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What Are SAT Subject Tests? Why Should You Take Them?


Between the SAT, teacher recommendations, and your personal essay, there are lots of ingredients that go into crafting your applications. The SAT Subject Tests add one more layer to the complex recipe of applying to college.


This article is meant to clear up any confusion you have about the Subject Tests. By understanding exactly what these tests are testing, you'll be able to approach them with ease and confidence - because only the cake should end up in tiers.


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.


What Are SAT Subject Tests?

While the general SAT is meant to assess your reasoning skills and readiness for college, the SAT Subject Tests test your knowledge in specific subject areas. They are content-based and allow you to choose the subject(s) in which you excel and best demonstrate subject mastery. All of the Subject Tests are multiple choice and are one hour long.

The Subject Tests align with classes you are required or have elected to take in high school, like Biology, Literature, Math, and languages. Not only should your choice of Subject Test line up with your academic strengths, you also may want to choose a subject in which you're interested. As with all the other parts of your application, your Subject Tests give insight into who you are and what you like to study.

Click here for a more in-depth look at what SAT Subject Tests you should take and the most important considerations in making this decision. [link to PS article]


How Many SAT Subject Tests Are There?

There are 21 SAT Subject Tests, if you count Biology Ecological and Biology Molecular as two separate tests. They cover literature, math, science, history, and 9 languages.

Some options within these core subjects include the following:

  • History could be World History or U.S. History.
  • Science includes Physics, Chemistry, and Biology with an Ecological focus or Biology with a Molecular focus.
  • Math has a Level 1 and Level 2 test.
  • Language Subject Tests may or may not have a Listening component.

Here's the complete list:

English Literature Math Level 1 Math Level 2 U.S. History World History Biology Ecological Biology Molecular
Physics Chemistry French French with Listening Spanish Spanish with Listening Italian
Modern Hebrew Latin German German with Listening Chinese with Listening Korean with Listening Japanese with Listening


Let's look at a brief overview of some of the differences in format:

  • Biology E and Biology M share 60 core questions. Biology E has an additional 20 questions with an ecological emphasis. Biology M has 20 extra questions with a molecular focus.
  • Math Level 1 requires at least two years of algebra and one year of geometry. Math Level 2 requires those same classes plus some trigonometry and pre-calculus.
  • The French, Spanish, and German Subject Tests have both Listening and non-Listening options. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese have only Listening options, and the remaining have only non-Listening options.

Now that you have a sense of the differences among the subject tests, let's move onto the next important question. Should you take them to apply to college?




Why Take SAT Subject Tests?

Are you wondering, "Should I take SAT Subject Tests?" To answer your question, you should take Subject Tests if your college requires or recommends them as part of your application. Make sure you know not only how many Subject Tests your college wants, but also if they have a requirement or suggestion for which subjects you should take.

Technology-oriented colleges, for example, may prefer to see that you've taken math and science tests. MIT and CalTech actually require one math and one science Subject Test. MIT lets you take Math Level 1 or Level 2, while CalTech requires Level 2.

Selective liberal arts colleges often want to see a range of knowledge across academic domains, such as a math test paired with a literature or history test.

Some colleges may allow Subject Test scores to make up for a low general SAT score. Still others may use these tests for placement purposes, such as into a more advanced level of a language, once you arrive on campus. At Harvard, for example, 700 or better on a language test will waive its language requirement and allow you to choose among more advanced language courses.

You may also be applying to a school that has adopted a test flexible policy, like Colby College, Colorado College, Middlebury, and NYU. The school may let you send SAT Subject Test scores in place of the general SAT or ACT, if you feel these tests better represent your strengths and abilities. Check out the full list of test optional and flexible schools here.

Subject Tests can really strengthen your application, as they allow you to feature a particular strength, knowledge of a subject, and academic interest.

If you speak another language, the language tests are a great way to showcase your skills. As colleges are increasingly seeking to establish a multicultural class of students with global competencies, they will consider your ability to communicate in another language to be a strong and desirable asset to your candidacy.


How Do You Know If Subject Tests Are Required?

We've gathered a list of all the colleges that require SAT Subject Tests.

A small group of colleges, like Amherst, Brown, Duke, and Vassar, among others, will waive the SAT Subject Test requirement if you opt for the ACT. Since policies are continually changing, especially as schools become more and more flexible, make sure to double check your colleges' standardized testing requirements by researching their admissions website or speaking to an admissions officer directly.

Finally, you may elect to take the Subject Tests even if they're not required, if you want to demonstrate a particular strength to the admissions committee. This may especially be the case if the Subject Test connects to your future academic and/or professional goals. If you're excited to study Engineering, for example, you may be eager to showcase your math and science skills.

The list of colleges mentioned above indicates if a college does not require, but will consider SAT Subject Tests are part of your application. Ithaca, Smith, Wesleyan, to name a few, consider, but don't require, the SAT Subject Tests.


When Are the Subject Tests Offered?

The Subject Tests are offered on all the same dates as the general SAT except for March - in January, May, June, October, November, and December.

The science, math, literature, and math Subject Tests are offered on all these dates. The language tests are offered on some, but not all, of the dates. Some have more options, but Listening tests - German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean - are only offered in November.

Check out this chart of the exact dates of all the Subject Tests. It will also help you figure out your best schedule for taking the Subject Tests in and around the general SAT or ACT and all your other activities and obligations.

You can take up to 3 Subject Tests in one day (with some conditions), so you can take them all together or choose to spread them out over different dates.

The best time to take a Subject Test is often near the end of the school year in which you've been studying that subject and may also be studying for a final or AP exam. You don't have to wait until junior year, but instead should take the Subject Tests whenever you are ready and the content is fresh in your mind.

Hopefully this overview of the what, how, why, and when of SAT Subject Tests makes it easier for you to add this extra component into the college application mix. By following the links provided, you'll become an expert in everything you need to know to conquer the SAT Subject Tests.


What's Next?

Perhaps you've studied lots of the subjects covered by the Subject Tests and aren't sure how to choose. This article helps you answer that important question: which SAT Subject Test should you take?

Are you also taking the general SAT and ACT? In order to prepare, first you need to know when you have time to study. This article helps you figure out your study plan and when you should start preparing.



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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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