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How Hard Is the SAT Spanish Subject Test?


¿Estudias español? ¿Hablas español en casa? Are you wondering if you should take the SAT Subject Test in Spanish?

Let's review what it covers and how students usually score so you can decide if the SAT Subject Test in Spanish is right for you. First, you have to know what's on the test.


UPDATE: SAT Subject Tests No Longer Offered

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

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.


Step 1: Familiarize Yourself With the Spanish Subject Test

Before you can decide if your language skills are up to the challenge, you should know all about the SAT Subject Test in Spanish—when it's offered, how it's structured, and what's on it.


When Is the Spanish Subject Test Offered?

There are two options for taking the SAT Subject Test in Spanish: the Listening test and the non-Listening, or Reading-only, test. Spanish with Listening is offered only on one test date in November, while the Reading version is offered on all the other test dates—in May, June, August, October, and December.

To see the exact dates and figure out when you should take the tests, check out this article. Besides when they're offered, what are the differences between the Listening and Reading options?


How Is the Spanish Subject Test Structured?

Both tests ask 85 multiple choice questions in 60 minutes. Here's the breakdown of the Reading Subject Test:

  • 33% vocabulary and structure
  • 33% paragraph completion
  • 33% reading comprehension

The Listening test, on the other hand, has this structure:

  • 40% listening (e.g. describing a picture, continuing a short conversation, or answering comprehension questions)
  • 60% reading (vocabulary and structure, paragraph completion, and reading comprehension).

As you can see, if you choose the Spanish with Listening Subject Test, your listening skills are a significant portion of the test. However, your Listening subscore will count half as much as your reading subscore, which I'll explain more below in the section about how the test is scored. Both subscores will be reported on your score report, but the reading will count more towards your overall scaled score.

The Listening portion is 20 minutes long. You are required to bring a CD player to listening to the Subject Test. Read more about the CD player guidelines here.

While the skills being tested differ, between the two tests, both cover similar content.


What Does the Spanish Subject Test Cover?

The tests cover the following areas of understanding.

  • Different parts of speech
  • Basic idioms
  • Ability to fill in words or expressions within the context of a sentence
  • Understanding of vocabulary and structure questions within paragraphs
  • Understanding of main points, supporting ideas, themes, style, tone, and setting of passages, which may be drawn from fiction, news articles, historical works, letters, and advertisements

This practice question, for example, tests your ability to fill in a word in the correct part of speech in the context of a sentence. Difficulty level: easy.


Here's a similar sample question that tests your understanding of the subjunctive form. Difficulty level: hard.


Try some more sample questions from the Spanish Subject Test here, and determine whether they feel easy or hard to you. This is one important action you can take to determine your language level.


body_onesemesterofspanishMike knows enough Spanish to ask where the bathroom is, but not enough to express all the love that's in his heart. BreakPresents/YouTube.


Step 2: Know Your Spanish Language Level

College Board suggests that you should have three to four years of studying Spanish or two or more years of intensive study to take the SAT Subject Test in Spanish. If you're nearing the end of AP Spanish and are getting an A, then you are likely in a strong position to score highly on the Subject Test. If you're in Spanish 3, and have not studied Spanish intensively, like in AP classes, then you might not be ready yet.

Again, trying practice questions will help give you a sense of the test and whether you feel your language skills are ready. Your Spanish teachers might also have advice on whether your high school curriculum has sufficiently prepared you for the Subject Test.

If you're a native speaker, you should still study for the test to make sure you know grammar and other rules of the language. Don't worry about expressions unique to one country—the test is not supposed to have any region-specific sayings.

Research your college to learn their Subject Test requirements and expectations. Some might be impressed with your high score on a language test. Others might prefer you opt for another test, if they already know that you're a native speaker of Spanish. For more on this, check out our expert guide: Which SAT Subject Test Should You Take?

It's also important to consider how strong your reading vs. listening comprehension in Spanish is. The Spanish with Listening gives that extra dimension of understanding and may help with placement into a more advanced language level in college.

The grading curve is often more competitive for the Listening test, as students who opt for that one are typically fluent or have particularly strong Spanish skills. So if you're really not confident in your listening comprehension, you probably want to steer clear of the Listening test. Let's take a closer look at what I mean when I talk about a competitive grading curve.


Step 3: Consider the Grading Curve

Along with your Subject Test score out of 800, you'll also get a percentile. This percentile compares you to other students who took the test. If you score in the 75th percentile, for example, then you scored higher than 75% of other students and lower than 25%.

This table shows how the Spanish Subject Test scores converted to percentiles last year. You can see that the Spanish Subject Test with Listening is slightly more competitive. The same score is a slightly lower percentile on the Listening test than the Reading test.

Check out this table, based on data from the College Board, and then scroll down for a discussion of what this data means for how difficult the SAT Subject Test in Spanish is.

Score Spanish with Listening Percentile Spanish with Reading Percentile
800 94 92
790 91 90
780 86 87
770 82 84
760 78 80
750 74 77
740 69 74
730 66 70
720 62 67
710 58 64
700 55 60
690 51 57
680 46 54
670 43 50
660 40 47
650 38 44
640 35 41


Average (50th percentile) scores on the tests are in the upper 600s. Let's take a look at what you need to score in the 70th, 80th, and 90th percentile.


