What are SAT Subject Tests and should you take them?

SAT Subject Tests (formerly called SAT II’s) are hour-long assessments of subject mastery in core high school curricula – math, science, history, and language. They are often requested or required by admissions committees at highly selective American colleges and universities, though the policies around SAT Subject Tests have shifted significantly over the past five years.

So how do college admissions committees actually use SAT Subject Test scores? Here’s what the College Board thinks they use them for:

In practice, SAT Subject Test scores function more or less the way SAT or ACT scores do: they provide an objective benchmark with which to assess students from radically different geographic and educational backgrounds. One important caveat, however, is that even among schools that technically require SAT Subject Tests, these scores play a much more limited role in admissions decisions than a student’s general SAT or ACT scores. Phew!

If you’re a future college applicant, your basic strategy in taking SAT Subject Tests should be to showcase your individual interest in (or, more romantically, your “devotion to excellence in”) a particular field. For instance, an applicant presenting herself as a pre-medicine student might want to reassure the admissions officers that she has a solid foundation in the relevant sciences (Biology M and/or Chemistry). Indeed, as we’ll see below, many colleges actually require specific SAT Subject Tests for students applying to particular schools, programs, or majors.

However, the basic strategy for taking SAT Subject Tests has morphed into a less optimistic one. Rather than asking yourself, “What am I uniquely interested in?” the typical strategy has become, “What am I not terrible at?” Indeed, if you’re applying to selective schools, you’ll likely need to take SAT Subject Tests no matter what!

However, if you’re an anxious sophomore or freshman, the higher ed PR machine has good news for you: in general, colleges and universities are moving away from the SAT Subject Test requirement.

Reasons for this move vary from school to school, but Erica Meltzer has one of the best theories around to explain the trend: jettisoning the SAT Subject Test requirement has the appearance (if not the actual consequence) of making college admissions more inclusive in terms of socioeconomic and racial diversity. If this smoke-and-mirrors tactic continues to function in colleges’ favors, we’re liable to see more schools move that direction as well.

(For the record, two trendsetters – MIT and Harvard – appear to be holding strong on their SAT Subject Test requirements. That means SAT Subject Tests themselves are unlikely to go anywhere, even if it seems College Board is expending all its energy on revamping the SAT and AP curricula.)

Now let’s take a closer look at the Subject Test landscape. What are schools saying about these tests, and what do they expect to see from kids taking them?


There persist roughly 4 major admissions policy categories for SAT Subject Tests:

Required (only the most selective schools use this policy),

Recommended (read = “expected”)

Considered (read = “not expected, but helpful”)

Test Flexible (these schools will accept SAT Subject Test scores in lieu of SAT or ACT scores)

Some schools change their admissions policies each year (schools tend to change in favor of less restriction around SAT Subject Tests), so it’s best to check the university’s website before submitting scores! These categories should be considered non-overlapping and exhaustive: any school that doesn’t adhere to one of the policies above effectively disregards SAT Subject Test scores when considering an applicant.

It’s also important to note that only about 40-60 schools actually adhere to one of the policies above, making SAT Subject Tests a rite of passage for only a fraction of applicants. However, the schools that have such policies are arguably the most desired schools. So even if you think you’re unlikely to apply to such a school, you’d be well-advised to keep your options open concerning SAT Subject Tests, as there are more (and less) optimal times to take them. (More on that below!)

Of the dozen schools in the Required category, Harvard and MIT get most of the attention. But others that you ought to be aware of include CalTech and Harvey Mudd. (Note that this category does include universities that require specific SAT Subject Tests for entrance into specific schools, like the University of California system; these schools Schools with this policy will be demarcated by the ( † ) symbol.) Note: Most selective Canadian schools will require SAT Subject Tests for US applicants.

In addition, a handful of these schools exercise a variation of the Test Flexible policy as well: students are allowed to submit ACT scores in lieu of SAT Subject Test scores. The trade-off usually works like this: either submit SAT + SAT Subject Test scores or submit ACT scores. Schools with this policy will be demarcated by an asterisk ( * ). 

Around 20 schools are currently in the Recommended category for SAT Subject Test scores. This is the most volatile category: it’s likely that many of these schools will move to the Considered policy category in the next five years. What characterizes most of the schools in the Recommended bloc is that they are typically either large state schools that need to use this policy to combat excessive numbers of applicants (many schools in the UC system come to mind…) or highly selective schools that have desired to appear less elitist (e.g., Princeton and Yale, who still “strongly recommend” students submit SAT Subject Test scores). Applying to one of these schools without submitting SAT Subject Test scores will place applicants at a serious disadvantage.

