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SAT Subject Tests — Essential Information for High Schoolers

 In SAT, SAT Subject Tests

With all the talk about the SAT and ACT, it’s sometimes easy to forget about SAT Subject Tests. As of this writing, only one U.S. college (M.I.T.) requires Subject Tests from all applicants, while 14 others recommend them from all applicants. Also, 15 schools require or recommend Subject Tests when applying to specific programs within the college.

Subject Tests Required by U.S. Colleges (Feb 2020)

Most test-flexible schools give applicants the option of sending SAT Subject Test scores instead of the SAT or ACT scores to fulfill the schools’ testing requirements. The chart below shows a few top-tier schools with test-flexible policies. (Remember to always check with the school first, as policies can change.)

top tier test flexible schools

 THE BASICS OF SUBJECT TESTS

Administered by the College Board, there are currently 20 tests to choose from, including math, literature, various foreign languages, and several different scientific disciplines (biology, chemistry, and physics). While the number of questions per test varies, all of the questions are multiple-choice.  All of the SAT Subject Tests are one hour long when taken without accommodations. If students receive accommodations from the College Board for the SAT or PSAT, students will be given those same accommodations for their Subject Tests.

HOW ARE THEY SCORED?

As students take an SAT Subject Test, they earn a “raw” score. This is calculated as follows:

+1 point for each correct answer

-1/4 point for each incorrect answer

0 points for each skipped answer

The raw score is then converted to a scaled score from 200-800 points. Since the difficulty of test forms may be slightly different, converting the raw scores to scaled scores allows student performance to be compared between different administrations. Scores are released within two weeks after the test, except for the early June test date when scores don’t come out until mid-July.

WHAT’S A ‘GOOD’ SAT SUBJECT TEST SCORE?

The chart below shows the average scores by Subject Test topic for the past three graduation years (data source: College Board).  When looking at these, remember to consider that these are average scores of a high achieving group of students. Colleges understand this and focus on the scaled score and not the percentile score.

What makes a ‘good’ score varies by test topic. A general rule of thumb is that a scaled score in the 650+ range is good, but for some selective schools, only a score of 700 or greater is considered a ‘good’ score.

However, it’s important to recognize that different tests have different score curves, Math II being a case in point. Math II is a very advanced topic and you’re comparing your score with students who consider themselves strong in Math and have opted into taking the Math II (typically less than 2% of students who take the SAT also take the Math II Subject Test).

One final thing to keep in mind is that colleges will view Subject Test scores in the context of other factors unique to the student, such as, which year of high school they took the test and what was their curriculum before taking the test.

WHY TAKE SUBJECT TESTS?

Subject Tests offer students the opportunity to showcase their mastery in a variety of academic topics.

Students who take them often fit in one or more of these categories:

1.    They’re applying to selective schools where they’re required or recommended.

2.    They’re applying to a specific program within the college, (e.g. engineering), where a specific Subject Test is required or recommended.

3.    They want to showcase their passion for and/or mastery of a subject area.

4.    They performed well in the corresponding AP class and decided to take the Subject Test in the same topic shortly afterward, to have it in their “back pocket” for future applications.

Be sure to consult your school counselor or Summit Program Director when making this decision. A vast majority of students aren’t going to need Subject Tests.

WHEN DO STUDENTS TAKE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

Students will generally take SAT Subject Tests near the end of a course on the same subject. For instance, if a student is taking Honors Biology, it would be a good idea to consider taking a Biology Subject Test while the content is fresh in their mind. Of course, students may also prepare for Subject Tests without taking a class on the same subject, if they wish.

Students who are preparing for an AP exam may consider taking the appropriate Subject Test as well.  Although taking both tests seems redundant, those schools which require Subject Tests will not accept AP scores in place of Subject Test scores, (except for Georgetown). Since AP classes and AP exams are created to reflect the college-level curriculum and Subject Tests are created for the high-school level, students’ preparation for AP exams will help with their Subject Tests, and vice versa. Most AP students find the Subject Tests reasonably manageable.

Subject Tests are administered on the same days that the SAT is scheduled, except for the March SAT when Subject Tests are not offered at all. Students may take up to three Subject Tests in a day, but they cannot take the SAT and Subject Tests on the same date, and can only take one Biology Subject Test on the same date. The College Board charges a registration fee for the test date plus a per Subject fee for each test taken. For the 2019-2020 school year, those fees are $26 and $22, respectively.

HELPFUL TIP: Even if you’ve only signed up for one Subject Test on a particular date, on test day you have the option to take additional ones or to change the topic of the Subject Test you signed up for. Similarly, on test day, you also have the option to take fewer Subject Tests than you registered for.

As a reminder, students should always discuss their testing plans with guidance counselors, educational consultants, or their Summit Program Director. If you are interested in taking a practice Subject Test or wish to get some one-on-one tutoring sessions in before an upcoming test, Summit is here to help!

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