According to a 2017 survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), just 7% of U.S. colleges and universities view Subject Test scores as “considerably important” while another 31% cite it as a “moderately important” consideration in the admissions process. It’s important to note that in this survey “Subject Tests” included AP and IB exams, which means the percentage of schools that place significant emphasis on the College Board’s SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT IIs) is likely even lower. However, this doesn’t mean that the answer to the question of whether you need to take Subject Tests is a definitive “No.”

Who does need to take them?

Students seeking admission into an Ivy League or similarly competitive institution will likely discover that the submission of SAT Subject Test scores is either required, recommended, or optional. Knowing the specifics of your prospective colleges is of vital importance, as policies can be very specific and/or change from year-to-year.

Prestigious institutions such as Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd require Subject Tests scores for all applicants. UPenn, Georgetown, Princeton, Duke, Brown, and Yale are among the schools that strongly recommend the inclusion of Subject Tests in a student’s portfolio. Other schools allow for Subject Tests to be included in lieu of the SAT or ACT. These institutions include The University of Rochester, Colby, NYU, and Middlebury.

For a complete list of SAT Subject Test policies at elite colleges visit our Dataverse.

What’s available?

There are 20 different SAT Subjects Tests, which sounds like a healthy assortment. Yet, a further scan of the list reveals that a dozen of those options are in the foreign language realm. They are as follows:

  • Spanish
  • Spanish with Listening
  • French
  • French with Listening
  • Chinese with Listening
  • Italian
  • German
  • German with Listening
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Latin
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening

The eight non-foreign language exams include:

  • Math Level 1
  • Math Level 2
  • Biology – Ecological
  • Biology – Molecular
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • U.S. History
  • World History

What tests should I choose?

The most commonly administered assessments are the Math Level 2, U.S. History, and Literature exams while Chemistry and Biology are the most popular of the science exams. Of course, you’ll want to choose your areas of greatest strength. If Subject Tests are not required by any school to which you are applying, avoid tests that are redundant in terms of what they say about you. In other words, if you already got a 5 on the AP U.S. History exam, taking the Subject Test in the same area isn’t going to reveal any significant new information about your ability, even if you register a perfect score.

Some schools will take the guesswork out of this decision as they openly require particular tests. For example, applicants to Carnegie Mellon’s engineering program must take Math Level 2 and Physics or Chemistry; Arts and Sciences applicants can take either Math Level 1 or Math Level 2 plus another exam of the applicant’s choosing. Johns Hopkins has similar requirements for those applying to the Whiting School of Engineering; strongly recommending the submission of Math Level 2 scores as well as one science Subject Test.

Non-traditional/homeschooled applicants

Homeschooled or other non-traditional applicants may be held to special Subject Test requirements. Northeastern, Virginia Tech, and American University all require SAT Subject Tests in these situations.

When is the best time to take Subject Tests?

May or June of your junior year of high school is an ideal time to sit for your SAT Subject Tests. This will allow you to maximize your exposure to key concepts in the classroom and face the test while everything is still fresh in your mind. If you are unhappy with your scores, there is always the option to retake an exam at the beginning of 12th grade.

If you complete a course, say Honors Chemistry, in 10th grade and don’t plan to pursue further courses in that discipline (perhaps you’re taking AP Physics/AP Bio the next two years), it would make sense to sit for that exam at the end of sophomore year.

Don’t forget to study!

It sounds obvious enough, but some students will take an SAT Subject Test with very little preparation on the assumption that since they aced the class at their high school, they’ll nail the Subject Test just the same. The flaw in this logic is that the high school curriculum is truly, as The Common Core Standards purport, going to be covered and taught identically in every high school classroom across the country.

Unfortunately, it is very possible to ace an honors biology class, sign up for the Molecular Biology SAT Subject Test and feel like you were just thrown a nasty curveball. Remember, unlike in an AP course, your teacher, even in a very rigorous course, is aligning his or her curriculum and SAT Subject Test. It’s on you to learn exactly what is on the SAT Subject Test and then fill in any gaps through independent study.

How to interpret your scores

While students of varying caliber typically take the SAT I, the SAT II are mostly the domain of high achievers. Over 60% of SAT II: Subject Test takers are in the top 20% of their respective high school classes. The average Subject Test participant scored over a 600 on the reading, math, and writing section of their SAT I, over 100 points higher per section than the average student. Keep this in mind when interpreting the percentile results of any Subject Test; you’re pitted against much stiffer competition.

Key Takeaways

  • If you plan on applying to highly selective colleges, there is a good chance that SAT Subject Tests will be required or recommended as part of the application process.
  • Follow school-specific guidelines for which tests are required/recommended. If you have a choice, select tests that will flaunt your strengths and possibly serve as an additional data point demonstrating your ability in a particular area.
  • Aim to take the tests toward the end of junior year or, if you finish up with a subject sophomore year, at the conclusion of that course.
  • Make sure you pick up a practice test and some study materials. It is far from a guarantee that your teacher covered every single concept covered on a given Subject Test.
  • Don’t be alarmed if your scoring percentiles on an SAT Subject Test don’t mirror the results you experienced on the SATs—you are facing off against other elite students.
Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).