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The Ultimate Guide to SAT Subject Tests


As an upperclassman in high school (soon to be collegiette!), you are likely berated with the same question from your teachers, parents and friends on a daily basis: Where are you thinking of going to college? As you try to figure out which school is the best for you, how to apply and how to decipher the oh-so confusing college application lingo, ask yourself this: What if there was a way to go just a little bit above and beyond and really stand out to your dream college as a determined, smart and acceptance-worthy potential student?

Ever heard of the SAT Subject Tests? A great option if you want to show off your academic ability to a school, Subject Tests can influence everything that you’ve probably been freaking out about lately, like college acceptances, potential scholarships and even admittance into certain academic programs.

Not sure what they are? Don’t know if you should sign up? Don’t worry! Here is everything you need to know in order to rock your Subject Tests.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT and the SAT Subject Tests are not the same thing. Sally Springer, author and associate chancellor emerita at the University of California, Davis, says that while the SAT measures your critical reading skills, your application of English grammar and your quantitative reasoning, the SAT Subject Tests are entirely different. These tests are used to showcase a student’s knowledge of a specific subject. They last only an hour and are broken down into five different categories: history, foreign languages, English, mathematics and science. The 20 different available tests vary in subject matter; they range in topic from math and world history to Modern Hebrew.

Subject Tests allow you to have (almost) complete control over what you’re going to be tested on. They can also be a key component to getting into college. The College Board implemented these tests not only as a way for students to give colleges a better look at their specific abilities, but also to help students stand out in terms of their academic readiness. With the Subject Tests, you get to choose which academic areas to highlight to the colleges you’ve applied to. You have the full potential to show your dream school that you are totally ready to be a star student.

Does everyone need to take the SAT Subject Tests?

Not everyone is required to take the SAT Subject Tests. “Only about 150 colleges require or recommend that students submit scores from one or more of these tests, and they are generally colleges that are pretty selective in their admissions process,” Springer says.

If your colleges don’t require them but you still think taking them is a good idea, then go for it! According to Springer, results obtained from Subject Tests are often still taken into consideration by schools that do not necessarily require or even recommend them.

Bottom line: Subject Tests are usually optional, but sometimes the colleges you’re applying to will request that you take one or more. Clive Paul, representative for the College Board Service Center, says, “Every college and university uses a different combination of criteria for admission. Some colleges require or recommend one or more SAT Subject Tests as part of the application, especially in specific majors or program[s] of study.”

Still unsure of whether you need to take one? If the deadline for registering for the SAT Subject Tests is fast approaching or you are just planning far in advance, the best thing to do would be to check the admissions websites of the colleges you are applying to or directly contact their admissions offices. Additionally, your high school’s guidance counselor and/or academic adviser are great resources who can provide answers to your questions.

Should I take them even if I don’t need to?

Okay, so the SAT Subject Tests aren’t an absolute must for you, but should you still take a couple?

“I took the history and English subject tests, even though all of the schools I applied to were SAT-score-optional (meaning you didn't necessarily have to send your scores to them),” says Sara Heath, a senior at Assumption College. “I'm glad I took them because they prepared me really well for the AP exams in both subjects.”

Overall, the SAT Subject Tests definitely aren’t a bad idea. Even if AP exam readiness isn’t enough for you to justify taking the test, colleges will think highly of you for putting in the effort in order to stand out to them. Plus, it can’t hurt to give your application the extra oomph that it may need.

How many should I take?

Take the SAT Subject Tests that are going to be beneficial to you; don’t convince yourself that you need to go sign up for 19 out of the 20 possible tests (seriously, don’t, because it’s not necessary and you probably won’t do well in all of them). If, as a junior in high school, you think you might be interested in a certain major or program while in college that you know (or think) requires an SAT Subject Test, then take it; this will likely really help you in the long run!

For example, if you think you might want to study veterinary medicine but you aren’t totally sure, then you might think about taking the Biology E/M SAT Subject Test. Likewise, if you are considering majoring in Chinese, taking the Chinese with Listening SAT Subject Test is probably a smart idea.

How and when do I sign up?

While there is a lot of information to keep track of, don’t be nervous about registering for the tests; the registration process is actually very simple. First, keep in mind that you have the option to take a SAT Subject Test six times per year on the dates that they are administered; these are in October through January, May and June. Also remember that you must take the SAT and any SAT Subject Test on different days.