Good Scores for Spanish Listening

  • 70th percentile: 750+
  • 80th percentile: 770+
  • 90th percentile: 790+


Good Scores for Spanish Reading

  • 70th percentile: 730+
  • 80th percentile: 760+
  • 90th percentile: 790+


To score in a high percentile compared to other test-takers, you have to score quite high, between 750 and 800, on the tests. While this might sound like a tall order, it's actually well within your reach if you have the requisite Spanish language skills and take time to prepare for the Subject Test.

Read this article for more on the average scores of the SAT Subject Tests and what constitutes a good score on each test (it's different for each one).

This data can help you set target scores and design your study plan. Let's take a look at how the scoring works, so you can keep this in mind as you study for the test.



Step 4: Know How the Spanish Subject Test Is Scored

Unlike the general SAT, for the Spanish Subject test (and all other Subject Tests), you lose points for incorrect answers. Spanish Subject Test gives you 1 point for every correct answer, 0 points for skipped answers, and -1/3 point for wrong answers. These points add up to your raw score, which is then converted to a scaled score between 200 and 800 through a process called equating. Equating takes everyone's scores into account.

As you saw above, the grading curve on language tests like Spanish is competitive. Some years, you might be able to get away with one or two wrong answers and still score an 800. Otherwise, you will likely lose about 10 points for every two questions you get wrong.

As I mentioned above, the reading subscore counts twice as much as the listening subscore toward your composite scaled score. However, both subscores will be reported and viewable on your score report.

If you are adequately prepared with AP Spanish, years of study, or out of the classroom fluency, then you are in a great position to score highly on the Spanish Subject Test and demonstrate your multilingual abilities to admissions committees. Even if you're confident in your fluency, it's always important to do some serious test prep and back up your understanding with the necessary grammatical knowledge and reading comprehension.


Step 5: Know When to Guess and When to Leave Answers Blank

Too many random guesses could bring down your score, so you have to be smart on when to guess on a question (and risk a point deduction) and when to leave a question blank (with no change of getting it right). Here are some strategies to follow:


If You Can't Eliminate Any Answer Choices

If you're really stumped on a question and can't eliminate any of the options, don’t guess yet. Skip the question and for now and go back to it after you've finished the rest of the exam. What if you still can’t eliminate any of the options? It may make sense to guess, but it also may not gain you any points.

Here's an example: If you guess on four questions without eliminating any answer choices, odds are you'll get one question right and three wrong. This leaves you with a net of zero points on those questions (1 - (.3333 x 3)=0). However, total randomness is rare, and the test makers often design the wrong answer choices to seem correct so that you're more likely to choose them. This means the choices you decide on may not be random, and you may end up guessing incorrectly on more than three-quarters of the questions, leaving you with a net negative of points.

This leaves you with a choice. You can either leave questions you can't eliminate any answer choices on blank, or you can do you best to make your answer choices completely random. One way to do this is to pick a letter (say "A") and select that answer choice for all the questions you're guessing on to make your choices as random as possible.



If You Can Eliminate One or More Answer Choices

Once you can eliminate at least one answer choice, the math is much more in your favor to guess. Say you have six questions where you've been able to eliminate one answer choice for each. That leaves you with three answer choices per question. Odds are you'll guess correctly on two of the questions, and answer four incorrectly. That leaves you with a net positive of 2/3 a point (2 - (.333 x 4). It's not huge, but it's definitely better than nothing. Just remember to keep your guesses on the remaining answer choices as random as possible.


Additional Note: If you take a practice test, I highly recommend marking all the questions you guessed on so that you can later evaluate the success of your guessing strategies. This will also prevent you from just ignoring questions you got right by chance, which you should always revisit anyway.


To Sum Up...

The Spanish Subject Test has a competitive grading curve. You'll have to score in the high 700s to make it into a high percentile, so set high target scores and prep to achieve them.

Make sure you're confident in your comprehension of Spanish, have studied it for at least the recommended amount of time, and have a strong grasp of grammar and vocabulary. If you have all these language skills, then the test should not be overly difficult for you.

Instead, it will be a great opportunity to showcase your language skills to admissions committees and add a strong Subject Test score to your college applications.

¡Buena suerte!


¿Qué más?

Need to brush up on your ser conjugations? We've got you covered with our chart of ser conjugations for every tense.

Looking for a good SAT Spanish study notes? We've put together the best SAT Spanish Subject Test guide here.

What are the easiest SAT Subject Tests to take? This article answers that question from a few different angles, including the content of the test and how competitive the grading curves for each one are.

Are you applying to Ivy League schools or wondering if your test scores are good enough to get in? Check out this post on Subject Test Scores for the Ivy League and other selective colleges.

When are you taking the SAT or ACT? Check out this study plan that helps you schedule your prep a year or more in advance of the tests.


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 Safier
About the Author

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.

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