While the SAT and ACT are widely talked about, SAT Subject Tests (STs) can sometimes sneak up on families. SAT STs aren’t required for all colleges, and different places can require different combinations of tests, so it’s easy to see how they can be a source of confusion.

It’s not necessary to take them this early, but it can work for some students; either way, it’s a good idea to put these tests on your radar and start planning for them. Read on for an FAQ-style introduction to the SAT Subject Tests that should help you feel ready to tackle them when it’s appropriate for you.

What is an SAT ST?

The SAT STs are relatively short exams (approximately one hour) covering specific subjects such as 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 to three SAT STs, while other schools will waive this requirement if you take the ACT with writing. We do recommend that students hoping to apply to selective schools take these exams no matter what, just to keep all of their options open.

When should I take SAT STs?

Our standard recommendation is to take these exams in 10th and 11th grades, on the heels of a “challenge class” in the same subject. For instance, we’d encourage you to sign up for the Subject Test in Literature after completing your AP English course. If you feel thoroughly prepared for the test by an honors or AP class you’re taking in sophomore year, you may want to take the test sooner rather than later, before you start forgetting some of the material.

On the other hand, there is plenty of time to take the SAT STs over the next few years. They are offered at all regular SAT sittings, so there are multiple opportunities each year. Taking the exams early offers no additional “brownie points,” as admissions officers aren’t able to see when you took the test, just the score that resulted. In other words, it doesn’t look any better to score well in 10th grade instead of 11th grade. In fact, if you’re underprepared for the exam and score poorly in 10th grade, that could have an adverse impact on your application.

How can I prepare for the SAT STs?

Even if you decide you’re not ready for an SAT ST in 10th grade, you can do some advance planning for taking the exams in 11th grade. Based on the classes you plan to take in 11th grade, you should be able to identify which SAT ST exams will make the most sense next year.

Important: you should choose your SAT ST exams based on the class selections that work for you, rather than trying to register for classes based on which SAT STs you think you’ll do best in.

Should I take SAT STs in as many subjects as possible?

In short, no. Many overachieving students want to take a ton of these exams, but in truth there’s not much additional benefit to taking, say, eight. Most schools asking for SAT STs require two; highly selective schools may ask for three. Focus on your top three subjects and study for just those exams. Taking a large number of exams will spread you too thin. If you have extra time, spend it on more interesting and fulfilling pursuits!

If I think I’m ready, what should I do next?

If you’ve considered all of the above and you and your family are confident that taking an SAT ST in sophomore year is the right choice, you can deliberately enter the test prep process:

    • Choose your subject(s) well in advance.
    • Make a testing plan: prepare and study well ahead of time.
    • Aim to score as high as possible.

A note on that third point: SAT STs are scored on a scale of 200-800. Most competitive applicants for schools that require SAT STs will score between 700 and 800. Students applying to specific programs should usually shoot for close to 800 on related exams (such as math or physics, if you are applying to engineering).

Just one more word of caution: 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 and a slight blemish on your record.

If you have any additional questions about the SAT STs, feel free to drop us a line. We love to chat!

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