What to consider about taking SAT subject tests

Question: What are the subject tests and should I be thinking about taking them?

Answer: Subject tests, which were formally known as SAT II’s, are knowledge tests in a variety of subjects including English literature, math, science, social sciences and languages. There is no longer a SAT II writing test, as it was replaced with the writing section on the SAT I and ACT. These tests are primarily used for admission purposes and for placement. For some highly selective schools, they are as important as your scores on the SAT and ACT. High scores from these tests can also be used to waive certain general education requirements in college, such as language. It is important to note that only about 70 schools require these tests at all, and another 50 recommend them. It is imperative that you begin to look at the college entrance requirements early in the spring of your junior year so that you can begin planning for whether or not these tests are needed. This information can easily be found on the admission Web site for each college that you look at. As you begin researching schools, you might note that there is great disparity even among selective schools as to how many subject tests are required. Harvard, Georgetown and Princeton are the only schools that require you to take three subject tests. Other selective schools, such as Yale, Brown, Penn and Duke, only require two subject tests and may allow you to substitute your ACT, with the writing score, for subject tests altogether.

Another consideration when looking at admission criteria is noting whether or not you are required to take specific subject tests. Some schools specify that you must take the Level II math test, not the Level I. Other schools require that you also take science subject tests if you are applying to their engineering or specific science programs. Likewise, if you are considering applying to a University of California school, you must take two subject tests in two different areas, such as history and language. While they do not specify that you must take the math test, you must take the Math Level II exam if you choose to.

The students who I work with are usually confused about which math test they should take and if one will be looked at more favorably than another. I tell students who have completed Algebra II, Geometry and Trigonometry to take the Math Level I test. If you have gone beyond those requirements, have completed Precalculus and are skilled with a graphing calculator, you should take the Level II exam. Contrary to the common assumption that you get a higher score on the Level I math test, the two tests are scaled differently and you can miss more questions on the Level II and still get a higher score.

You can register for these tests at just as you would for the SAT I tests. You can take up to three tests on one day, as they are each 50 multiple-choice question tests, one hour in length. While you preregister for the subject tests that you want to take in advance, you can still change your mind about which tests you will sit for as late as the day of testing at the test site. This does not hold true for the language tests with listening, which are only offered in November at certain testing sites.

I recommend that students take these tests as soon as they complete the subject material, which is usually at the end of their sophomore or junior year. You should be thinking about how the timing of these tests will coincide with your AP and SAT I tests, as the subject tests and SAT I cannot be taken on the same day. Some students choose to take the literature subject test in the fall, as this test is not based on remembering facts but more on being able to analyze prose and poetry.

The good news for students is that CollegeBoard is moving toward Score Selection, which was formerly called Score Choice. Beginning in March 2009, students will be able to pick which test date they wish to have scores sent from. Currently, all SAT I and subject tests are sent when your scores are sent from CollegeBoard. This will match the current practice of the ACT exam — you can send in scores from the test dates of your choice.

Lastly, I would advise all students considering taking subject tests to find some test preparation books and take some practice tests to ensure that you have the adequate knowledge base. While subject tests are considered somewhat easier than AP tests, many students do not fare as successfully as they might wish. In reality, subject tests are just one more thing to add to an already very full plate. Some schools, such as the University of California, are considering getting rid of this requirement altogether. Let’s only hope.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an independent college consulting practice ( She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She lives and practices on Mercer Island and can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or

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