In order to sign up for the date that bests suits you, think about the colleges you want to apply for.  Do the schools require the scores by a certain deadline? Are these dates somewhat flexible? These answers will not only depend on the schools themselves, but also on you if you’re applying regular or early decision. If you are planning to commit early to a college, you likely have to send in your scores ahead of time. Not making any commitments any time soon? Don’t stress!

“Many colleges advise that you take the SAT Subject Tests by October or November of your senior year,” Paul says. “For regular-decision applications, some colleges will accept SAT Subject Test scores through the January administration.”

If you feel like getting a head start on taking your SAT Subject Tests, then why not take them early? Springer adds that while it is typical for the majority of students to take the Subject Tests at the end of their junior year, taking them at the end of your sophomore year is also an option as long as you feel confident enough with the material. For more information on test dates and deadlines, check out the College Board.

Don’t feel like you need to have every single detail down when you register. “When you register for Subject Tests, you don’t have to specify in advance which test or tests you plan to take,” Springer says. “All of the tests will be there in the same booklet, so you can decide on test day (but, of course, once you open a given test you are committed to taking that one — no flipping through the booklet to preview the questions!).”

Additionally, if you decide during the test to take a second Subject Test, the College Board will just bill you for the second one without you having to go through any additional paperwork or logistics.

This brings up another aspect of the SAT Subject Tests that you should be prepared for: the cost. While the bills aren’t outrageous, you should be aware of the cost of each test and the registration fee. On average, the SAT Subject Test registration is going to cost you $26. All the SAT Subject Tests cost $16 on top of registration, except for language tests with listening, which are $26. However, the processing, sending and receiving of your scores (in addition to registering late!) are going to be extra. 

How should I study?

Everyone’s test-taking strategies are different, but there are definitely some methods that can help more than others. Carefully planning studying time long before you actually take the test, however, is key. Springer suggests concentrating on studying intensely in a certain subject area over the course of a year (or more) and then taking the test towards the end of your school year. This is the best long-term option because the material will still be fresh in your mind.

Beyond that, how do you decide what kind of studying is best for you?

First, figure out what kind of a learner you are. Do you respond better to visual aids? Or, do you retain more when you listen to someone talk? Do you work well in study groups, or do you focus better alone? From here, you can figure out what kind of studying will best suit you. Springer says you can also try test-prep books and private tutors. Additionally, the College Board also has useful tips and tricks on their website and has many practice questions that serve as great study guides. 

Subject Test dos and don’ts 

Do know the formatting of the test beforehand

Not all the SAT Subject Tests are the same. Know the format of your test before you walk into the room so you know how to pace yourself throughout the test. Are you going to need to write an essay? How many multiple-choice problems are there?

Don’t pull an all-nighter

One of the worst mistakes you can make is pulling an all-nighter the night before your test. While you may think staying up all night studying (or worrying) is going to help you the next morning, this will actually probably severely hurt your score. Start studying far in advance and try to get a good night’s sleep the night before.

Don’t try to cram the morning of the test

It may seem like a good idea to brush up on some last-minute details, but cramming for a test is not good for your focus.

Don’t skip breakfast

Eat a good breakfast before your test! As clichéd as it seems, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and it will give you the energy boost you need to go kick some SAT Subject Test butt.

Do plan to be early

Plan on arriving to your test site at least 20 to 25 minutes early. This will give you adequate time to mentally prepare yourself for your test, de-stress from what was probably a hectic morning (getting up early to go take a test that can determine where you go to college? Yikes) and figure out where you’re supposed to be.

Do bring the necessary supplies

You absolutely must remember to bring multiple pre-sharpened number-two pencils. We repeat: multiple, pre-sharpened, number two. Don’t forget!

If necessary, bring a non-electric personal pencil sharpener, a bottle of water and a non-messy snack (if allowed). You’re also likely required to bring one or two forms of ID and your registration form or a validation ticket of sorts. If you’re taking a math-related SAT subject test, don’t forget your calculator! 

Do know which room you are in

There is nothing that will stress you out more than running around your SAT Subject Test site, not knowing where you’re supposed to be. Take the time to make note of what room you are taking the test in and where that room is in the building (not all SAT Subject Tests you take will be at your high school, after all).

Don’t psych yourself out

SAT Subject Tests are a big deal. However, don’t dwell on them! At the end of the day, one bad score on a test that you can retake multiple times is not going to ruin your life. Remember to stay calm, breathe and believe in yourself.

Most importantly, do the best you can do, and don’t push yourself to your breaking point. SAT Subject Tests can be helpful for your future and can make you stand out as a must-have student for your dream school. Study hard, stay focused and watch all that hard work pay off!

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