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Your Crash Course for the SAT Subject Tests

Imagine if you got to swap out that Reading section on the SAT for one that tested you on your favorite subject. You can showcase your strengths with the SAT Subject Tests. While we wait for the College Board to create a P.E. test, you can choose from at least 20 subjects spanning science, foreign language, history, math, and literature. You can mix and match up to three of these one-hour tests to create the perfect addition to your college application. You’ll want to do a bit of research to find out what your colleges want. There’s a whole spectrum of how much they care about these Subject Tests, from “don’t bother sending these to us,” to optional, to required. In some cases like Cal Tech and MIT, they will require specific Subject Tests.

Also make sure to note how many Subject Tests they recommend or require. Of course you’ll want to choose the tests that you think you’ll do the best in, but there are some additional considerations, such as timing. Not all subjects are offered on every test date, so check the College Board website. The Subject Tests mirror the work you do in school more closely than the SAT or the ACT does. You can minimize the amount of studying you have to do for the Subject Tests if you take them right when you wrap up their corresponding courses. This means that May and June are very popular test dates for the Subject Tests, so make sure you register early! If you are not taking the most rigorous version of the course (e.g. U.S. History instead of AP U.S. History) or if you are a year removed from the course (took Chemistry as a sophomore and taking the Subject Tests as a junior), you may have to do additional studying. You do not have to wait until junior year to take the tests; in the previous example, it would be best to take the Chemistry test as a sophomore. To see if you are cut out for a test you’re interested in, download The SAT Subject Tests Student Guide and go through the sample questions.

Ideally, your Subject Tests will show off your mastery in a diverse set of academic areas. You definitely don’t want to take both the German test and the German with Listening test. You also don’t want your tests to raise any negative questions for the admissions officials: “She’s applying to the engineering program; why didn’t she take the Math subject test?” or “His personal statement is about his love for books; why is the Literature score so low?” Instead, use the Subject Tests to highlight your academic passions and to assuage potential admission officials’ concerns: “He got a B in his first semester of physics, but this 800 shows that he really turned things around.” Speaking of 800s, more students get 800s on these tests than students on the regular SAT. Yes, this is partly because students are taking tests in their academic specialties, but also because the SAT Subject Tests are scored slightly differently. The median score for the section of the SAT will be in the low 500s, but the median score for the Subject Tests range from 620 for Math Level I to 790 for Chinese and Korean. Many of the Subject Tests have more forgiving curves than the regular SAT, meaning you can actually miss a couple of questions and still get an 800. However, the Subject Tests do have a “guessing penalty” which makes you lose ¼ of a point from your raw score for every question you get incorrect (as opposed to omit). Learn more about the scoring and percentiles of each test from the College Board.

With careful planning, you’ll walk in to the test center feeling confident and prepared. Talk to your counselor and/or mentors to choose your tests and map out a study plan that focuses on filling in any knowledge gaps you may have. Good luck!