The most flexible policy, Considered, is the largest category consisting of roughly 46 schools. This policy seems to say, “Yes, Subject Test scores do offer a valuable lens into a student’s profile, but requiring that everyone submit them imposes too great a burden. Therefore, we’ll review them if you submit but don’t necessarily need them.” Submission of SAT Subject Test scores is not necessarily expected from most applicants at these schools, which presents students who opt to take them with a unique opportunity to distinguish themselves from other applicants.

Finally, there’s an emerging policy among schools known for taking innovative approaches to admissions. This Test Flexible admissions approach will allow you to submit your SAT Subject Test scores instead of SAT or ACT scores.

There are currently only 6 schools abiding by this policy, but per the general trend observed above, we wouldn’t be the least surprised if more schools moved to the Test Flexible category in coming years.

Note: For home schooled applicants or those applying to US colleges as international students, there may be a special requirement for you to take SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT or ACT – regardless of the school’s testing policy for all undergraduates. Do your research on each school you are applying to and plan accordingly!

To see our growing database of college admissions SAT Subject Test requirements, you can visit the link below:

// SAT Subject Test Database //

Since many of our students have tentative rather than finalized college lists by the time they should be studying and taking the SAT Subject Tests, here are a few general guidelines about who might want to consider adding Subject Tests to their testing plan.


Let’s say you’re a high school sophomore, and you’re not sure if you’ll end up applying to a school with an admissions policy in the Required or Recommended category. If you’re planning to take advanced level coursework, or if your school doesn’t offer advanced courses in subjects you are interested in, you should consider taking the SAT Subject Test that corresponds to the course(s) you’d like to demonstrate achievement in.

For instance, some of our students are taking precalculus or calculus in their sophomore years. That’s an impressive feat, and one that will obviously pop up on their high school transcript – but because the rigor and composition of calculus classes varies from state to state (indeed, even from zip code to zip code!), these students will want to prove their prowess by scoring well on the Math Level 2 test.

As mentioned above, Subject Tests can also help strengthen or flesh out a student’s narrative in the admissions process. Schools definitely appreciate academic achievement in one particular area, but admissions personnel also tend to express appreciation for well-rounded students. Therefore, students applying to engineering programs will likely want to submit Subject Test scores in Math Level 1 or Level 2 and/or Physics, but they might also gain an advantage by signaling a secondary strength in Literature or US History.

By the same token, students ought to avoid sending repetitive signals with SAT Subject Tests; if you’re a native Spanish speaker identifying as Hispanic or Latino on your Common App, the SAT Subject Test in Spanish is not going to enhance your narrative – but the SAT Subject Test in Chemistry definitely will (all the more so, since Latinos are historically underrepresented in STEM fields).

Finally, SAT Subject Tests provide students who didn’t excel in their first few years of high school with an opportunity for redemption. Let’s say you have a natural aptitude in math, but you didn’t take your freshman math class seriously. As a result, you’re not in the advanced track for math classes and you’ve spent the last couple years trying to pull up your GPA. Good news! An SAT Subject Test in Math Level 1 or Level 2 provides an excellent means for you to prove your mettle to the admissions folks. Indeed, admissions officers truly appreciate this sort of contextualization of student performance. (The Common App also has a field for explanations of this sort.)


Given that college admissions are becoming more selective, we anticipate the role of SAT Subject Tests in admissions strategy will continue to grow – despite the emerging trend away from official Subject Test requirements.

If you’re considering taking a SAT Subject Test, two things are critical: completing an initial diagnostic practice test to determine study needs and timing the official test around the completion of coursework. For sophomores taking Honors Chemistry, for instance, schedule the SAT Chemistry Subject Test for June. For juniors taking AP US History, it would make sense to take the SAT US History Subject Test in May, right alongside the AP exam.

For one-to-one guidance and academic support in preparation for SAT Subject Tests, working with a tutor is a great option. To schedule your free, 30-minute consult with a senior tutor, fill out our Contact Form or email Student Services at .


Tackling the SAT Math Subject Tests


Since teachers and schools grade differently, the SAT Subject Tests provide colleges with a standardized assessment of a student’s knowledge in a particular subject area. Many colleges require two or three SAT Subject Tests for admission—visiting prospective college websites to research admissions requirements will help you plan your tests accordingly—and some colleges even require specific Subject Tests. For example, Math Level 2 is often required for pre-medicine programs since their freshmen coursework presumes mastery of this information.

Students interested in pursuing a math-based field of study such as engineering, mathematics, physics, or chemistry should consider taking a Math SAT Subject Test to demonstrate your ability and interest.

