Since I teach online ACT & SAT prep courses, I often end up fielding questions about the SAT Subject Tests too. These tests confuse and confound because, as with so many aspects of the college admissions process, they end up feeling like just another box to tick on the application to do list.
Unfortunately, though, because they’re only offered on certain dates, they can really throw a wrench in your application plans – especially if you haven’t locked in your higher SAT score and need to use those SAT test dates in order to complete your SAT Subject Test requirement.
To help you avoid last minute stress, today I’m going to share what the SAT Subject Tests are and how you can best prepare for them should you need to take them.
Let’s dive in…
What are the SAT Subject Tests?
The SAT Subject Tests are single subject standardized exams created by College Board.
They are offered in the following subjects:
- U.S. History
- World History
- Mathematics Level 1
- Mathematics Level 2
- Biology E/M
- Modern Hebrew
College Board is the organization that also makes the SAT and AP Exams. It can be useful to think of SAT Subject Tests as though those 2 “big” exams had a baby.
Each SAT Subject Tests focus on 1 subject at a time but does so in a standardized format.
It’s kind of like a final exam but one that you and all of your fellow national and international classmates are taking at the same time.
In perusing the subjects offered, you may have noticed that there’s definite content overlap between AP exams and SAT Subject Exams. While it may seem like that means the two tests are interchangeable for college admissions, that isn’t the case.
Unfortunately for AP students, these two types of tests are not viewed in the same way by college admissions officers. If you are an AP student, your AP tests likely will not fulfill possible SAT Subject Exam requirements at a given college. The good news is that you can use your AP prep time to kill 2 birds with 1 stone! (More on that in a moment…)
And there’s good news for non-AP students too! These tests give you the opportunity to showcase your academic knowledge even without an AP class.
When are the SAT Subject Tests offered?
Most SAT Subject Tests are administered on every SAT test date except the March exam. (Only the SAT is offered on the March test date.)
Every year, the SAT Subject Exams are available in each of the following months:
Another consideration: some of the language subject exams are offered with a listening component only on the November test date. If you’re interested in taking the tests with listening, you’ll want to prioritize the November test date for your subject tests.
Should you take an SAT Subject Test?
As with so many college admissions questions, the answer depends on the colleges you’re planning to apply to.
The way a college will view the SAT Subject Test tends to fall into 1 of 4 categories. It will require, recommend, consider, or not consider SAT Subject Tests.
Something else to keep in mind is that requirements for general admission may be different than to more specific programs.
For instance, at the time that I’m writing this post, Boston University’s Accelerated Medical and Dental programs require the Math 2 and Chemistry SAT Subject Tests. By comparison, you wouldn’t need SAT Subject Tests if applying to Boston University for general admission.
The answer here is to do your research now so you can plan well. (Want help planning your full testing journey? I can help!)
How To Determine If You Need To Take An SAT Subject Test
Look at the admissions requirements for 4-6 of your favorite colleges. If you’re interested in a particular program, be sure to check to see if there are additional requirements for admission.
To my mind, if a college requires, recommends, or considers the tests and you want to be the most competitive student you can be, you should take the SAT Subject Tests.
That said, if a college recommends, considers, or doesn’t consider SAT Subject Tests and you’re pressed for time or feel that it is simply not possible for you to test, you have the option of not taking it. You just won’t be putting yourself forth as the most competitive student; however, some students do opt for this path and gain admission.
As with all decisions on the path to college, consider it from all angles by doing thorough research and then make the choice that best serves your goals for the future.
If you’re young and are doing your research early (YAY! WAY TO GO!), be sure to check back with those schools as you get closer to your potential test dates to ensure that the requirements haven’t changed.
How many SAT Subject Tests should you take?
Since each test is only 1 hour long, you can take 1, 2, or 3 tests on any given test day.
I encourage all students to plan to take each test twice, preferably on two back-to-back test dates to give themselves two opportunities to do their best work.
I also encourage students to take at least 2 different tests every time they register so they can be done with SAT Subject testing as quickly as possible.
Additionally, if a student is enrolled in an AP course during sophomore or junior year, he or she should take the corresponding SAT Subject Exam at the end of that year so that the time spent studying for the AP test can do double duty.
What does this look like in practice…
Let’s say Sally Student is enrolled in PreCal and AP US History in her junior year.
Since US History requires focused study to stay brushed up on the dates and facts, we want to make sure the studying she’s doing for the AP exam can be used twice. (2 birds, 1 stone…see where we’re going with this?)
Also, because she’ll be studying for a PreCal final at the end of the year, a little extra review can help her knock out another subject exam: Mathematics 2
Therefore I would recommend that Sally Student take the the US History and Math 2 SAT Subject Tests in both May and June.
This gives her two opportunities to leverage studying she is already doing anyway and get solid SAT Subject scores.
Another consideration for most students…
Unlike a history, math, or science test that tests a student’s ability to memorize a lot of content, the Literature exam is based on a student’s ability to interpret a passage in the moment.
I find that most of my students who are in honors level English or higher do really well on this test with minimal studying even if they haven’t yet taken the AP Literature class.
Let me say (umm…type…) that again. You don’t have to have taken AP Lit in order to do really well on the Literature Subject Test.
A little review of the test format and some practice questions is usually enough to get students up to speed. Because it doesn’t require much fact-heavy review, the literature test is a great “floating” exam to add in as a second or third test.
How to Prepare for the SAT Subject Tests
The best way to prepare is to treat each SAT Subject Test like a final and schedule review sessions starting at least 1 month before your first test date.
You’ll want to prepare by reviewing the test format so you know what to expect and the content you’ll need in order to do well. You’ll also want to take a simulated practice test (yes, timed!) before setting foot into the official testing room.
You can find some SAT Subject Test practice questions here, but that won’t be enough material to get you fully prepared.
The books I like best are those put out by College Board itself. Here are the most recent publications…
I also like the Kaplan books to help with content review and additional practice questions.
How do the SAT Subject Exams impact your ACT and SAT testing?
The biggest mistake I see families make is not considering a possible subject exam requirement early enough.
When it comes to college admissions, the ACT and SAT are huge allies in both gaining admission to a school and helping you earn free cash for college.
And students should take whichever test is best suited to their strengths.
Because the ACT and SAT are much more important players in the admission + tuition equation, you don’t want to have to trade in time and energy that you could use to boost those scores to deal with a last minute realization of an SAT Subject Test requirement.
Ideally, you’ll plan your testing journey well ahead of time in order to avoid overlap; however, If you do find yourself in a time bind in fall, you may want to forgo the subject tests if they’re not required or choose to focus on the ACT instead of the SAT which shares most test dates with the SAT Subject Tests.
Need help planning your family’s stress-free testing journey?
I’ve created a free video course that teaches my #1 tip for higher scores and helps families decide which test to take and when to take it.