Decisions, decisions! Not only do you have to make up your mind about which Subject Tests to take, you also have to decide how many Subject Tests to take. In this guide we'll look at the most important considerations when signing up for Subject Tests so you can be confident about your choice.
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.
How Many SAT Subject Tests Should You Take?
This isn't as simple a question to answer as you may think; there are actually multiple factors to take into consideration. To make it easy for you, we'll go over all the key questions you should ask yourself.
#1: What Do the Colleges You're Applying to Require?
The most important factor in answering this question is the requirement of your colleges. Schools require zero, one, two, or three Subject Tests. The most selective schools usually require two Subject Tests. Georgetown is one exception that comes to mind - they want to see three.
If a college asks for two, you probably shouldn't send along more than two. If you do take more than is required, the college should look at your highest scores. It will also consider your highest score if you sit for the same test more than once, but it might appear less strong to admissions officers if they see you took several tries to achieve a certain score.
Besides its required number of Subject Tests, you also need to know if the colleges you're applying to have any specific requirements or expectations for which ones you take. Subject Tests requirements might differ by academic program. An engineering program, for example, probably wants to see math and science. Technical schools like MIT and CalTech require one math and one science Subject Test to apply.
Check out our comprehensive list of all the colleges that require, recommend, or consider the SAT Subject Tests here. Remember, when a college "recommends," but does not require the tests, it's still a good idea to take them! It shows that you're putting forth extra effort and challenging yourself, along with demonstrating your academic strengths.
Plus many colleges appreciate Subject Tests as a somewhat objective measure of your learning. While high school classes and grading systems vary across the country, the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are a nationally accepted standard meant to test students' academic knowledge on a level playing field.
Once you're confident about the requirements of your colleges, you can reflect on your strengths and interests.
#2: Which Subjects Do You Know Well?
Are you intrigued by the process through which plants turn sunlight into food? Do you love learning about population flows within an ecosystem? Are word problems fun head-scratchers, or would you rather be reading Jane Austen and Mark Twain?
By the way, if you answered "yes" to any of the above, my Subject Test recommendations would be Biological Molecular, Biology Ecological, Math, and Literature, respectively!
Reflect on what you know, what you like, and in what subject areas you can perform well. Subject Tests are your opportunity to show that you've studied and gained significant knowledge in a particular area. Choose wisely so that you not only get a high score to add to your application, but you also add another dimension to the story of who you are and what you like.
If you feel you excel in several subjects, you may want to take three tests in one day (the maximum, unless there are Listening tests involved). Then, time permitting, you can choose your highest scores and send them along to your colleges. However, you don't want to give yourself unnecessary stress or waste time studying for a test you don't need. When Harvard says they want two tests, they want two - not four!
To learn what makes a good score for each Subject Test, check out the full breakdown here.
Another important consideration in choosing and preparing for the Subject Tests is how much time you can realistically devote to studying.
No need to over-commit!
#3: How Much Time Do You Have to Prep?
As I mentioned above, there's no need to over-commit yourself and exceed requirements. Admissions officers are busy looking at thousands of applications. They want to see the number they require or recommend: no more, no less.
Since you can take up to three in one day, you may feel that taking three will benefit you. If that's the case, make sure you have a thoughtful study plan in place. You wouldn't want your prep time to take away from studying for the general SAT, AP exams, or finals.
At the same time, sometimes Subject Test and AP prep so closely align that you can kill two birds with one stone. Speaking of all these other tests you have to take, when should you fit in the Subject Tests, anyway? Click here for tips and strategies for choosing your SAT Subject Test dates for 2015 and 2016 and planning an effective study schedule.
To Sum Up...
Just how many SAT Subject Tests do you need to take? Most selective schools require two Subject Tests, but check with your school of interest to make sure and find out about any special instructions. Some schools have specific tests in mind, others want to see a range of subjects, and others differ depending on the program to which you're applying.
While you may feel like no Subject Test requirement means you're off the hook, your school might still recommend them. For all intents and purposes, let's just interpret "recommends" as "requires." Unless you have a really good reason or the tests present a financial barrier*, you should still abide by your school's "recommendation" and send along your scores.
*If finances make it difficult for you to take the tests, speak with admissions officers and investigate whether you qualify for an SAT fee waiver.
All the Subjects Tests are one hour in length, but the number and type of questions you have to answer in that hour vary by test. For a breakdown of exactly "how long" each test really is, check out this article here.
For more on the differences between the tests, find answers to all your questions about "What are the SAT Subject Tests?" here.
Do you know yet if you're taking the SAT or the ACT? This article offers a full technical breakdown of the differences between the two tests so you can figure out which one is best for you and your college applications.
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.