Are the SAT Subject Tests Changing?


The SAT was redesigned in 2016—a huge revamp that has been linked to the Common Core and attempts to re-secure market share lost to the ACT. This may leave you wondering: what about SAT Subject Tests? Are they changing? Will there be new SAT Subject Tests modeled after the main SAT redesign?

In a word, no. At least, not now.

So what does this mean? Well, for starters, it means that SAT Subject Tests will now be even more different from the regular SAT than they were before the SAT redesign.

In this article, I'll go over the implications of the "mismatch" between the redesigned SAT and the SAT Subject Tests. How are the formats different, and how should you approach these differences? I'll also go over how the SAT redesign has changed how Subject Test content overlaps (or doesn't) with the regular SAT. Finally, I will engage in some wild speculation (okay, fine, evidence-based speculation) about where the SAT Subject Tests may be going in the future.


Update: SAT Subject Tests No Longer Offered or Required

In January 2021, the College Board announced that, effective immediately, no further SAT Subject Tests will be offered in the United States (and that SAT Subject Tests will only be offered internationally only through June 2021). It is now no longer possible to take SAT Subject Tests.

In the past several years, many schools have dropped their Subject Test requirements, and by the time the College Board made their announcement, nearly no schools required them. With this news, no colleges will require Subject Tests, even from students who could have hypothetically taken the exams a few years ago. Some schools may consider your Subject Test scores if you submit them, similar to how they consider AP scores, but you should contact the specific schools you're interested in to learn their exact policies.

Many students were understandably confused about why this announcement happened midyear and what this means for college applications going forward. Read more about the details of what the end of SAT Subject Tests means for you and your college apps here.


The SAT Subject Tests Are Not Changing

First things first: the SAT Subject Tests are not changing. The College Board has come right out and said it!

Of course, this doesn't mean that the SAT Subject Tests will never change or be redesigned, but, at present, nothing has been announced. So you can expect that they will be administered in the same format for at least the next few years.

However, the main SAT redesign does mean that there are now some additional differences between the regular SAT and the SAT Subject Tests.



The winds of change...are not blowing for the SAT Subject Tests.


Formatting Differences Between the New SAT and the SAT Subject Tests

There were always some differences between the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests. While Subject Tests are each one hour long in a specialized subject area, the regular SAT is a multi-section, broad-content test with variable time lengths per section. This remains the case under the redesigned SAT.

But with the redesign, there are a couple of additional differences between the two test types in question format and scoring. Let's break them down:

The redesigned SAT has only four answer choices per question, but most SAT Subject Tests will continue to have five answer choices per question. The only exception is the foreign language Subject Tests, which have four answer choices per question.

All things being equal, this means your chances of randomly guessing a correct answer on most SAT Subject Tests is 5% lower than on the main SAT (20% vs. 25%). This probably won't make any real difficulty difference between the two exams because on a five-choice test like a Subject Test, there's generally at least one really obviously wrong answer in the bunch.

A bigger change is that the redesigned SAT has no penalty for guessing while the SAT Subject Tests will continue to have a penalty for wrong answers to discourage guessing. On Subject Tests with five answer choices (again, this is most of them), you'll lose 1/4 of a point for each incorrect answer. For the foreign language Subject Tests, which have four answer choices, you'll lose 1/3 of a point for each incorrect answer.

This may actually make your test-taking strategy somewhat different between SAT Subject Tests and the regular SAT. Basically, you should definitely answer every question on the regular SAT, even if you have no idea of the answer because you lose nothing by guessing. In contrast, you might want to take a slightly more conservative approach on your Subject Tests and only guess when you can eliminate some answer choices. Otherwise, you run the risk of an extra penalty for getting the answer wrong.



Don't get stung by wrong answer penalties!


Subject Tests That Might Line Up With the New SAT...Or Not

In addition to formatting changes, the SAT redesign also involved some pretty major content changes. We've reviewed those changes in-depth, but here's a quick summary:
  • All questions for Reading are now passage-based, and not all of the passages will be literary; there will be nonfiction passages.
  • All questions on Writing will also be passage-based, and the emphasis has shifted a little more towards questions on writing style and away from questions on arcane grammar mechanics.
  • The new Math section has less geometry, and questions are rooted more in real-world situations and skills you learned in class and less on abstract "logic" type questions.
  • The overall test is now weighted more heavily towards the Math section. Reading and Writing together form Evidence-Based Reading and Writing for 800 points and Math stays at 800 points (so the total is 1600 points).

