SAT Subject Tests: Another Testing Task or an Opportunity to Shine?

A high score on an SAT Subject Test is a valuable asset for applicants to certain highly selective schools.  Among other things, the Subject Tests are an opportunity to demonstrate academic excellence in a particular area, which can help set an application apart.  Making the most of this opportunity can be difficult, however.  Most students take SAT Subject Tests in the late spring, a busy time of year when AP exams and final exams already claim considerable time and attention.  In addition, the Subject Tests involve choice and subjectivity (regarding whether to take them and which ones to take).  When student and parent fatigue surrounding pre-college planning is already quite high, the need to make additional decisions can feel overwhelming.  Armed with a little knowledge and guidance, however, students can make informed choices and increase their chances of success on these tests. What Do Colleges Expect When it Comes to the SAT Subject Tests?

This initial question of what colleges expect leaves many feeling frustrated. The expectations and stated policies differ (sometimes quite significantly) from school to school.  Some colleges “require” SAT Subject Tests across the board; others only require the tests for students who take the SAT, but not for those who take the ACT.  Still others merely “recommend” or “consider” the Subject Tests – terms that can have considerably different meanings, depending on the school and the applicant pool.

Recently, we spoke to a number of highly selective colleges about how they view the SAT Subject Tests and how these views might evolve as the broader testing landscape continues to change. Some colleges described the Subject Tests as a an additional data point that can be helpful for some students, while others stated more definitively that Subject Test scores are an important part of all students’ applications.  We heard from one highly selective college that the Subject Tests are not a significant factor in admissions, in part because the admissions committee would rather see a high grade from an entire semester of work in a class than a score from one testing date in the corresponding subject.

With so much variability, there is no substitute for school-specific research. Students who have first reviewed a school’s written policies on the SAT Subject Tests (for example, on the college website), can then call the admissions office to ask informed follow-up questions that uncover the subtler, more subjective aspects of how the school views these tests.  How much weight does the admissions committee give them? What does the score, and the choice of subject, reflect about the student in the eyes of the admissions committee? Are certain subjects preferred, even if not specifically required?

Students who conduct this research will be able to make more informed and confident decisions about which Subject Tests to take (and even whether to take them at all).  Moreover, student efforts to understand a school’s policy on this particularly idiosyncratic aspect of the admissions process will help demonstrate interest in the school.

Accounting for the Changing Testing Landscape

To add yet another layer of complexity, the redesigned SAT will replace the current SAT in March 2016.  Will colleges revise their policies on the SAT Subject Tests once the new SAT is released?  In our recent conversations with highly selective schools, most said that it is simply too early to predict what changes, if any, will be made to their policies.  Some colleges tentatively indicated that the SAT Subject Test in Math might be used to help confirm Math section scores on the redesigned SAT when it is first released.  Other colleges stated that changes to their policies, if any, will become available in coming months once more is known about the redesigned SAT.

For this reason, rising juniors should ensure that they stay up to date on any shifts in school policy and approach that might occur next year.  For now, students wishing to plan ahead can safely assume that successful performance on the Subject Tests will continue to be an asset for applicants at highly selective schools.  Colleges that consider the Subject Tests to be a helpful data point will likely continue to do so.

In light of the current SAT overhaul, some have started to wonder whether the Subject Tests are due for a revision as well.  At this point, the College Board, which writes the SAT tests and AP exams, has not announced any changes to the Subject Tests.  With the College Board consumed by the major redesign of the SAT, as well as changes to the AP exams, it appears that the Subject Tests will remain consistent, at least for now.  We will continue to keep our ear to the ground for any rumblings of change to the SAT Subject Tests that may occur in the future.

Making Sense of All the The Subject Choices

Even students who know their schools’ policies forwards and backwards probably will not have concrete answers about which tests to take.  SAT Subject Tests are offered in U.S. and world history, literature, two levels of mathematics, the sciences, and a variety of foreign languages.  The decision about which tests to take rests on a set of highly individualized factors related to the student’s academic strengths, college list, and intended course of study in college.

The first step is to refer back to one’s own college-specific research.  Are any specific SAT Subject Tests required by the schools on the student’s list?  Sometimes, specific Subject Tests are not required by the university as a whole, but are required for students applying to a specific program, specialized school, or major within the university.  For example, one of the math subject tests is often required for students applying to engineering schools.

The next step involves some honest self-assessment.  Students should choose subject tests where they will perform their best.  Ideally, scores on the SAT Subject Tests will help demonstrate exceptional skill in a particular area.  Students should select subjects that align with their academic strengths, and for which they have completed the relevant high school coursework.  For example, a student who excels in the sciences and will be completing AP Chemistry this year, might strongly consider taking the Chemistry Subject Test in June.

Understanding the Tests and the Playing Field

What does it mean to excel on an SAT Subject Test?  We recommend, in most cases, that students aim for at least a 700 on any Subject Test they choose to take.  The population of test takers for these exams is self-selecting and, hence, much more competitive.  This dynamic is reflected in the percentile ranks for the Subject Tests. While 500 is roughly the median score on the individual sections of the SAT, the median on any given SAT Subject Test will be much higher, often well above 600 and above 700 in some cases.

Understandably, these score goals can feel somewhat daunting.  It helps to remember that students can get quite a few problems wrong on the Subject Tests and still get a very high score.  This is a welcome change of pace from the SAT, where, at least in one recent instance, one missed question cost students 50 points.  Remembering this on test day will help students stay calm if they encounter some particularly tricky questions.  Also, Score Choice is available on the Subject Tests.  Students should elect to use this helpful service so they can first review their scores before sending them off to colleges.

Perhaps most importantly, a student who has selected tests that play to his or her academic strengths has already taken a step in the right direction.  With a little focused preparation, a high score is within reach.  We recommend that students complete a mock exam to see how they perform on the test.  Based their mock scores, students can make an informed decision about how much time to invest in preparation and studying.

When it comes to preparation, students will benefit from knowing the specific quirks of their chosen Subject Tests (in addition, of course, to mastering the content).  All SAT Subject Tests are 1-hour multiple-choice assessments, scored out of 800 with a guessing penalty (like the current SAT).  But this is where the similarities between the Subject Tests begin and end.  Each test has it’s own idiosyncrasies.  On the Chemistry test, for example, students have to tackle unique two-part questions that test the relationship between concepts.  Meanwhile, students taking the World History exam will need to have a solid understanding of world religions, and students who take Biology need to be very comfortable with technical terminology.  Students who learn about these quirks in advance will be able to better tailor the breadth and depth of the content they study, and will be less likely to encounter surprises on test day.

In Conclusion

With all the competing demands that students juggle at the end of the school year, it is no wonder that the SAT Subject Tests, which bring their own set of questions and uncertainty, can feel like a bit of a beast.  The choices involved can become overwhelming, without adequate information.  On the other hand, students who invest in bit of research, self-assessment, and preparation have an opportunity to take control of the process, and obtain high scores that will help build stronger applications to highly selective schools.

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