How to Ace the SAT Subject Tests
Hint: Make sure you’re taking the right one for you.
Students need to make so many decisions when applying to college that the process often feels daunting. And when schools add SAT Subject Tests to the mix, things can get even more overwhelming. Deciding whether to take the tests, how many, which ones and when is not to be taken lightly.
SAT Subject Tests at a Glance
- U.S. History
- World History
- Mathematics Level 1
- Mathematics Level 2
- Biology E/M
- Modern Hebrew
- French with Listening
- German with Listening
- Spanish with Listening
- Chinese with Listening
- Japanese with Listening
- Korean with Listening
Subject tests are sometimes required by competitive colleges and demanding or specific programs, but not all students applying to college need to take them. Marion Brewington, owner of Brewington & Associates Test Prep in Wayne, recommends that students with a strong aptitude for certain subjects consider taking tests and submitting scores. “I think they function nicely as supplements to an application,” she says.
These exams vary significantly from the standard SAT, testing your knowledge on particular topics. Twenty tests are available, covering history, math, literature, languages or the sciences. They’re often shorter than the SAT, lasting about an hour instead of over three hours. “They reflect how well a student has mastered the material in any given course,” says Brewington.
The SAT focuses on reading comprehension, writing and language skills like vocabulary, plus math, usually up to Algebra 2, and some trigonometry and precalculus, says Robin Hinmon, owner of Brandywine Academic Services in Wilmington. “Subject tests are a more in-depth approach at looking at a variety of subjects,” she says.
While the content is quite different, scoring for both the SAT and SAT Subject Tests is similar. Each exam is worth as much as 800 points—like a given section of the SAT—and there are no point deductions for incorrect answers. Questions also typically increase in difficulty as the test progresses.
Hinmon and her colleagues recommend subject tests if they relate to the major a student plans to pursue. These tests can also be beneficial to those in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs. Brewington believes that students should already know the material and just need a good review, which is often the case for AP and IB students. “It’s not something students should spend weeks and weeks preparing for because they don’t know the material. You should have a really good foundation. Preparing for a subject test becomes [about] fine-tuning, what’s relevant, and how to take that particular test,” Brewington says.
She suggests that students take the test shortly after completing the related class, usually in May or June. But first, they should take practice tests to familiarize themselves with the format. “You want to make sure you know pacing, difficulty level, how hard you should be working—are you used to challenging questions?” she says.
Students can take up to three exams in one sitting. For those doing multiple tests in a given day, both Brewington and Hinmon caution against overloading. They advise students to limit tests to two at a time. “If they’re doing multiple tests, then I’d say sit down and do two [practice tests] in a row,” Hinmon says. “I liken it to training for a race. You prepare yourself physically and mentally.”