Even if a student is not planning on going into a math- or science-based field may want to consider taking a Math SAT Subject Test. If the student has done consistently well in their high school math courses, for example, high Math SAT Subject Test scores demonstrate to colleges that she or he is academically well-rounded.

Although each student’s academic strengths and interests should help determine their selection, a rule of thumb for taking three Subject Tests might look like this:

  • one math test (preferably Math Level 2);
  • one humanities test (History or Literature);
  • one science test.

Students should decide which (if any) of the SAT Subject Tests they plan to take by the end of their junior year. With enough forethought, students have the time to plan when to take each test and, of course, how to study for them. Students should plan to take Subject Tests when they have the highest chance of success.

If a student is taking Precalculus during their sophomore year, he or she should highly consider taking taking the Math Level 2 SAT Subject Test (which covers concepts through Precalculus) in May or June after they have completed this course and the information is freshest in their minds.

If a student is going take the SAT and SAT Subject Tests around the same time, such as the end of junior year, he or she should consider taking the SAT first, since studying for the math section of the general SAT will overlap with Math SAT Subject Test preparation.


And remember, while you can take up to three (3) SAT Subject Tests in a single day, you cannot take the SAT and a SAT Subject Test on the same test date.

Just as with the SAT, the Subject Tests have registration deadlines (at least a month in advance), and the tests are offered in October, November, December, January, May, and June.

If you or your student is unsure about how to navigate the SAT Subject Tests, we recommend to err on the side of caution. Take the tests. Since most students don’t finalize their college lists until the summer before senior year, they may not realize they need SAT Subject Tests until they are busy with their senior year and have little time to prepare. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

The question then becomes—which Level of Math Subject Test should I take?


Before diving into differences in content, here are some overarching similarities.

Both Math Level 1 and Level 2 SAT Subject Tests are one hour long, contain 50 questions, and are scored on a scale from 200 to 800.

Also, the tests are graded the same: one point for a correct answer, a quarter point subtracted for an incorrect answer, and no points for a blank question.

Both tests allow the use of either a multi-function or graphing calculator (we highly recommend a graphing calculator like the TI-84), and for each, some questions are solved faster without a calculator than with one. (Strategies, such as deciding when to utilize a calculator and in what way, will be discussed in a forthcoming blog post on test-taking techniques.)

Now, let’s delve into the particulars.

The content of the Math Level 1 and Level 2 SAT Subject Tests can be broken up into four major categories:

  • Numbers + Operations
  • Algebra + Functions
  • Geometry + Measurement
  • Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability

Tables 1+2 below illustrate how these four categories are represented in each test.

SAT Math Level 1

Table 1: SAT Math Level 1

SAT Math Level 2

Table 2: SAT Math Level 2


Here’s the long and short for content:

  • Math Level 1 covers mathematical concepts taught in two years of Algebra, one year of Geometry, and very basic Trigonometry.
  • Math Level 2 covers the same material plus more advanced Trigonometry and Precalculus. And, while the Math Level 2 Subject Test will not directly test Plane (Euclidean) Geometry, mastery of this topic will be a required foundation for understanding test questions on Solid Geometry, Coordinate Geometry, and Trigonometry.


While Math Level 2 covers more material, it is not necessarily harder. Math Level 2 has historically offered a much more forgiving scoring curve than Math Level 1, awarding tests with up to seven (7) skipped answers a perfect 800.

In contrast, a Math Level 1 test with only one or two incorrect answers will get immediately bumped down to 790. In addition, Math Level 1 tests on fewer concepts so there are more abstract and multi-step problems.

By the same token, Math Level 2 test questions tend to take fewer steps to solve and be more straightforward; they just pull from a more expansive range of topics. If you’ve taken Precalculus, those concepts should be fresh in your mind. And, if you have Precalculus on your high school transcript, colleges will expect you to take Math Level 2.


If you know you want to apply to colleges that require Math Level 2, make sure that you are on track to complete math courses through Precalculus either your junior year or the summer before your senior year at the latest. The best preparation for a Math SAT Subject Test is a solid foundation in three or four years of high school level math courses. Of course, life is not always so neat—so give yourself a good two months to review concepts and fill gaps in your mathematical knowledge!

At the beginning of this earnest studying time, we recommend you take a diagnostic exam from a test prep book to approximate how you would do on the test at that moment: that’s your baseline score. With that initial score, you can set a goal for your score on the actual test.

To be competitive for Ivy League colleges and other selective schools, a score of 750 or higher is expected.

