How to choose the right SAT Subject Tests

Posted on 18th August 2016

SAT Subject Tests are entrance tests for US colleges that are sometimes required in addition to the main SAT or ACT. They are all an hour long and entirely multiple choice. They are in a range of subjects (see here), and are each marked out of 800, like the sections on the SAT.

However, how many you have to take (if any at all) depends on which colleges you’re applying to as not all colleges requirements are the same. This sounds confusing (and it is!) but essentially, colleges will fall into one of three categories:
  1.     Some colleges ask for 1, some for 2, and some for 3 Subject Tests.
  2.     Some colleges will say you don’t need to take them if you take the ACT with writing
  3.     Some colleges say that they are “recommended”, or “optional”, rather than “required”. 
There is a good list of the different college requirements here, but it’s likely that you will end up applying to at least one college that requires Subject Tests (or at least recommends them). In this instance, you will probably be asked for two tests.

A Good Score
So what is a ‘good’ score on the Subject Tests? There is no absolute answer to this, as different colleges apply different weightings to different tests (and scores are always looked at in conjunction with other test scores and your application as a whole). Generally speaking, however, 500 is the mean score and 650 is good enough for most colleges. 700 is an extremely good score!

It is worth bearing in mind though that some tests have what we call ‘tighter curves’ than others. This means that most people taking a particular test tend to score highly, so that it’s more difficult to get the high scaled scores. Get just a couple of questions wrong and your scaled score will drop off quickly. An example of this is Spanish, which a lot of students in the US take, mostly native speakers.

Choosing SAT Subject Tests
So how do you choose which subjects to do? The answer depends on two competing priorities:
  1.     Show that you have a good breadth of academic talents;
  2.     Show that you can score highly.
If, for example, you are studying maths and physics at A-Level, then taking the Math and Physics Subject Tests won’t really show off any skills to colleges they weren’t already aware of. But if you can take the English Literature and French Subject Tests, this shows that you have other strings to your bow. That said, you should only take those tests if you can score reasonably well in them! In summary: try to show breadth of knowledge, but always aim to score well.

One caveat to this is if you’re applying to engineering school. In this case, you should take Math (L2) and Physics - colleges would find it weird if you didn’t! Another point is with regards to languages: if you already speak one of the languages in the Subject Tests, by all means take that test, but choose another two in addition. It will be obvious to the admissions officers that you can score well in that language.

A final note is with regards the History Subject Tests: there are two versions: US History and World History. The former covers European history of the USA, whereas the latter covers all of human history worldwide! Unless you are at an American school you are unlikely to have covered US history in anything like sufficient depth for the US history test. The world history test is less esoteric, but even if you’ve studied history at A-level or IB, you’ve probably only covered the last few hundred years. However, it is possible to study for the World History test and do very well: the key is in memorising the main events throughout history, and then interpolating from there. Just make sure you prepare properly and way in advance!

To sum up: don’t be worried about Subject Tests. Just make sure you know how many you have to take according to the colleges you’re applying to (and whether they want any specific subjects). Once you know this, choose subjects that show something different to your school subjects (if possible), and then score well in them. As always, make sure you prepare properly in plenty of time and get in touch if you have any questions!
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