SAT Subject Tests: Potential Admission Advantage

When we first meet with students and their families, they’re familiar with the SAT and ACT. But when we ask whether the student has taken SAT Subject Tests, some, including very good students, don't even know what they are. That’s too bad, because they can offer an advantage in admissions. Here we’ll explain what they are and who should take them, and provide some basic preparation tips.

"What are Subject Tests?"

The SAT Subject Tests are standardized tests administered by the College Board, which also administers the regular SAT and the Advanced Placement exams. They are hour-long multiple choice tests in high school subjects including sciences, mathematics, English, history, and foreign languages. They are scored on a 200-800 scale like the SAT sections, and offered on the same testing dates as the SAT.

"Do I need to take them?"

In most cases, no, but some highly selective colleges require them, and strong scores can enhance your applications at schools where they’re not required. As of this writing, a few highly selective private colleges, such as Williams, require Subject Test scores for all applicants. Others require Subject Tests for applicants submitting the SAT, but not for those submitting the ACT with Writing, though they may still recommend Subject Tests for all applicants. Some colleges, like Penn, recommend or require Subject Tests for particular programs, often engineering and nursing, while others encourage applicants to submit Subject Tests in areas of interest (Columbia) or strength (Yale), which is good advice. Whether Subject Tests are required or recommended, applicants to highly selective colleges should take Subject Tests and submit scores consistent with their strong academic records. Be sure to check the website of each college you’re interested in and carefully review its standardized testing policy.

"If I don't need them, should I take them anyway?"

Good Subject Test scores can enhance your applications to a wide range of colleges, so you should consider taking them, especially in your strongest subjects and areas of interest. As a very rough guide, think of "good" scores as those above a school's averages on the regular SAT sections, preferably near or above their 75th percentiles. Here are four specific scenarios where Subject Test scores can be especially helpful.

Compensate for a weak grade. Imagine you received atypically low math grades the first two quarters of your pre-calculus class, which will reduce your final grade. But if you've improved dramatically, you could show the proficiency you've developed with a good score on Math II.

Offset a disappointing SAT/ACT score. Maybe your SAT Critical Reading score is 640 and your Math is 620, but you love science and hit 720 on Biology and 730 on Chemistry. At some schools, those Subject Tests could compensate for the lower SAT scores, especially if you're applying as a science major. They can be particularly advantageous at the few "test flexible" schools, like NYU, that allow applicants to submit Subject Test scores (or AP exam scores) instead of the regular SAT or ACT. They might also help at "test optional" schools that don't require, but will consider, standardized tests.

Demonstrate proficiency. You may be a top student at a high school that doesn't offer AP classes and/or hasn't sent many (or any) graduates to the nation's most selective colleges. You have high grades, but colleges may wonder about your readiness for their rigorous academics. High Subject Test scores could alleviate that concern and help you get admitted.

Help with course placement. Finally, Subject Test scores can affect college course placement or satisfy distribution requirements. For example, a high Math II score might place you into a more advanced math class, and a sufficient language test score might satisfy a college's language requirement. For these purposes, you can take Subject Tests in your senior year, even after you've been admitted to college.

"How should I start getting ready for Subject Tests?"

Your high school courses are preparing you, beginning as early as ninth grade. If you’re interested in a Subject Test, review its coverage on the College Board's site, compare it to your corresponding high school course, and identify any gaps you need to fill on your own. Your teacher might know this, so ask. We recommend taking Subject Tests as close as possible to the end of the relevant course. This way, your course will have covered more material when you take the test, and your studying will prepare you for your final exam and the Subject Test. You can find practice tests online or in test prep books. If your course has covered everything on the Subject Test, it isn't much extra studying at all!

Remember, this is general information, not specific advice for any individual student. College requirements, high school curricula, and testing strategies vary. Contact us for information about our personal college admission counseling services.

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