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Articles / Applying to College / Subject Yourself to Subject Tests

Subject Yourself to Subject Tests

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 12, 2013

Are you familiar with Subject Tests? Some college-bound high school students and/or 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 elite (aka "competitive") college admissions game or applying to other selective schools.

Long ago, 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. Over the years the College Board has changed the names of their tests for various reasons. Thus, some of the confusion I mentioned above.

So, 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) Subject Test examinations.The College Board notes:

"Subject Tests are hour-long, content-based tests that allow you to showcase achievement in specific subject areas where you excel. These are the only national admission tests where you choose the tests that best showcase your achievements and interests.

SAT Subject Tests allow you to differentiate yourself in the college admission process or send a strong message regarding your readiness to study specific majors or programs in college. In conjunction with your other admission credentials (your high school record, SAT scores, teacher recommendations, etc.), they provide a more complete picture of your academic background and interests.

Some colleges also use Subject Tests to place students into the appropriate courses. Based on your performance on the test(s), you could potentially fulfill basic requirements or receive credit for introductory-level courses.

There are 20 SAT Subject Tests in five general subject areas: English, history, languages, mathematics and science."

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, 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.

If you're looking for some real-world insight from students (and even parents) about Subject Tests, look no further than the College Confidential discussion forum. Check these helpful threads here, here, and here.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.


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Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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