SAT Subject Tests: a breakdown

Should I take SAT Subject Tests? How many? What subjects?

We get these questions all the time. As usual in the world of college prep, the answer is, “It depends.” There are many things to consider when making decisions about SAT Subject Tests (or “SAT II’s”). Have you taken a class that prepared you well for a particular SAT Subject Test? What do you want to study in college? Do your colleges require the Subject Tests?

In this post, we try to shed some light on how colleges approach SAT Subject Tests as part of your application, and how you should approach them as a student.

What is an SAT Subject Test?

SAT Subject Tests are hour-long multiple choice tests administered by The College Board (the folks who bring you the SAT and AP’s). Like the sections of the SAT, they are scored on a scale of 200-800. They are offered in 20 different subjects in the areas of English, Mathematics, Science, History, and Languages.

You can take an SAT Subject Test at any SAT test date – except for March. Don’t ask us why…

How do colleges evaluate Subject Tests?

In general, colleges have 5 different stances on SAT Subject Tests:


Some schools require all applicants (with a few exceptions) to submit SAT Subject Test scores. Usually they require 2 in different subject areas. Examples include Harvard and Carnegie Mellon.

Note that many schools require SAT Subject Tests only if that applicant took the SAT rather than the ACT. So your options at these schools are either 1) SAT + SAT Subject Tests or 2) the ACT. Examples include Duke, Brown, and Tufts.

Recommended (or “encouraged”)

Some schools “recommend” that applicants submit SAT Subject Test scores. Other schools say “strongly recommend.” Note the quotes, because there is a general rule of college prep at play here:

Whenever a college tells you something on your application is “recommended” – that means DO IT!!

Examples of schools that “recommend” SAT Subject Tests are Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley.

Optional (or “considered”)

Other colleges will consider your SAT Subject Test scores if you submit them, but they do not require or even recommend them. Like in the “recommended” realm, it is generally a good idea to submit Subject Test scores to these schools. Examples of “optional” schools include Wake Forest and the University of Virginia. Some schools, like Notre Dame, even say they will only consider SAT Subject Tests if they would be helpful to a student’s application.

Many of these schools use SAT Subject Tests for placement in addition to or instead of considering them as part of your application. This is a particularly common use of foreign language test scores, since high school language classes vary widely in pace and rigor from school to school, and language courses are tracked very differently at the college level. This makes it convenient to have a standardized test with which to judge students on a level playing field. Schools who use SAT Subject Tests for placement include American University and Indiana University.


Some schools accept 3 SAT Subject Tests as an alternative to taking the SAT or ACT. Though this is fairly rare, examples include some fairly well known colleges such as NYU and Colorado College.

Not required

If SAT Subject Tests are “not required” for one of your schools, remember this: taking  and/or submitting your scores cannot hurt you; it can only help you. Examples of such schools include Penn State and Pitt.

Increased flexibility

In general, colleges have been trending toward becoming more and more flexible with their SAT Subject Test requirements. Why? Well, there are two main reasons:

Colleges want to increase access to higher education for low income students. For some students, the cost of SAT Subject Tests is prohibitive – they just cannot afford them.  Many colleges see this as unfair, and want to remove the strict requirements which prevent some underprivileged students from successfully applying. In fact, some schools that do list SAT Subject Tests as “required” will waive the requirement if the student can demonstrate that taking the tests posed a significant financial burden.

The second reason is that, in general, colleges do not want to limit their applicant pool. College admissions offices strive for low acceptance rates, and part of that is attracting more applicants, so they can reject more applicants. So colleges can change their SAT Subject Test policy from “required” to “recommended” and get more applicants while still basically only letting in those who submit Subject Tests.

Despite this recent drive toward increased flexibility, you may have noticed from our examples that the most competitive colleges still tend to have the strictest requirements for SAT Subject Tests.

So when do I take SAT Subject Tests, and which ones do I take?

Two general pieces of advice which apply to basically everyone:

  1. Take SAT Subject Tests in the spring, right after you have finished the course on the test’s subject (May or June). The longer you wait after taking a course, the more work you create for yourself – you will forget more material over time, and therefore either have to study more, or just score lower!
  2. Take the SAT Subject Tests in your strongest subjects. This is true regardless of your year in high school. If you ace Chemistry as a sophomore, consider taking the Chemistry Subject Test in May or June. This even applies to freshman – if you do really well in a course, then take the corresponding Subject Test. This is especially true for AP classes. A good rule of thumb is: if you can take the AP test, you can take the Subject Test. Remember, it is very rare for a Subject Test to hurt your application, and colleges will even see when you took it, making a high score as a freshman even more impressive.

One more piece of advice, which applies to fewer students: if your dream school requires you to apply for a specific major, take SAT Subject Tests relevant to that field. If you are applying to Johns Hopkins for Bioengineering, do not take English Literature and U.S. History – focus instead on Math and the sciences.

A brief note to homeschooled students:

Your requirements for college admission may be very different. Often colleges will require more SAT Subject Test scores from homeschool students in lieu of more traditional criteria like high school GPA and class rank. Make sure to check with the colleges on their list to find out what their requirements are from homeschooled applicants.

Parting words

Be sure to look up your particular schools’ policies on SAT Subject Tests. These policies change from year to year, so do not just take a friend’s word for it.

As always, feel free to contact us if you have any lingering questions!



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