We tend to emphasize the ACT or SAT to such a degree that SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT II Subject Tests and, before that, as Achievement Tests) stand out in my mind as the forgotten stepchild of college admissions testing. Students squeeze them in almost as an afterthought, as they put together their college lists and see that some of the schools they are considering ask for them. In fact, multiple top-tier institutions require or recommend that applicants take SAT Subject Tests, which means that these assessments require the same careful consideration and preparation that we devote to the ACT or SAT.
The College Board introduced Achievement Tests in 1937 as a way to “measure how much a student knows about a particular academic subject, such as biology or American history.” [This quote comes from a College Board website page that I cited in my book, The Thinking Parent’s Guide to College Admissions (Penguin 2006); I have retained the quote here even though the page no longer exists because it effectively summarizes the origins of these tests.] SAT Subject Tests last one hour each and ask multiple-choice questions. Scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 800 points. Students may choose which scores to report to colleges (through a program called “Score Choice“), although some colleges require submission of all scores for all standardized tests that an applicant has taken (see Georgetown, for example). To protect against winding up with a low score on record, the College Board allows students to cancel their scores within a few days of test administration. Students may take up to three SAT Subject Tests in a single day, although not on the same day that they are taking the regular SAT. Those who complete more than one SAT Subject Test in a single sitting and want to cancel one of their scores must cancel all of them—an incentive to plan well and take only one SAT Subject Test on any given test date.
While many selective colleges and universities require candidates to take either the ACT or SAT, most only “recommend” SAT Subject Tests at this point, a maddening choice of words that leaves the decision to already anxious students. I advise any clients applying to these schools from oversaturated areas like New York City and who have access to an abundance of resources to take the recommended number of SAT Subject Tests. Young people applying from under-represented areas or populations, on the other hand, or for whom preparing for and taking these tests could present a hardship do not have to feel that same sense of urgency. Note that programs with a special academic focus sometimes mandate specific SAT Subject Tests. Cornell Engineering, for example, requires candidates to take Mathematics (any level) and a science of their choice. Test-optional schools like Brandeis sometimes allow students to choose what they want to submit from a menu of testing options that includes SAT Subject Tests.
If you feel that your child will need SAT Subject Tests—or you just want to leave as many options open as possible—consider seriously whether he stands to do well on them. Remember, the institutions that generally ask for SAT Subject Tests stand out as some of the best in the country, so doing well for an unhooked applicant means breaking the 90th percentile. Students need to know the material like the back of their hand and need to review for the tests with consistency and rigor over three to six months. Test preparation should include repeated mock testing, with ongoing monitoring of how close your child is landing to his target score. Your child should only sit for the test if he has accrued a track record of consistent mock test scores that hit his target score—there should be no surprises!
Failure to plan ahead, beginning as early as grade nine, can result in a testing pile-up at the end of 11th grade. A testing pileup can incur an opportunity cost in other areas important to the college admissions process, like grades, ACT/SAT scores, performance on AP or IB exams, and more. Timing thus takes on critical importance.
Young people having trouble identifying subjects in which they think they can break the 90th percentile should consider taking Math Level I and Literature, preferably in August just before the start of senior year and after having taken the ACT or SAT in the spring (with continued rigorous test preparation in the interval between the spring and the August test dates). By the same token, students should keep in mind that Math Level II, chemistry, physics, and languages with listening attract high-octane students against whom other test takers must compete for a percentile ranking. As a general rule, only native speakers or those who have lived and functioned using a language overseas should take a language test with listening and only those with perfect or near-perfect mathematics scores on the PSAT or first round of ACT/SAT testing should register for Math Level II.
As your rules of the road, keep in mind that SAT Subject Tests only make sense to take if your child will do extremely well. They require a lot of additional preparation, above and beyond coursework in school (regardless of what your child’s teacher says). Take them seriously if you plan for your child to take them at all and plan accordingly, ideally as early as grade nine.