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SAT Subject Tests:
Quick Answers to 17 Common Questions

The SAT Subject Tests are intended to test your knowledge of certain subjects. While the focus of the regular SAT exam is fairly broad (reading, writing and language, math, and an optional essay section), each SAT Subject Test has a narrow focus in one of five areas: English, history, foreign language, mathematics, or science.

Colleges are more likely to require the regular SAT than the SAT Subject Tests. If you're planning to attend college, you are very likely to take the SAT exam, while only a certain percentage of college applicants will take the SAT Subject Tests.

As far as the difference between tests themselves, the three-hour SAT session is longer than the one-hour session for each individual SAT Subject Test. They are held on the same day, which means you must choose one or the other when you register.

The key difference is that AP test scores are primarily used to determine college credit while SAT Subject Test scores are primarily used in admissions decisions.

SAT Subject Tests and AP exams are close cousins. They are both designed by the same organization, and both tend to cover similar material.

The method of testing is different, however.

There are also a few logistical differences:

AP exams are offered only in the month of May, generally to students who complete a year's worth of college-level study. SAT Subject Tests are offered throughout the year.

AP exams are multiple-choice plus an essay section, while SAT Subject Tests are multiple-choice only.

AP exam sessions are 2 to 3 hours long, while SAT Subject Test sessions only last an hour.

That depends. SAT Subject Test scores are required by a handful of colleges. Even colleges that don't require them may still accept your scores if you submit them with your application.

When viewed in the context of your entire application, however, SAT Subject Test scores have a very low level of importance. Still, some admissions offices will view good scores as further evidence of your college readiness. This is particularly true if you score well on an SAT Subject Test that directly pertains to your intended major (if you have an intended major; if you don't, that's okay).

They're different. While the SAT claims to measure college readiness in a broad sense, the SAT Subject Tests measure knowledge of a particular subject. If you don't know much about chemistry, the SAT Subject Test on chemistry is going to be very difficult. If you've just finished taking AP Chemistry, along with the AP Chemistry exam, the corresponding SAT Subject Test should be familiar territory.

This varies depending on the college to which you are applying.

In general, SAT Subject Tests are low on the list of things that colleges consider when determining whether to admit a student to their school. Grades, a strong curriculum, SAT or ACT scores, essays, and teacher recommendation letters matter more than SAT Subject Test scores.

However, for those colleges that do require them, the SAT Subject Tests should be treated as an important component of your overall application.

This depends on the schools on your college list. Check the admissions websites for each of the schools you are interested in. If any of the colleges on your list require (or "recommend") that you take SAT Subject Tests, you should definitely take them.

Even if they don't, you might still want to consider taking a few SAT Subject Tests, especially if you're strong in a particular subject area, since strong scores on an SAT Subject Test might help you showcase this strength.

To determine whether you should take any particular Subject Test, take a practice test first; this will help you get a general idea of how you might score on the actual test. If you ace the practice test, you should strongly consider taking it officially, even if none of the colleges on your list require it.

There are 20 different SAT Subject Tests. Which one you take depends on a few factors.

The first is your level of preparation. If you've taken an AP course in the subject, you are much more likely to be prepared.

Likewise, if you happen to have mastered a foreign language, you might choose to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test. The second factor is your area of interest. If you know you want to major in a certain subject in college, high scores on a matching SAT Subject Test will probably be a nice addition to your application, even if the college doesn't require an SAT Subject Test.

What is considered a good score on a given SAT Subject Test depends on a number of factors.

The maximum score on each test is 800 points. Below, you can see the mean scores (arithmetic average) for each of the available SAT Subject Tests in 2017. You can also see the standard deviation for each, which gives you an idea how wide the range of scores was for that particular test.

This will help you understand what a good score might look like in a given subject, but keep in mind that you’re not competing against others who took the same test as you so much as you are competing against others who are applying to the same colleges you are.

If you’re applying to Caltech, for instance, your score on the Math Level 2 would have to be considerably higher than the mean score below (their “middle 50% range” is a perfect 800).

This is supposed to be a “quick answer,” but I want to make one final point. Remember that college admissions officers will view these scores, as they try to view everything about your application, in context. If you’re a native Chinese speaker, a 780 on the Chinese test won’t dazzle them. If you started taking Chinese in high school and scored 700 on the same test, they will be more impressed.

Test Subject
Mean Score
Standard Deviation

Literature

612

111

U.S. History

647

106

World History

626

111

Math Level I

605

109

Math Level II

694

98

Ecological Biology

617

110

Molecular Biology

648

112

Chemistry

665

105

Physics

664

110

Chinese (Listening)

759

66

French (Listening)

667

116

German (Listening)

614

116

Japanese (Listening)

702

103

Korean (Listening)

761

69

Spanish (Listening)

669

105

French (Reading)

629

126

German (Reading)

618

138

Modern Hebrew (Reading)

614

152

Italian (Reading)

662

137

Latin (Reading)

616

109

Spanish (Reading)

649

114

Yes, you do.

