Last Updated: Feb 12, 2019
With all that goes into the college application process, the idea of adding SAT Subject Tests might seem a little a daunting. The good news is it only takes a little bit of planning and some study time to make sure you’re prepared for test day.
Who needs to take SAT Subject Tests?
Most colleges don’t require SAT Subject Tests; only very selective universities expect them during the application process. Usually only one or two scores are needed, though Georgetown requires three.
Some schools only recommend that you take Subject Tests, which means it’s up to you whether you want to send scores. A good rule of thumb is if you did really well and want to highlight your knowledge in a certain subject, you should include the score in your application. If you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped, don’t bring down your application by including test scores that aren’t required.
Some colleges will let you send in an ACT with Writing score instead of SAT Subject Test scores. You should always look at the requirements for the schools you’re interested in to see what their application requires. Besides being required for admission, some colleges will accept SAT Subject Test scores and allow you to test out of certain classes. Make sure to check with the school before taking the test to be sure this is a possibility.
What Subject Tests should I take, and when should I take them?
The first thing you should do is check which tests are required for the school and specific program you’re applying to. Many colleges, especially technical institutes, require certain tests like science or mathematics. If it’s up to you to decide which Subject Tests to take, make sure you pick a subject you’re about to finish in school that you enjoy and are doing well in. For example, I took Literature, Mathematics Level 1, and Spanish Subject Tests because I enjoyed my corresponding classes, and I knew I could perform strongly.
It’s important to take the tests right after or just before you finish the class in high school, because the information will be fresh in your mind. Even if you really loved that biology class you took freshman year, you shouldn’t take one of the Biology Subject Tests at the end of your junior year or beginning of senior year because you won’t remember much. The goal is to pick a subject that will minimize the amount of studying you need to do in order to get a desirable score.
You should also keep what major you’re considering in mind. If you want to be an English major and you only take Mathematics Levels 1 and 2 Subject Tests, colleges might be interested in why you didn’t show off your skills in literature.
Since you should take SAT Subject Tests as soon as you’re finished with a corresponding high school class, you can start taking them as early as freshman year. This allows you to spread them out so you only have to study one subject at a time. One important thing to note is that Language with Listening tests are only offered in November—there is no flexibility.
You can take up to three Subject Tests on one test date because they’re each hour-long tests. But I took three tests at a time and it was extremely stressful. While it’s wonderful to have ended all my required testing in June of my junior year, the stress surrounding it made the process worse than it needed to be. Spread them out if you have the time, but under no circumstances should you put off three tests until December of your senior year.
Related: SAT Subject Tests Explained
How should I study for SAT Subject Tests?
If you’re the kind of person who can’t study unless forced, get a tutor or take a class. SAT Subject Tests are a lot more difficult than the SAT because they cover a large portion of your knowledge in a short period of time. They also cover things you might not have learned because they’re meant to cover the curriculum of every school in the nation.
With the added stress of a guessing penalty, you can’t afford to walk into these tests unprepared. If you’re someone who likes to study on their own, I would recommend practice booklets. They break it down in a way that makes studying easy because you can pinpoint the areas in which you’re weak or have never learned and practiced. The College Board offers free practice questions on their website, but they can only cover so much.
As for when you should start studying, this depends on when you’re taking the test. It makes no sense to start studying for a Subject Test in a class you’ve just started—wait until a month (or two if you’ve finished taking the subject) before the test date to start studying. Make sure you know what your school’s curriculum didn’t cover, study that, and pinpoint your weakest areas in the subject.
On test day
SAT Subject Tests are special in that you can change the tests you want to take on the day of the test. The only limitations are that you can’t take both of the Biology tests in one day, and you can’t switch from a Language without Listening to a Language with Listening. Other than that, you’re free to switch your tests…but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ve been studying for the test(s) you signed up for, and it makes no sense to randomly switch to another one. If you’re worried about taking Mathematics Level 2, don’t switch to Level 1. It’s highly unlikely you’ll do well because they cover completely different aspects of math.
The only thing you should change about your test day is dropping a test. If you take your first test and know you won’t be prepared for your second test, it’s okay to drop it. If you start feeling sick and know your score will be affected, it’s also okay to drop the next test. Just realize that you paid for that test and won’t get a refund.
If you start to take that second test and realize it’s too difficult, don’t stop! Once you start filling in bubbles, you’ll get a score. And canceling your score cancels all the tests you took that day. Just power through for the sake of your other scores, then use Score Choice to avoid using that score if you do poorly.
If you don’t get the scores you hoped for
If you have the time, retake your tests. If your scores are in the 600s or above, you can usually improve them to your desired score with some more practice. If you’re on the low end of the 500s, you might rethink which tests you took. If you think it was a lack of preparedness or you had a bad day while taking the test, study better and retake the tests.
If you really studied and still ended up in the 500s, take a different test or consider applying to schools that don’t require Subject Tests. You want your entire application to be its best, so if you’re only applying to one school that requires Subject Tests, rethink your application or be prepared to explain why your scores are low. It’s important to keep in mind that selective universities expect a score of 700 or above for most tests.
If after taking the tests you realize your scores might never reach your desired range, don’t give up on applying to selective universities. The University of Chicago, Northwestern, Columbia, Washington and Lee, and many other top colleges don’t require Subject Tests.
Find more standardized test help in our Test Prep section.