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SAT Subject Tests: Six Things to Know

Posted by Kimberly Hewitt on Thursday, May 02, 2019



SAT Subject Tests could be an important part of your college admissions profile.  In this post, we'll cover critical things to know about SAT Subject Tests—like the fact that there is still a penalty for guessing, unlike the regular SAT.  We'll also discuss other FAQs from Alaska students, including which colleges require SAT Subject Tests, what makes for a competitive score.



What are SAT Subject Tests?

In contrast to the SAT Reasoning Test, SAT Subject Tests (formerly called SAT IIs) are hour-long, multiple-choice tests in specific subjects taught in school. SAT Subject Tests are another standardized test that some colleges use to evaluate your application. Some colleges also use SAT Subject Tests as placement tests for various classes.


Common SAT Subject Tests include Math (Level 1 and Level 2), Chemistry, Biology (Ecological and Molecular versions), Physics, and English Literature.


Do I need to take SAT Subject Tests?  Which colleges require them?

Many top tier and highly selective schools require or recommend SAT Subject Tests. Even at colleges that do not require SAT Subject Tests in general, certain specialized programs within those colleges (such as pre-med) may require or recommend SAT Subject Tests for admission purposes.


In all, about 8.5% of colleges regard SAT Subject Test Scores as holding "considerable" or "moderate" importance in the admissions process, according to NACAC's 2017 "State of College Admission" report

Popular colleges where Alaska students apply that require SAT Subject Tests include MIT.  Colleges that recommend or “strongly recommend” SAT Subject Tests include  or recommend SAT Subject Tests include Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Emory, Georgetown, Harvard,
Penn, Princeton,
and Yale. Check the admissions website for any college you are considering to verify its exact requirements or recommendations for SAT Subject Tests.


P.S. If a college advises applicants that SAT Subject Tests are "recommended" or "encouraged," it's a good idea to submit them.


Which SAT Subject Tests should I take?

Colleges that recommend or require SAT Subject Tests often suggest or specify two tests, sometimes three.   If you have a choice, take the tests where you will score the highest and where you'll demonstrate your strength in the field you are planning to major in.  For example, if you are planning to be a pre-med major, it would be appropriate to submit scores from the Math Level 2 test, along with a science test (Biology or Chemistry). 


However, each college has its own specific requirements; see each college’s admissions website for details.  As one example, Princeton generally recommends two SAT Subject Tests of the applicant's choosing for all applications—but engineering applicants are specifically advised to submit one math Subject Test and one Subject Test in either chemistry or physics.


When should I take them?

The most optimal time to take a given SAT Subject Test is near the end of the corresponding high school class since the material will be fresh and you will have recently finished studying for the in-class final exam. For example, the best time to make the Chemistry SAT Subject Test would be near the end of your high school chemistry class.

The May and June test dates are a great time to take SAT Subject Tests because they are at the end of the academic year.  If you miss the May and June test dates after finishing a class, prepare over the summer and take the corresponding SAT Subject Test in August.

SAT Subject Tests are offered on the same dates as the SAT Reasoning Test (except for the March test date).   You can take up to 3 SAT Subject Tests on any given test date (but you cannot take any SAT Subject Tests on the date you take the SAT Reasoning Test). See the College Board website for test dates and SAT Subject Test availability.


What is a "good" SAT Subject Test score?

SAT Subject Tests are scored from 200-800, with 800 being the highest score. Unlike with the SAT Reasoning Test, most colleges do not publish data on the SAT Subject Test scores of their admitted students. That said, a score in the low- to mid-700s is usually quite competitive.


The College Board publishes the 75th percentile scores of SAT Subject Tests nationally each year. If you achieve this score, it means that your score exceeds the scores of 75% of the testing population for that test. For the nationwide 2016-2018 cohorts of college-bound seniors, here are the 75th percentile scores:


Test 75th Percentile Score

Your Percentile
If You Score

Math Level 1 700 92
Math Level 2 790 60
Chemistry 760 72
Biology-E (Ecological) 700 88
Biology-M (Molecular) 740 79
Physics 760 70
U.S. History 730 83
English Literature 700 91
Spanish 740 77
Spanish/Listening 750 74

While you should aim to score above these benchmarks to maximize your competitiveness, keep in mind that the 75th percentile is not an explicit minimum requirement for admission to any college.  Colleges evaluate applicants holistically, and SAT Subject Test scores are just one factor among many others considered.


How should I prepare?

Apart from taking the corresponding high school class(es), it’s important to go into SAT Subject Tests knowing at least a few critical basics about the test. For each SAT Subject Test you’ll take, determine and study the specific subject matter tested, get familiar with the directions, and be aware that some strategy is involved—for example, SAT Subject Tests impose a penalty for guessing incorrectly. You should also plan to take at least one practice test to build pacing skills, as well as gauge your knowledge and readiness.


As a critical reminder, SAT Subject Tests impose a penalty for guessing incorrectly, unlike the regular SAT, which eliminated its wrong-answer penalty in March 2016.  On SAT Subject Tests, students:

  • are penalized by 1/4 raw point for guessing incorrectly,
  • earn 1 raw point for answering correctly, and
  • earn zero raw points for skipping a question.


If you can confidently eliminate two or more answer choices, it is appropriate to guess on the SAT Subject Test.

For an extra edge, consider Frontier Tutoring's SAT Subject Test Prep programs, where you’ll get six hours of one-on-one, individualized instruction in preparation for each test.


Get free, expert guidance on your testing plans and strategy.

Get together with an expert to go over your entire college admissions strategy—including your academic, testing, and extracurricular activity plans.  North to My Future, your free, individualized college admissions strategy session, is available at our Anchorage Center.


Sign Up for My FREE College Planning Meeting


Additional Resources 

SAT Subject Test Prep

The Ultimate Guide to Designing Your SAT & ACT Prep Strategy


Topics: SAT Subject Tests, 11th Grade - Juniors, 10th Grade - Sophomores, 12th Grade - Seniors, College Admissions: Test Well, Anchorage