If you’ve heard anything about SAT Subject Tests lately, chances are it’s that fewer and fewer colleges and universities are requiring them as part of a student’s application. That raises several questions: do the SAT Subject Tests still hold value for college-bound students? Is it still worth the time and effort a student must put into preparing for these exams?

The answers, as a good test taker might predict, are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ In this post, we’ll take a look at the enduring value of the SAT Subject Tests, as well as when students should consider taking them (hint: look at the title) and how to best prepare.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?

According to the College Board, the national organization that administers the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP exams, “SAT Subject Tests are college admission exams on specific subjects.” Formerly called the SAT IIs, the one-hour SAT Subject Tests come in a variety of flavors offering something for nearly everyone: Math, Literature, History, Sciences, and a surprising number of languages.

The number of questions on the respective tests varies from 55 to 95, and that number can change for different tests of the same subject (e.g. not every English Literature test has 55 questions; some have 60 or more). Regardless of length, each test receives a score out of 800. That score is computed the way the SAT used to be: students get a point for each correct answer, while partial points are deducted for each incorrect answer. More on that later.

SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same days as the SAT—though not all tests are offered on all dates, so students should check with the College Board. Additionally, students can take up to three Subject Tests on a single test date.


The Value of Subject Tests

Because the colleges requiring or recommending SAT Subject Tests tend to be the most selective, the question students should be asking themselves is not “Will SAT Subject Tests be required,” but instead, “Will Subject Test scores be considered as a part of my application?” If the answer is yes, then it’s a safe bet that other students will be submitting them with their applications. Like it or not, the college admissions process is a competitive one. Students have a limited amount of time and space to make their case to a school that they are not just a good fit, but the right fit.

While competition brings out the best in some, not every student responds well to this kind of motivation. Still, these students should consider taking SAT Subject Tests, as they’re a great way to show a prospective school a student’s interest in (and dedication to) a subject. There are a couple powerful reasons to show such dedication:

  1. This can reinforce an interest expressed elsewhere in a student’s application. For example, let’s say that a student wants to be considered for a college’s robotics program. The student already has a high GPA, the strong grades in Physics and Math, and has been a member of his or her high school’s robotics club for multiple years. Certainly, that demonstrates interest. Add in strong scores in the Physics and Math Level II Subject Tests, and colleges will see a student willing to go beyond the classroom to gather credability in his or her subjects of interest.
  2. Subject tests can also demonstrate an interest that is otherwise underrepresented on a student’s application. Let’s take the same student as above, and add a strong showing on both AP Physics and AP Calculus. That student probably doesn’t need to demonstrate further credibility in Math and Physics, and may want to focus instead on creating a more well-rounded application with either another science, US History, or, if applicable, a language SAT Subject Test.

There are plenty of other reasons a student might choose to take a Subject Test. Maybe a student is strong in a subject, but is not in an accelerated track at school. For example, a student’s school may not offer AP courses, but they’ve done supplemental work another way. Maybe a student started high school struggling in a subject but, through hard work, gained proficiency and wanted to demonstrate that. Maybe a student is a native speaker of a language that wasn’t offered at his or her school. The list goes on.

Striving for Subject Test Excellence

Competitiveness, proficiency, and dedication. To demonstrate these things, it’s not enough just to take an SAT Subject Test. A student has to also—perhaps obviously—do well. How well? At Academic Approach, we recommend students score at least 700 in order to represent themselves well in a subject, but we always encourage students to speak with their college counselor about strong scores for their target schools.

While this may sound difficult, it’s worth remembering three things:

  1. Students can take Subject Tests multiple times. Almost all schools treat those tests as “score choice” tests, meaning students can submit just their top score (in a specific test).
  2. Different tests have different scales. For example, the English Literature test is notorious for how steep its scale is, while the Math Level II is more forgiving.
  3. Students take the SAT Subject Tests to differentiate themselves within a highly competitive range of students. Given that students can choose which subject scores they submit with their application, for a student to submit a lower score raises the question: why submit a score at all?

There are a few things that students can do to maximize their scores on SAT Subject Tests. The first is to consider when they will take a subject test. The best time to take an SAT Subject test is when that subject is freshest in a student’s mind. For almost every subject, that time is the spring of the year a student is enrolled in that subject’s course. Usually that means junior year, though sometimes it means sophomore year. For example, if a student takes AP US History as a sophomore, then June of sophomore year might be the right time to test. If sophomore year seems early, it’s worth keeping in mind that strong scores in subject tests only broaden students’ options.

The second thing a student can do is prepare. Honors and AP classes typically bring a student to the level necessary to do well on a subject test. However, no one class is designed to prepare students for the SAT Subject Test, so additional prep is at least worth considering. This could mean independent prep with a book or web program, or it could mean preparing with a tutor.

Whatever way a student prepares, any time spent preparing for an SAT Subject Test must include at least one practice test. The reason is simple: the SAT Subject Test is unlike other tests that students have taken. Students need to be able to practice managing their time in this format. They need exposure to the way the test assesses mastery of the content. Finally, they need to understand how to work with the “guessing penalty.”

As mentioned earlier, a partial point is deducted for each question a student misses. This deduction differs depending on the subject test, as well as the number of answer choices for a question. To clarify:

  • 1/4 point subtracted for each 5-choice question
  • 1/3 point subtracted for each 4-choice question
  • 1/2 point subtracted for each 3-choice question
  • 0 points subtracted for questions you don’t answer

The penalty is imposed to discourage students from answering unless they are absolutely sure of their answers. Of course, this ends up imposing a lot of additional anxiety for test takers, and a lot of additional, “Am I sure? Am I 100% sure?” questioning. Students will need to practice managing this anxiety, but also practice eliminating answers to generate or make a reasonable guess.

Final Thoughts

Even with SAT Subject Tests being “required” by fewer colleges, there is no indication that the tests are going away any time soon. And while the college prep process often feels like an endless list of requirements and things to do, the SAT Subject Tests offer, with only a little bit of planning, a way to add more feathers in the cap of the ambitious college-bound student.

Matthew Pietrafetta

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