Physics SAT Subject Test requires a full conceptual understanding of physics, comfort with all related equations, and an ability to adapt. Note that, unlike with the AP Physics C exam, Calculus is not required.

Math Level 2: Colleges recommend this test for students interested in STEM majors: any hard science, mathematics, engineering, or computer science. The Math Level 2 is a very demanding exam, but it also has a generous curve. The exam doesn’t cover calculus, but pre-calculus concepts are the bread and butter of the test and the questions often go more in-depth than the ones students encounter in class. As a result, it can be a good idea to take this test before getting too deep into calculus, while also allotting plenty of time for extracurricular study. Calculators are permitted for this test.

For Humanities-leaning students

US History: This exam is a popular selection for students who are taking AP US History and can be a great complement to a science or math subject test. While AP US History is a popular junior year class, preparing for the AP exam is often not comprehensive enough preparation for the SAT Subject Test. The test requires its own course of study, and the sizable amount of content means it’s crucial to start early.

Languages: More and more colleges are seeking to build a body of students with diverse backgrounds, encompassing students who want to engage globally. The ability to communicate in another language is a strong and desirable asset to a student’s application. SAT Subject Tests are offered in nine languages. A student should have 4 strong years of high school-level foreign language with a particular language before taking the related test. If you have taken AP-level foreign language or will next year, this may be a test worth exploring. For some languages, there are two test options: a Reading Only Test and a Reading + Listening Test. A major decision students face is whether to take the Listening Test or not. Students often shy away from the Listening & Reading Test, but data shows that students who take the Listening portion tend to score higher on the exam. The Listening & Reading Test for each language is only offered in November. The Reading Only Test is offered multiple times each year.

Literature: The SAT Subject Test in Literature can be a great option for students who are especially strong readers and have had good exposure to literary analysis, particularly poetry analysis. We typically recommend this for students in the most rigorous English track at their high school (often culminating in AP English Literature senior year). This exam is not for the casual English student; it requires high-level reading comprehension and textual analysis skills. That said, it’s also one of the most flexible tests in terms of timing: because it’s skill-based, rather than dependent upon content learned in a particular class, it can be a great option for an August or October test date. While students should certainly take time to prepare for it, it doesn’t need to coincide with a specific course in school, offering a bit more flexibility.

If you need help choosing which test is right for you, contact us.

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