Are your sights set on the Ivy League or other top universities? As you're well aware, these schools are the most selective in the country. Because of this, you want to carefully craft every aspect of your application so it's as strong as it can possibly be.
Let's look at one important part of your application: your SAT Subject Test scores. In this article, we'll go over the Subject Test requirements and expectations of top schools, and offer some advice on how to balance these tests with everything else you've got going on in your busy life.
SAT Subject Test Requirements at Top Schools
Let's take a look at the eight Ivy League schools—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, UPenn, and Yale—along with some other top schools, such as Duke, Georgetown, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.
All of these schools generally recommend or require two SAT Subject Tests, with the exception of Georgetown, which asks for three. Lately, though, there's been an increase in schools, including top-ranked ones, making SAT Subject Tests completely optional.
For example, although Harvard typically requires two Subject Tests, it now says that the Subject Tests are optional for certain applicants:
"While we normally require two SAT Subject Tests, you may apply without them if the cost of the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them."
Stanford similarly recommends, but does not require, SAT Subject Test scores.
Even though you can opt out, both Harvard and Stanford strongly recommend taking Subject Tests and sending in your scores. If these tests present a financial barrier to you, definitely speak with admissions officers and get their advice. You can also explore your options for fee waivers.
The only schools on this list that do not emphasize SAT Subject Tests are the University of Chicago and Columbia. The University of Chicago's policy on Subject Tests is as follows:
"If you have done exceptionally well on a particular Subject Test and would like to show us, feel free to send us that score. However, Subject Tests are truly optional, and not sending us Subject Test scores will not hurt your application."
Columbia used to require Subject Tests but made them optional beginning in 2016.
So what are the Subject Test requirements and special instructions for other top schools? Below is a handy chart you can use to find out top schools' policies regarding SAT Subject Tests.
Note: The column "ACT Replace Subject Tests?" means that this school accepts the ACT + Writing in lieu of the SAT + two Subject Tests. In other words, you can submit the ACT + Writing and not have to worry about taking any SAT Subject Tests. If this space has a dash in it, you'll need to send in the number of Subject Tests required, regardless of whether you take the SAT or ACT.
|School||# of Subject Tests Recommended/Required||ACT Replace Subject Tests?||Notes From School|
|Brown||2 recommended||—||"If you are applying to the Program in Liberal Medical Education, we strongly recommend one subject test in either Biology, Chemistry or Physics."|
|Columbia||None||—||"SAT Subject Test and other proficiency exam scores are not required by Columbia, but we will accept your results if you choose to submit them ... You will not be at a disadvantage should you choose not to take these optional tests or submit the scores to Columbia."|
|Cornell||Varies by program||—||Applicants must submit either 0 or 2 Subject Tests, depending on the college.|
|Dartmouth||2 recommended||—||"We recommend that you submit 2 SAT Subject Test scores to help us better understand your academic strengths...We encourage you take tests in the two subjects you like the most."|
|Duke||2 recommended||Yes||"Applicants to the Pratt School of Engineering who take the SAT are strongly recommended to take one SAT Subject Test in Mathematics (level 1 or level 2). Applicants to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences who take the SAT may take any two SAT Subject Tests."|
|Georgetown||3 recommended||—||"It is strongly recommended that all candidates, whether they have taken the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT, submit three SAT Subject Tests scores."|
"While we recommend that you submit two SAT Subject Tests, you may apply without them if the cost of the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them. ... International students generally benefit from submitting Subject Tests and should take them if possible."
|MIT||2 required||—||All applicants must take one Subject Test in math (level 1 or 2) and one in science (biology e/m, chemistry, or physics).|
|Princeton||2 recommended||—||Engineering candidates are advised to take a math (level 1 or 2) Subject Test and the chemistry or physics test.|
|Stanford||2 recommended||—||"SAT Subject Tests are optional. Because SAT Subject Test scores can highlight your areas of strength, we welcome the self-reporting of these results in your application."|
|University of Chicago||None||—||"Subject Tests are truly optional, and not sending us Subject Test scores will not hurt your application."|
|University of Pennsylvania||2 recommended||—||
|Yale||Recommended (no # specified)||—||"SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be disadvantaged in the application process. We will consider your application on the basis of the other testing, and all the other information, that we receive with your application."|
Until recently, most of these schools required three Subject Tests. Now, Georgetown is the last one with this rather high-stakes expectation.
If you're taking the ACT instead of the SAT, you might not have to send Subject Test scores at all. This is the case at Duke, where you can submit your ACT with Writing score instead of your SAT and SAT Subject Test scores.
But if you do have to send two or three Subject Test scores, which tests should you take?
Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Which SAT Subject Tests Should You Take?
Most Ivy League schools don't have definitive requirements for which Subject Tests you should take; they simply recommend or require two, and allow you to choose which ones to take.
However, some schools prefer to see a range of knowledge, in which case it's best to take Subject Tests that cover a variety of topics. For example, you could pair a humanities or social studies test (such as literature or history) with a math or science test (such as physics or chemistry). Many top-ranked schools are looking for well-rounded students who excel in a variety of subject areas.
At the same time, the choice is largely up to you. The Subject Tests are a chance to demonstrate your subject mastery and express your interests and academic skills in a particular subject area. Therefore if you've indicated a major, then it's a smart idea to take (and score highly on) the corresponding Subject Test.
Just as with the rest of your application, your choice of Subject Test can communicate something about your interests and future goals. It might also be an opportunity to strengthen an area in which you wish your course grade or AP exam score were higher.
