The Ultimate Guide to SAT Subject Tests

Jun 2024

15 Minute Read

Tagged as: SAT

A general description of what the SAT subject tests are, a basic introduction to the tests offered, how they are different from the SAT and when/why students take them

So what the heck are the SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT Subject Tests assess a student’s academic abilities across 20 potential disciplines.

College Board offers two SAT Subject tests in Mathematics: Math Level 1 and Math Level 2. There are three Science tests: Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. Biology is further divided into "Molecular" and "Ecological" Biology tests. You can take two different Subject Tests in History: US History and World History. There is 1 English test, the SAT Subject Test in Literature.

And finally, there are a myriad of Foreign Language tests. You can take: Spanish, Spanish with Listening, Italian, German, German with Listening, French, French with Listening, Modern Hebrew, Chinese with Listening, Latin, Japanese with Listening, and Korean with Listening.

Each test costs $22 to $26, though fee waivers are available.

How is this different from the regular SAT?

First off, your main SAT score is your most important score. Universities would rather see you ace the SAT and have mid-level Subject Test scores than the other way around; if you have limited time or money, we’d suggest you prioritize your SAT (or ACT) scores.

Secondly, SAT Subject Tests are different from most other standardized tests in that they demonstrate to a college what you’re interested in. The SAT is uniform across all students – everyone takes the same sections of the SAT. But SAT Subject Tests (much like Advanced Placement tests) give you the chance to show off your individual academic interests. Make sure universities know how erudite and precocious you are.

What’s the format of the SAT Subject Tests?

All the SAT Subject Tests exclusively use "bubble-in" questions – that is, there are no free response questions on any of the exams. Uniquely, the Subject Test in Chemistry contains a section of true and false questions; otherwise, every question on every subject test is multiple choice. Each test lasts 60 minutes, and the number of questions you'll see varies from exam to exam.

How are SAT Subject Tests scored?

The raw score of every SAT Subject test is converted to a scaled score, ranging from 200 to 800. Unlike on the SAT, where there is no penalty for answering incorrectly, students do lose points for missing questions on the Subject Tests. Each correct answer is worth one point, each incorrect answer loses you a quarter of a point, and each blank answer is worth 0 points.

If I lose points for wrong answers, is it worth it for me to guess on questions I don’t know?

Yes, it is. Allow us to explain:

Every question on the SAT Subject Tests has 5 answers. If you were to randomly guess on 5 questions in a row, you would, on average, correctly answer 1 question and miss 4. Because you lose a quarter of a point for a wrong answer, this would net you zero points — just as if you had left these questions blank. So purely guessing on questions is, mathematically, neutral: you’ll gain nothing and lose nothing.

However, the moment you’re able to eliminate even 1 answer from the answer options on a question, it is mathematically in your favor to guess. If you get 5 questions down to 2 possible answers and then guess on each of them, you will, on average, answer 2.5 questions correctly and 2.5 questions incorrectly. That’s a net gain of just under 2 points.

When can I take SAT Subject Tests?

There are 6 SAT Subject test dates throughout the year: August, October, November, December, May, and June. However, not every exam is offered during every slot. The Language Subject Tests are only available twice a year. You can take the ‘Listening’ Subject Tests in November, and the ‘non-Listening’ tests in June. French and Spanish — the most common SAT Language Subject Tests — are also offered in December and May.

When you register for the SAT Subject Tests, you’ll need to specify which tests you plan on taking – however, you don’t have to stick with those choices on test day. You can add a test, cancel a test, or switch to a different test.

You can take up to three SAT Subject Tests in one sitting; however, you can’t take the SAT Subject Tests and the SAT on the same day.

Do I need to take these? What do colleges expect?

Certain selective colleges in the United States expect you to take at least a few SAT Subject Tests. If you have good scores on 2 of these exams, then you’re probably in good shape: most elite colleges only require 2 Subject Tests. A handful of college, however, expect high school students to submit three scores — Georgetown University, for example, has this requirement.

Even if you’re not applying to colleges that require SAT Subject Tests, these tests will still look excellent on your application. The admissions process is rigorous, and anything that makes you stand out to an admissions officer will work in your favor. So regardless of which universities you're applying to, you should take a few of these exams.

Which SAT Subject Tests are right for me?

The first thing you should consider are your academic strengths; there’s little point in challenging yourself with the SAT Subject Test in Math if trigonometry makes you want to jump out of an airplane. You’ll want to prioritize the tests on which you can get as close as possible to an 800.

Beyond this, though, you’ll want to think of your SAT Subject Tests as a larger part of your college portfolio. What concentration will you be declaring on your applications? If you tell Columbia that you want to be a Physics major, but you only have SAT Subject Tests in Languages, they might be perplexed. After all, they want to see proof that you understand gravitational forces and Newtonian mechanics.

Select SAT Subject Tests that lend weight to the narrative you’re presenting to universities. If you plan on declaring Classics, get an 800 on the Latin Subject Test; show Harvard that you know the nominative from the vocative and can spot an ablative of place from a mile away. If you want to declare Mathematics, you should not take Math 1; instead, opt for the more difficult Math 2 exam. Show off your skills in linear algebra and vector analysis. You know the difference between a combination and a permutation – now's your chance to prove it.

Finally — and this might seem contradictory — take a subject test that complements your main set of skills. If you plan on studying Visual Art, then it's impressive to submit an 800 on the Math exam to a college. This signals to universities that you’re a flexible learner and have a broad array of passions that you can bring to their campus.

What’s the best way to prepare for SAT Subject Tests?

In general, we find it’s best to take each SAT Subject Test at the end of a year-long course in that subject. This rule is most applicable to the History tests — World History and US History — and the Science tests — Physics, Biology, and Chemistry.

For the other subject tests, however, you might find you need a little more guidance. You take Math every year, and you’ve been taking Spanish since you were in 7th grade — at what point are you adequately prepared for these tests?

That is going to vary from person to person. The Math Subject Tests require you to know material all the way through trigonometry and pre-calculus. Many students therefore decide to postpone the Subject Test in Math until the spring of their junior year or the beginning of their senior year.

If you are fluent in a language — especially if you grew up speaking it — we suggest taking the language with listening tests. We also suggest you focus most of you studying on your written grammar; we often find that native speakers of a language have the easiest time with aural language abilities but could use more review on written language skills.

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