For less selective and other small liberal arts schools, a 700 score or higher would be a strong asset for your application.
Depending on the intensity of your study plans, you might consider working with a tutor.

After you have your baseline and goal score and are ready to prep for a few months, we suggest taking a practice test about once a week, and then in between those tests working for at least 3-4 hours on content gaps that arise.

A good way to keep track of which topics need work is to keep a spreadsheet, cataloging incorrectly answered practice test questions by topic (and sub-topic). This method keeps your review work targeted and ensures your precious study hours are spent as efficiently as possible.


About four weeks before the test, it’s time to reevaluate: now that you are nearing the finish line, how close to your goal have you come?

If your practice test results are lining up with your score goal, keep with it! Maintain your studying schedule to keep the material fresh in your mind, and see if you can exceed your own expectations. If you’re not making the progress you’d like to see, consider increasing your studying hours, reaching out to your math teacher, or joining forces with a tutor to come up with a new plan. To get in touch with us about setting or reaching your score goal, email Student Services at, or give us a call at 503/468-6905!

Helpful SAT Math Subject Test Resources


Managing Exam-Related Stress

“Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong— and having a plan to deal with it.” – Col. Chris Hadfield


When dealing with acute fears, such as those emanating from exams which cause anxiety, I immediately think about professionals who deal with the most extreme fears I can think of: astronauts. In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, astronaut Chris Hadfield observes that in his experience, “fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.” Much of an astronaut’s training is spent conquering fear by visualizing problems that could happen at any point during a mission and learning to solve those problems. In fact, Hadfield says that a true worst-case scenario is the scenario that hasn’t been planned for. The same is true for students feeling test anxiety. To help manage stress related to taking tests, I help my students learn how to deal with problems like an astronaut.

Why Do We Experience Stress?

First, let’s take a moment to examine why preparing for the worst can eases anxiety. A helpful (and empirically based) paradigm for looking at stress is the psychosocial or threat/challenge hypothesis of stress. This paradigm suggests that a test has a specific set of demands, and a person believes they have a certain set of resources (including knowledge or skills) with which to confront those demands. If a student believes their resources exceed the demands they face, they will look at the test as a challenge that can be overcome. If a student believes their resources are insufficient to meet the demands, they will look at the test as a threat. Psychological and physiological experiments on this model have shown that there are both mental and physical effects of appraising a test as a challenge or a threat. This is relevant in the academic life of a student because challenges are met with confidence and increased cognitive ability while threats are met with anxiety and decreased cognitive ability.

Combating Stress by Confronting Potential Issues

With the goal of combating exam-related stress, it is crucial to foresee the demands of an exam and study in a way that provides sufficient resources for each of these demands. There may be no profession more adept at this skill than astronauts! So let’s do what astronauts (and their myriad of support staff) do: imagine the worst.

Take for example a physics exam. There are many ways to imagine a physics exam could going wrong. However, by listing all the potential issues, a student can plan solutions ahead of time for each of them, convincing themselves they have the resources to meet any demands of an exam. Here are examples for planning for common negative scenarios:

  • Don’t understand a concept: I will do many practice problems to find these areas ahead of time and read the textbook/seek help from teacher to clarify concepts.
  • Forget a concept: I will make flashcards summarizing each concept and consistently quiz myself in order to maximize the probability of recalling a concept on the exam.
  • Confuse a concept: I will focus on related concepts that are likely to be confused and isolate the details that will allow me to distinguish between them.
  • Forget an equation: I will make flashcards of the equations and try to truly understand the relationships behind them so that I can remember the common sense behind the equation.
  • Confuse an equation: I will spend extra time studying the distinctions between similar equations.
  • Make a clumsy mistake: I accept that I make these mistakes, acknowledge that it comes from an insecurity that causes me to hurry through the ‘easy’ parts of problems instead of doing due diligence and I will compensate by taking a little extra time on the ‘easy’ stuff.
  • Get confused by a problem: I recognize this will happen, and will calmly reread the problem, and maybe draw a diagram.
  • Run out of time: As I study, I will make note of the types of problems that take me the longest, why they take me the longest, and find strategic ways to improve my efficiency.
  • Need to go to the bathroom: I will limit fluid intake before the exam.


By brainstorming the potential issues confronting them, students can walk into an exam knowing that not only have they studied the material, but that they are prepared to confront the worst case scenario. And just as astronauts have help (veteran astronauts and other space-science instructors), students can also have help (such as teachers at school, parents, and seasoned tutors).

So next time you’re in a tough spot, it’s usually a good idea to ask yourself: What would an astronaut do?


Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. Little, Brown and Company (2013).