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.

College Board offers 17 Subject Tests, with some variations. Here are the upcoming test dates:

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?

SCHOOL POLICIES AROUND SAT SUBJECT TESTS

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.

WHO SHOULD TAKE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

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.)

THE UPSHOT

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 info@northaveducation.com .

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