Should You Take an SAT Subject Test in Freshman Year?

SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as the SAT II) can sometimes sneak up on you. Not all colleges require them, and different colleges and majors sometimes require different combinations.

For 9th graders, we at Signet generally don’t recommend taking SAT STs yet. One of the best things about freshman year is that you don’t have to worry much about standardized testing—leave all that test prep for sophomore and junior year! But in some very specific cases, it can be a good idea. If you’re not sure, or you’ve heard conflicting information, we want to make sure you’re informed so you can make the best decision for you.

What is an SAT ST?

The SAT STs, or SAT Subject Tests, are relatively short exams (about an hour) covering specific subjects—literature, chemistry, biology, physics, history, and math. They are NOT required by all colleges and are not nearly as standard as the SAT and ACT. Highly selective colleges may require two or three SAT STs, while other schools will waive this requirement if you take the ACT with writing. If you’re hoping to apply to selective schools, we recommend that you take these exams no matter what, just to keep all of your options open.

When Should I Take the SAT STs?

At Signet, we encourage students to take these exams in 10th and 11th grade, on the heels of a challenge class in the same subject. For instance, you should register for the Subject Test in Literature after completing an AP English course.

We know that some families feel that taking tests in 9th grade gives them a “head start.” But we do want to point out that there is plenty of time to take the SAT STs over the next few years. Subject Tests are offered at all regular SAT sittings, so you have multiple opportunities each year to take the exams. Taking the exams early offers no “extra credit,” as admissions officers don’t see the date you took the test, just the score. This means that scoring well in 9th grade doesn’t make you look better than someone who scored well in 11th grade. In fact, the reverse is possible: if you’re underprepared when you take the exam in 9th grade and score poorly, that could be a blemish on your application.

What If I’m an Exception to the Rule?

The only reason you should take an SAT ST in freshman year is if you have just excelled in an extremely challenging course. By “excel” we mean breezing through an AP-level class, not just doing well in an honors class. If you’ve been thoroughly prepared by a course, you may want to take the test before you lose some sharpness in the subject, which is inevitable if you wait a year to take the Subject Test.

Should I Take as Many Subject Tests as Possible?

In short, no. Except in some extreme cases, there’s not much additional benefit to taking, say, eight of these exams. If you’re an overachiever, your instinct might be to take a ton of these exams, but most of the time it doesn’t pay off. Most schools asking for SAT STs require two; highly selective schools may ask for three. This means you should feel free to focus on your top three subjects, studying only for those exams. Taking a large number of exams may spread you too thin. If you have extra time, we encourage you to spend it on more interesting (and ultimately more advantageous, not to mention more fun) pursuits like extracurriculars.

If I’m Ready Now, What Should I Do?

If you’ve considered all of the above and you are still confident that taking an SAT ST in freshman year is the right choice, here’s how to begin the test prep process:

• Choose the topic(s) well in advance.

• Make a testing plan, and prepare and study well ahead of time.

• Aim to score as high as possible. The exams are scored on a scale of 800. Most schools that require SAT STs have competitive applicants scoring in the 700s. If you’re applying to a specific program or major, you should be shooting for close to 800 on relevant exams (such as math or physics if applying to engineering).

Just one more word of caution: At Signet, we've seen many students take these tests too early and post under-performing scores. Low scores won't necessarily hurt you if you add better scores later, but it's a waste of time at best, and a slight blemish on your testing record at worst.

Have any more questions? We're here to help!