The College Board says that "the best way to prepare is to take the relevant courses and work hard in them." While this is indeed true, it's not the whole truth. The best way to absorb the content is to take an AP class, and to schedule your SAT Subject Test date for just after you finish that AP class, when the material is still fresh in your mind in early June, for example. (Note: This advice does not apply to the Math 1 and Math 2 Subject Tests; as soon as you’ve mastered the math level covered in these exams, you should be ready to prepare for the tests.)

Even then, however, you should take some practice tests from one of the books we recommend below. This will help you get used to the test format, and hopefully ensure that you wake up on your test date with the highest level of confidence possible.

The College Board has a free downloadable Student Guide that will give you some specifics for each test, along with a few sample questions.

The College Board also sells full guidebooks on each subject, complete with full-length practice tests.

Likewise, various test-prep companies like Barron's and Princeton Review sell decent SAT Subject Test preparation books. When you choose one, make sure of two things: first, that it contains full-length practice tests (this is the main reason to buy one of these books). Second, that it is current (sometimes dated books will hang around on Amazon for years).

Yes, assuming your scores are good. Strong scores will help admissions officers understand your abilities in those areas, and are usually a good addition to the rest of your application.

Also, if a school says it will "consider" SAT Subject Test scores , you can bet that the more competitive students will be taking the opportunity to include them in their application.

I get this question occasionally, especially from students who are aiming high. Before I address it, however, I want to reiterate that SAT Subject Tests are much less important than your regular SAT scores and the other major components of your application.

Now to answer the question. Most schools post the range of regular SAT scores achieved by the applicants they have already admitted (the middle 50%), and with highly selective schools those scores are very high. It's safe to assume that the range of SAT Subject Test scores will be equally strong.

While no one can tell you exactly how high your score must be to get into an Ivy League school (or other selective non-Ivies), I can safely say that with certain exceptions the people you're competing with tend to score in the upper half of the 700s.

Generally speaking, probably not.

Most colleges, if they require them at all, only want a given number of SAT Subject Test scores (usually two).

The College Board, the organization that creates the SAT Subject Tests, has a program called Score Choice, which allows you to designate which of your scores will be sent to each college. Some schools, such as Yale, do not participate in this program for the regular SAT exam (i.e. they want to see all your SAT scores, from every test you took), but they do allow you to choose which SAT Subject Test scores you send, if any (Yale considers SAT Subject Tests optional).

Georgetown, on the other hand, wants to see all of your standardized test scores including all of your SAT Subject Test scores.

So the short answer to this question is: probably not, but verify the requirements with each school on your college list.

As with any test, that depends on your level of knowledge and preparedness. The time spent in an SAT Subject Test session is comparatively short (the SAT Subject Test session is only one hour long, whereas the SAT exam is three hours long. But the SAT Subject Test is also more focused on a specific subject, so your knowledge will need to be more detailed.

The good news is that nearly a half a million people take SAT Subject Tests each year, and they survive!

Most colleges, if they require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, want to see two scores.

If our clients decide to take SAT Subject tests, we usually recommend that they take as many tests as possible, assuming they are prepared to excel in those subjects. In my own professional experience, Collegica clients who take higher-level courses throughout high school usually take three to five SAT Subject Tests, and send only their best scores to the colleges on their list.

The list of schools that recommend or require SAT Subject Test scores is quite extensive, and different institutions treat SAT Subject Tests in different ways.

In addition, each school's requirements differ. Some schools require SAT Subject Tests, others merely recommend them, and still others say they will consider them if included with the application.

In some cases, SAT Subject Tests are only recommended by certain departments or majors within the school. The precise requirements of each of these schools will be somewhat different, and are subject to change without notice.

The moral of the story is this:   check the requirements yourself, for every college on your list. Always, always check for yourself, unless you have a dedicated professional handling it for you. Do not rely on a list from the web that might be outdated or flat-out wrong. Go to each college's website and verify their requirements yourself. That will require a bit of work on your part, but it can help you avoid some unpleasant surprises.


The SAT, the ACT, and the SAT Subject Test
A Free Three-Minute Crash Course

If you want a quick, painless overview of these standardized tests, watch this brief video from Collegica's Junior Toolkit.


Cassie Nichols

Cassie Nichols attended Princeton University, where she was an NCAA All-American and Academic All-American athlete, as well as captain of the Princeton women’s water polo team. After college, she conducted educational research at Yale University, taught literature and the college essay at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, and earned a Master of Arts degree in Education from University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of The College Essay Trap, a veteran private college consultant, and is one of the founders of Collegica.