The language tests can be a valuable indicator of your language skills, which admissions officers appreciate in our increasingly globalized world. If you can present a strong language score, then you can showcase your multilingualism and maybe even advance to higher levels of language courses once you arrive at the school.
However, some schools warn against taking an SAT Subject Test in your first language if it's not English. A score in another subject area would be more helpful as it more accurately indicates your academic potential.
If you're applying to schools with an engineering or technical focus such as MIT and Caltech, you'll likely need to submit a combination of math and science Subject Tests. MIT says students must take one math test (level I or II) and one science test (biology, chemistry, or physics). Caltech also wants one math and one science test but will only accept Math Level II.
For more considerations when choosing the best Subject Tests for you, check out our guide. Once you've decided on your SAT Subject Tests, though, what scores should you aim for?
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What's a Good SAT Subject Test Score for the Ivy League?
Selective schools don't usually publicize cutoffs for test scores; instead, they insist that they take a holistic approach to applications and consider all parts within the context of the greater whole.
However, as you know, there are many more qualified candidates than there are spaces at these schools. With this in mind, you want your application to be exceptional and stand out as especially strong and unique—which is why getting a high SAT Subject Test score is so important.
But just how high should you be aiming? This mainly depends on the school you're applying to. For example, MIT has said that its admitted students score between 720 and 800 on science Subject Tests, whereas admitted applicants to Princeton generally score 710-790 on Subject Tests.
Selective institutions expect to see scores in the 700s, usually in the upper half of the 700s. For a further breakdown of how scores translate to percentiles, read our article about good Subject Test scores. With this data, you can aim to be in 80th or 90th percentile of test takers in the tests you've chosen.
If you're planning to major in math or science or are applying to schools like MIT, an 800 on your math and science Subject Tests would be really helpful, even expected, for your application.
As you prep for the Subject Tests and the SAT or ACT, which one should take priority? We answer this question next.
How Important Are Subject Tests Compared to the SAT/ACT?
Here's the short answer: SAT Subject Tests are not nearly as important as the SAT/ACT is.
From my understanding, the SAT/ACT accounts for as much as 30% of your application, while the Subject Tests only account for about 2% to 5%. Therefore the SAT/ACT should be your top priority when it comes to college admission tests.
Luckily, the SAT Subject Tests should align with the work and studying you're already doing in your classes. It's usually better to take a Subject Test near the end of the school year since you'll have been studying that subject all year. It also helps if the Subject Test aligns with your studying for finals and/or AP exams.
Although SAT Subject Tests aren't a super important part of your application, you still need to take them seriously if you want to gain admission to the Ivy League. To get into these highly selective institutions, every component of your application must be outstanding.
Plus, since you have some choice in the matter, you're expected to choose the subjects in which you can demonstrate subject mastery. A low score would seem like an outlier and might raise doubts about your academic abilities and potential in that subject.
While schools are becoming more and more flexible in their standardized testing policies, Subject Test scores can give a big boost to your application if you choose the right test(s) and excel in the relevant subjects in school. Do this, and these tests shouldn't require too much additional prep in order to achieve strong-enough scores for Ivy League schools.
In closing, let's discuss a few strategies you can use to balance your SAT Subject Tests schedule during the college application process.
How to Juggle SAT Subject Tests and College Applications
If you're gearing up to apply to Ivy League schools, you likely lead an active and busy life. Whether it's homework, clubs, sports, or all the prep work for applying to college, you have a lot of activities to juggle. And adding Subject Tests on top of everything can make you feel like you're going to drop something.
As long as you approach these tests with a thoughtful plan, you should be able to maintain balance and achieve your goals. Being able to independently manage your time, while still leaving time for breaks and fun, is an important skill you'll need in college. By designing a schedule for yourself in high school, you'll be able to further develop these useful life skills.
First, read our article on when to take the SAT Subject Tests. You can get all three done in one day, but you don't have to do them all at once or wait until junior year to take them. A 9th grade biology class, for example, could adequately prepare you for the Biology Subject Test. Or you might feel ready to take the Math Level I test right after sophomore year.
Even if you do decide to wait until junior year to take them, it's a good idea to align them with your finals and AP exams so that your studying can kill two birds with one stone. By planning when you will take and study for the Subject Tests (alongside your prep plan for the SAT), you can allocate time in advance to give you a more balanced schedule.
You might be thinking, "Making the schedule is the easy part. The hard part is sticking to it." This is true—one day you might be motivated by your dream of an acceptance letter in a giant envelope arriving at your door, while the next day that letter might seem like an image from a future life, far removed from your present one.
There are no easy shortcuts here—staying on task requires motivation. But even more importantly it requires discipline. It requires the ability to push through your resistance and all the things you might rather be doing at that moment, and commit yourself to studying. Remember that you have clearly outlined your goals and want to do everything you can to achieve them.
The College Board has a useful breakdown of the Subject Tests and sample questions here. Check out our other resources for helpful study strategies, such as identifying your weaknesses and dividing each section into small, manageable goals.
What are the average scores for all SAT Subject Tests? Take a look at this data here, and learn why it's important to know this as you choose your Subject Tests.
Are you aiming for perfection on the SAT? Read our expert guide on the key strategies and tips you need to score a perfect 1600.
If you're taking the ACT, this article by a full scorer explains how you can achieve the elusive 36.
Need a little extra help prepping for your Subject Tests? We have the industry's leading SAT Subject Test prep programs (for all non-language Subject Tests). Built by Harvard grads and SAT Subject Test full or 99th %ile scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so that you get the most effective prep possible.
Learn more about our Subject Test products below:
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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.