The SAT Subject Tests: What Are They? Do They Matter?

By Noodle Pros & Collegewise

By Dan Edmonds of Noodle Pros

Subject Tests Recommended
 
For college-bound students, junior year in high school is packed with challenges.
 
It’s the most important year in terms of academics: it’s when you take the SAT or ACT, when you start putting together your college list, and when you are likely hitting your peak in whatever sports or extracurricular activities you’re involved in. In short, it’s probably the most stressful year you’ll experience until after you’ve graduated from college.

Into that mix is added the sometimes poorly understood SAT Subject Tests.

While most people have at least heard of the SAT, the ACT (or even both), a surprising number of people aren’t even aware that the SAT Subject Tests exist. Those who do know the Subject Tests exist often aren’t sure whether they need to take them, or when, or which ones.

What Are the Subject Tests?

The Subject Tests are a series of one-hour exams, administered by the College Board, that focus on a variety of academic subjects. The tests are multiple-choice and are scored on a scale of 200 to 800.

Do I Need to Take the Subject Tests?

It depends where you’re applying to school. If you plan to apply to any school that requires or recommends the Subject Tests, you should absolutely take the required (or recommended) number of tests. Make sure you examine the stated policy of each school; this list is just a starting point. For example, many engineering schools require both the Math 2 and one Science Subject Test.

Also, some schools don’t require Subject Tests if you take the ACT, so if you plan to take the ACT, you should look into that policy at the schools you’re considering.

When Should I Take the Subject Tests?

First of all, in a perfect world, you’d be asking this question freshman year. Why? Because, depending on the subject, freshman year might be the best year to take a test. You should take any Subject Test at the end of the academic year that you complete the relevant coursework. Interested in taking Biology? If your coursework in Biology is freshman year, that’s when you should take the test.

All other things being equal, you should at least take a first crack at the Subject Tests by the end of your junior year. Many students set aside the June test date for exactly that purpose.

Some other important considerations: Subject Tests are given on the same days as the SAT (except on the March test date, which is SAT only), so make sure to plan appropriately. Also, the language tests with listening are given only  in November. And not every Subject Test is offered on every test date. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Which Tests Should I Take?

You should take the tests that will make the best impression. What does that mean?

  • If the school has particular requirements (or even recommendations), follow them. Some schools require particular tests (for instance, the Math Level 2 and/or a Science for engineering programs). Other schools require that your two tests be from different “areas” (the areas are usually defined as math, science, humanities, and foreign language). In short, make sure you’re aware of any particular requirements.
  • Math Level 1 usually doesn’t fly at top schools. If you’re applying to one of the very top schools, the Math Level 1 will be considered a real weakness. Take it only if you have no other options.
  • Consider the message you want to send. Your choice of Subject Tests defines your academic strengths. Math + Science sends a very different message than Language + Literature, though both define you as a specialist. Want to show breadth? Go for Math or Science + Language/Literature/History.
  • Showcase your strengths. The bottom line is that you want to take the tests that will produce the best scores for you. This should trump most other considerations (except, of course, explicit instructions from a school).
  • If you are a native speaker, don’t take that language test! College admissions officers aren’t dumb. No one is impressed by a native speaker of Spanish knocking it out of the park on the Spanish Subject Test.

What Matters: The Percentile of the Score?

This is a tough question to answer, actually. Let’s consider how this works using my favorite test: the Math Level 2.

As of the most recent released statistics, a perfect score on the Math Level 2 is only the 81st percentile. This has, over the years, led to any number of freak-outs and, frankly, a lot of bad advice. I’ve heard tutors who I very much respect claim “this means if you can’t break [insert number greater than 750 here], you shouldn’t take the Math Level 2!”

As my grandfather would have said: piffle.

Why is a “perfect score” only the 81st percentile? You have to think about who is taking this test: people applying to the absolute top engineering schools in the country. Top math students applying to highly competitive schools. If a lot of these students weren’t strong enough at math to garner a perfect score, something would be wrong. SAT subject tests are, quite simply, curved differently. For the most part, just worry about getting scores that are roughly numerically equivalent to your SAT scores (or, if you took the ACT, to the average SAT scores for your school).

Summing Up

Find out what the schools you’re applying to require in terms of SAT Subject Tests, schedule them when you’ll be most ready to take them (usually at the end of the relevant academic year), and take the tests that will present the best picture to the admissions committee.

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