If we compare the redesigned SAT content to Subject Test content, we'll see a surprising cadre of similarities and differences. Subjects that have never before overlapped with the main SAT will now have some points of overlap, and some Subject Tests, like Math, that used to share lots of material with the main SAT aren't all that similar to the redesigned SAT. These next sections will go over what material on Subject Tests is also covered on the SAT and how you can use this to your advantage when you prepare for both the main SAT and the Subject Tests.


Subject Tests: Math 1 and Math 2

Overlaps with: SAT Math

Both of the Subject Tests in Math still overlap with the Math section of the revised SAT, but less than they did before. While many similar topics are covered, there are some key differences between the way questions are presented.

First, the new SAT Math has a no-calculator section and free-response questions. The SAT Math Subject Tests are all multiple choice, and calculators are allowed the entire time.

Second, the redesigned SAT focuses much more on "real-world" style problems, mathematical modeling, and reading and interpreting data. Given this focus, the scope of the math tested on the exam has narrowed. (For one thing, there's much less geometry). The SAT Subject Tests are much more about testing how well you've learned a variety of more advanced mathematical concepts, so you can expect a broader range of topics and more problems like what you would see on a high school math test.

Math II covers even more advanced topics than Math I. Because of this, Math II overlaps with the new SAT Math section even less than Math I does. There's just not enough room on Math II to cover some of the more basic math concepts that Math I and SAT Math both focus on.

Here are the topics that still overlap among the three tests. You should be aware, however, that shared topics are weighted completely differently on each exam! As mentioned above, the new SAT Math is much less focused on geometry of all types than either of the Math Subject Tests, and it's much more interested in "real-world" style problems and mathematical modeling.


Overlapping topics on all three math exams:

  • Basic statistics: mean, median, mode, reading graphs
  • Coordinate geometry for lines and circles
  • Calculating volume of 3-D solids from formulas
  • Basic trigonometry: right triangles, identities
  • Creating mathematical models
  • Manipulating and solving expressions, equations, and inequalities
  • Ratios and proportions
  • Complex numbers


Math I and SAT Math both include some Euclidean plane geometry for angles, circles, and triangles; Math II does not (Euclidean geometry concepts are assessed via coordinate and 3-D geometry). Math II and SAT Math now also both cover radians, which are not covered on Math I.

So will studying for Math Subject Tests help prepare you for the SAT Math section? Certainly, reviewing math topics that are covered on both the Subject Test you are taking and the main SAT Math section will be helpful, but the questions are presented differently, and there are topic areas that don't overlap. This is particularly true for Math II. If you've just taken Math I or Math II and you are now preparing for SAT Math, make sure that you aren't relying too much on your calculator or multiple-choice strategies. These won't be with you for the entire SAT Math section.

Will studying for the Math section help with the math-based Subject Tests? Again, it will help you somewhat in that you will be studying some overlapping topics. But you'll need to be prepared both for the topics that don't overlap and for the different exam formats.



All these math exams! It's enough to make your head spin.


Subject Test: Literature

Overlaps with: SAT Reading

In some ways, SAT Reading is closer to the Subject Test in Literature than it was before because all of the questions on the Reading section are now passage-based, as in the Literature Subject Test.

However, while Literature has only literary and poetic passages, the Reading section will now include a number of nonfiction passages as well. This means that, while the close-reading skills you develop for Literature will help you with the passage-based questions on SAT Reading, you will be reading and answering questions about some very different types of passages. You can expect to see nonfiction and historical passages on SAT Reading that you will need to read with an eye for identifying the evidence authors use to support their claims. By contrast, the SAT Literature Subject Test will have much more of an emphasis on literary devices.

So will studying for Literature help prepare you for Reading? Sort of, in that it will hone your close-reading skills. However, you need to make sure you also know how to read non-fiction and historical passages for comprehension and to identify evidence, which really does not play into the Literature test at all.

