The SAT Subject Tests are a chance for you to show where you have specialized knowledge. With these tests, you can show which subjects interest you and which you've taken the time to get to know well.
With that being said, how can you decide which SAT Subject Test to take? First, let's take a look at all the SAT Subject Tests from which you can choose.
List of SAT Subject Tests
There are 21 SAT Subject Tests (we're counting Biology E and Biology M as two separate tests). They cover four core subject areas - English literature, history, math, and science - with 9 variations within these domains: Literature, U.S. History, World History, Math Level 1, Math Level 2, Biology Ecological, Biology Molecular, Chemistry, and Physics.
There are an additional 12 Subject Tests that cover 9 different languages: French, French with Listening, German, German with Listening, Spanish, Spanish with Listening, Modern Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Chinese with Listening, Japanese with Listening, and Korean with Listening.
To put it another way, there are 21 different variations of tests to choose from. All SAT Subject tests cover 13 subject areas - 4 core courses and 9 languages.
Let's take a look at how many students take each SAT Subject Test, from most to least. We'll also show you the average scores these students achieve.
|Test||Mean Score||Number of Students (2015)|
|Korean with Listening||768||2,110|
|Chinese with Listening||759||5,204|
|Japanese with Listening||694||1,332|
|Mathematics Level 2||690||144,772|
|French with Listening||666||1,621|
|Spanish with Listening||665||2,982|
|United States History||645||70,298|
|German with Listening||636||438|
|Mathematics Level 1||619||65,319|
As you can see, the core courses, like literature, math, history, and science, attract the largest number of students. When it comes to tests that have Listening and non-Listening options, more students tend to opt for the non-Listening option.
You'll notice a large variation in average scores of tests. A higher mean score does not necessarily mean that a Subject Test is easier - instead, it likely means that people who opt for that test know that subject really, really well. Check out our further analysis of which SAT Subject Tests are the easiest based on their mean scores and other factors.
Now that you know all the options, how can you decide which Subject Test to take?
How to Decide Which Subject Tests To Take
What Do the Colleges Want?
First off, you need to know the requirements of your college. How many Subject Tests does the college want you to take? Is the college a technology school that will take a close look at your knowledge in math and science? Or is it a liberal arts school that wants you to demonstrate a range of abilities, like one test in English literature and another in math?
Some colleges have adopted a test optional or test flexible policy, which may give you the option of sending SAT Subject Tests in place of the general SAT or ACT. Check out our article for the full list of colleges with these policies. These approaches could be really helpful for you to know, as they let you shape your application in the way that's best for you.
Another consideration is placement in college classes. Some colleges may prefer Listening language tests to non-Listening language tests, for example, because they demonstrate that extra dimension of fluency. If you're a native speaker, the Listening language test is likely to be easy for you to achieve a great score on. If you're not, you want to make sure your language skills have reached a very high level before taking a Language Subject Test.
College requirements and expectations play the biggest role in which ones out of all the Subject Tests you decide to take, but within those requirements, you may still have several options. Now you have to consider where you can best demonstrate subject mastery.
What Do You Know?
The Subject Tests are testing your knowledge of a particular subject, rather than your reasoning skills. In this way, they're closely aligned with your academic classes and the finals or AP exams you take to demonstrate your content and conceptual knowledge.
Since people often devote more time to learning about things that actually interest them, the Subject Tests also tell a story about you - what you're interested in and have dedicated time to understanding. So if you love reading and understanding books, you should probably take the Literature test. Not only will you be likely to get a high score, but you'll also be indicating your personal interests to admissions officers. The Subject Tests offer one more way you can individualize your college applications and tell a story about your personality and identity.
Did you know that you can take the Subject Test whenever you feel ready? You don't have to wait until junior year to take one. You may be ready to take the biology or chemistry tests, for example, at the end of freshman or sophomore year. The math tests, on the other hand, tend to require several years of high school level math.
The best time to take the Subject Tests is near the end of the school year when you've been studying the relevant subject and the content is fresh in your mind. Click here to learn about the best test dates and how to schedule your Subject Tests alongside the SAT or ACT and your other assignments.
Besides choosing your subject, you also might have more decisions to make. As you saw above, there are some variations within each subject which are important for you to know.
Which Format Is Best For You?
As you saw above, the French, Spanish, and German language tests offer Listening and non-Listening options. If you have strong listening skills, then the Listening tests are a great way to demonstrate fluency. They may also place you in a higher level once you get to college. Check with the individual college on this policy, as some have their own placement tests.
If you don't feel confident in your listening skills, then your best bet would be to take the non-Listening option, or another Subject Test altogether. The language tests tend to be difficult to score high on if your language skills are limited to a classroom environment.
Are you intrigued by populations and energy flow within systems? Or do you prefer to know how cells work and the ins and outs of photosynthesis?
There are two options within the Biology Subject Test - the Ecological Subject Test and the Molecular Subject Test. Both share a core 60 questions, and then have 20 additional questions with an ecological or molecular focus. You can further explore the differences between the two tests and try practice questions here.
If you're taking a math Subject Test, you have to decide between Math Level 1 and Math Level 2. For Level 1, you will need to have taken at least 2 years of algebra and 1 year of geometry. For Level 2, you should have taken these plus some trigonometry and pre-calculus. Both tests require you to use a graphing calculator, but Level 2 requires more complex use of the calculator.
You can learn more about the Math Level 1 test here and Math Level 2 test here. Like with the Listening language tests, Math Level 2 has a higher mean score and lower standard deviation, meaning most students who take it score near the relatively high mean score of 686. If you're not super confident in math, it may be harder to score in a high percentile in comparison amidst all those other high scorers.
To Sum Up...
Ultimately, you're the expert in your own learning. You know what captivates you, or makes you fall asleep. You know if you learn best by seeing, listening, doing, or a combination of lots of different things. You've probably already been drawn to and chosen the classes in high school that will determine which of this list of SAT Subject Tests you're in the best position to take.
You know yourself better than anyone else - so as long as you research the Subject Tests and have a strong sense of what will be on them, along with your colleges' requirements, you'll make the right decision about the SAT Subject Tests.
Another important consideration about SAT Subject Tests is when to take them, especially when you have to schedule around the SAT or ACT and all your other activities. Check out our article on the best dates to take the SAT Subject Tests.
Are you also studying for the SAT or ACT? Read all about when you should start preparing and how you can design a balanced schedule.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.