What are SAT Subject Tests?
SAT Subject Tests (SAT STs, formerly known as SAT IIs) are subject-specific standardized tests that are often used to assess applicants in the college admissions process. Certain colleges, including most competitive schools, will either encourage or require students to submit 2–3 SAT Subject Tests, in addition to the general SAT or ACT exam. You can find a link to the schools that require SAT Subject Tests here.
Though they share part of their name with the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests are very different from the general exam that's typically required for college admissions. The SAT is an extensive exam covering a lot of the fundamental topics that all students should have covered in high school: math, critical reading, and writing. It's designed to be a general assessment of your aptitude, or ability to succeed in college. The SAT Subject Tests, however, are more specific, content-related exams, designed to test your knowledge in a single subject, such as biology, US History, or physics. For a full list of the tests, click here.
Each SAT Subject Test is one hour long, and you have the option to take up to three of them in a single sitting. They are usually offered on the same days and locations as the general SAT.
Why do colleges want SAT STs?
You may be wondering why some colleges require standardized tests in addition to the SAT or ACT; because teachers and schools grade differently, SAT Subject Tests provide a way for colleges to get a standardized assessment of your knowledge in a particular subject area. Colleges, especially competitive ones, can also use these tests to weed out less-invested applicants.
Which SAT STs should you take?
First, before choosing which SAT Subject Tests to take, you should determine whether you need to take any at all. Check out the websites of a few colleges you may be interested in and see if SAT Subject Tests are required for admission. Ideally, you'll want to make this decision early (no later than the start of your junior year), as you'll need time to plan when to take the tests (more on this below). If you're unsure whether or not to take them, we recommend that you err on the side of taking the tests, so that you have the option to apply to more schools; that way, you're not scrambling late in the application season to take SAT Subject Tests in order to apply to a specific school.
Once you decide to take SAT STs, your choice of which subjects to test in depends on a few factors. First and foremost, you only want to take tests on which you believe you can do well (assuming that the schools to which you're applying do not require a specific test—check admissions websites to be certain). Doing poorly on a test isn't going to help you, no matter what subject it's in. To ensure that you're well-prepared for the tests you're going to take, you'll ideally want to plan to take tests for subjects in which you've taken a relevant class and done well. We often recommend taking an SAT ST after you've taken the relevant honors or AP course, as those classes are often good preparation for the SAT Subject Tests.
Second, you'll want to take a spread of tests that supports your college narrative or supplements a weaker aspect of your college candidacy, or does both. For example, if you know you want to be an engineer, it's good to take math/science SAT STs and do well in them to show your potential prowess for engineering. If you're particularly skilled in another subject outside of your intended major, it may good idea to take a subject test for that, too. It never hurts to show that you are well-versed in a range of courses, so if you can do well on tests in different subject areas, taking a range of STs is advisable.
Another thing to note: there are also SAT Subject Tests that test your competency in a foreign language. If it's obvious that you're a native speaker of one of those languages, taking the SAT Subject Test is not necessarily going to add much to your application. We'd suggest spending the time cultivating a good score on another relevant subject test.
When should you take SAT STs?
You can take SAT Subject Tests at any time that you feel ready. I've had students who began to take them as early as 9th grade, but our general recommendation is to begin planning for them at the start of 10th grade. You probably want to take SAT Subject Tests after after a certain class ends, so that the material is fresh in your head. We recommend getting all of your SAT Subject Tests done before your senior year, though, as you should avoid any standardized testing senior year (you have enough going on!).
Since these tests are only offered a few times a year, it's very important to plan out ahead of time which dates you're going to use for the SAT (if you're going to take it) and which dates you're going to use for the SAT Subject Tests. Generally, we recommend that you use the May and June dates for testing, reserving one for the SAT Subject Tests and one for the SAT. Note: you cannot take the SAT Subject Tests on the same day that you take the SATs.
How can you prepare?
Students are often unsure on how long to spend preparing for the SAT Subject Tests, especially given how long it takes to prepare for the general SAT. While the SAT can require anywhere from 3–18 months to effectively prepare, SAT subject test preparation is usually quicker, especially if you've taken a related course. We recommend that early in the spring semester (January or February) of this relevant course. Buy one of the widely available SAT Subject Test prep books and begin reviewing it. If you find that you feel very well-prepared, we recommend continually reviewing the prep book as you cover material in your course, and then dedicating at least 2–4 weeks to intensive study before the test (1–3 hours/day, depending on your need). If, however, when you initially review the prep book, you do not seem prepared, you may need to invest more time in this process. It's important to check in mid-semester (March or April) to get a sense of your readiness level so that there are no surprises just a few weeks before the test.
If you're planning to test in a subject for which you haven't taken a course, or in a subject in which you're not as confident, you may want to allot more time for your studying plan. The specific amount of time depends largely on your particular situation. It may take anywhere from 1–4 months to prepare, depending on your level of experience, confidence, and commitment.
As with any standardized tests, you'll want to do simulated practice tests once it gets closer to your test date. The College Board (the company that creates all of the SAT tests) publishes a book that has one mock test for each subject. You can use this to practice, but you may also want to use another company’s materials to supplement your practice.
SAT Subject Tests are an integral part of the college application process, but they are often overlooked or forgotten until deadlines get closer. However, with thoughtful planning—and potentially with outside help—they can be one of the more manageable aspects of the process.