Beyond The SAT: The SAT II Subject Tests

Many college-bound-bound high school students and their parents misunderstand the SAT Subject Tests. Some think they are Advanced Placement tests. Others think they are just another version of the SAT.  Some high schoolers have never even heard of them. You may want to learn about them, particularly if you will be playing the Ivy League admissions game or applying to other selective schools.

The Subject Tests used to be called “Achievement Tests.” Eventually they were dubbed the SAT II–a name that is no longer official but which still lingers among students, parents, and even educators.

What does all of this mean to you? Well, if you are going to be applying to a college or university that is fairly competitive in its admissions, chances are good that they require all applicants to submit scores from two (and occasionally three) SAT II Subject Test examinations. The Subject Tests are standardized, mostly multiple-choice tests, keyed to specific course content. There are Subject Tests in Chemistry, Writing, Math, German, Biology, Physics, Music, and other areas. While most colleges that require Subject Test scores allow students to choose the tests they take, some do have specific requirements. Most commonly, the required tests–if any–include math and one or more sciences. (You’ll usually find such requirements at technically-oriented institutions like MIT, but be sure to read application instructions carefully, because you may find that other colleges have specific demands as well.)

Subject Tests are only 60 minutes in length. They are given on most of the same days as the SAT. You can take up to three Subject Tests on the same day. You cannot, however, take both the Subject Tests and the SAT I on the same day (Who would want to do that anyhow?). The best date to take the Subject Tests is usually in June, at the end of the same year you have taken the subjects you’re testing. That makes sense because if you waited until the next fall (there are no July or August test dates), you would have forgotten much valuable course information over the summer.

Exception: If you’re continuing a subject in your senior year, you may  want to wait until the fall to tackle the Subject Test, especially if you’re taking the class at the AP level in 12th grade, after already taking it at a lower level. But do keep Early Decision/Early Action deadlines in mind and make sure that you have SAT II results when you need them. Typically, colleges will accept October test scores–and often even November test scores–in the Early rounds … even when there is a November deadline.

Note also that some foreign language tests offer the option of “With Listening.” If your aural skills are good, the Listening version of the test may boost your score. But not all test dates offer Listening, so it’s important to plan ahead. Similarly, not every Subject Test is offered at every test center on every test date. So planning ahead is important for all of your Subject Test needs.

Some students start taking SAT II’s as early as 9th grade, if they’ve done well in a subject (e.g., European history, biology) that they won’t be encountering again in high school.

Of course, you might not have to take the Subject Tests.  If you know without doubt that you will be applying to colleges and universities that do not require them, then why waste your time and money? Well, consider this: If your best academic areas are those not covered by the SAT I (history, science foreign language), then the Subject Tests can be a good way to highlight your strengths for admission committees, even when these tests aren’t mandatory. A strong showing on a Subject Test can even help to offset so-so SAT I scores.

Moreover, if you’re not absolutely sure where you’re going to apply, then it may be prudent for you to take the tests in two subjects. This will give you the flexibility to expand your target-college roster, even at the last minute..

So don’t overlook the SAT II Subject Tests when making your college plans. If you do, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when college application time rolls around.