Conversely, will studying for Reading help prepare you for Literature? It will help a little bit, but the passages on Literature are much more, well, literary, so you will need to make sure you have a stronger grasp of literary devices than SAT Reading requires. Also, the Literature Subject Test has poetry, which is a whole different animal; for more guidance on that, see my guide to the Literature Subject Test.



Read on to learn why this might be on your SAT Reading test!


Subject Tests: US History and World History

Overlaps with: SAT Reading

This may surprise you, but you might now find some minor overlap between your US History or World History Subject Test and SAT Reading. SAT Reading now includes, in one of its five passage sections, "One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the great global conversation they inspired." (see the College Board page for Inside the SAT Reading).

The College Board claims that you won't need any outside knowledge to understand the documents they choose for the Reading test, but any contextual knowledge you have about "U.S founding documents" (i.e. the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, etc.) and their global counterparts certainly won't hurt you. And, if you are taking the US History or World History Subject Test, chances are you have some of that outside contextual knowledge.

Additionally, both history Subject Tests include some questions on primary source analysis—a similar skill to the analysis of historical documents on Reading.

So, will studying for US History or World History help prepare you for the Reading section? It will help a little bit, by giving you historical context and the skills to close-read historical passages. Will studying for SAT Reading help prepare you for US History or World History? Again, it will help a little bit, depending on what "founding documents" you are exposed to in your studying.


Subject Test: Biology

Overlaps with: SAT Reading and Math

The new SAT involves an increased amount of reading charts and graphs in the Reading, Writing, and Math sections. The Biology Subject Test also involves questions that test your knowledge of reading graphs and charts.

So, learning to read graphs and charts for one of these exams will help you with this skill for all the other exams. Basically, making sure you know how to read graphs and charts properly is a skill that will help you on a number of College-Board administered exams, and also life.



If jellyfish could read charts, they probably would have taken over the world by now.


As you can see, while there is overlap between certain Subject Tests and the new SAT, none of the overlap is substantial enough that prepping for one really preps for the other in any significant way. Preparing for Subject Tests, in general, certainly won't hurt your SAT performance or vice-versa, but it definitely won't replace or even hugely augment specific prep for the exam you are taking.


What Could Be Next for the SAT Subject Tests?

So is a revamp coming for the SAT Subject Tests anytime soon? Well, let's think about what niche the Subject Tests fill compared to the main SAT.

The SAT is meant to be a college entrance exam that tests a wide variety of skills and predicts performance in college (it historically hasn't really done this, but that's the idea). The SAT was revised for a lot of reasons, but overall the goal is to make the SAT more predictive of college success and less based on whether you could afford a tutor or even a prep book to learn strategies. (Do I think the College Board met their goal? That's a story for another day.)

The SAT Subject Tests, however, never purported to be the kind of exam that any smart person could do well on. They have always been meant to showcase a particular talent or expertise in a subject. Because of this, I don't think it's terribly likely that there are any major content changes for the SAT Subject Tests coming anytime soon.

However, I do think it's a little bizarre to administer two kinds of SAT tests with different scoring mechanisms and a different number of answer choices. There may well be a more minor SAT Subject Test revision just for the sake of creating consistency between the two tests. Thus, while I don't think a major revamp in content is happening soon, I do think it's possible that there will minor revisions to make the tests more harmonious in format.



Harmonious like these creepy singing angels.


Key Takeaways

Are the SAT Subject Tests changing? No! There will be no new SAT Subject Tests for 2016. This means that, unlike on the main SAT, most Subject Tests have five answer choices per question, and there's a -0.25 point penalty for every wrong answer. The exception is foreign language Subject tests, which have four answer choices per question, and there's a 1/3 point penalty for every wrong answer.

The changing format of the SAT does mean that there may be some new and different overlaps between Subject Tests and main SAT content.

In terms of future revisions, I don't think there's going to be a major content revision any time soon, but there may be a formatting revision to bring the two tests into greater harmony.


What's Next?

Trying to decide which SAT Subject Tests to take? Let us help. Or maybe you want some help registering for your chosen Subject Tests.

Confused about the new SAT? See our guide to the new Reading section and our guide to redesigned SAT math.

With the redesign, you might consider if the new SAT or the ACT is going to be better for you.



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About the Author
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Ellen McCammon

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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