About the SAT Subject Tests

What are the SAT Subject Tests? What do they test? When should you take them? Read on to learn more.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Tests are optional college entrance exams that play to your strengths. A handful of colleges require them, many top schools recommend them, and many admissions teams will consider them if you choose to send your scores.

What to Expect on SAT Subject Tests

There are 20 different SAT Subject Tests grouped into 5 categories: English, History, Mathematics, Science, and Languages. For detailed information about each test, explore the full suite on The College Board’s website. Though subjects range from Biology to Japanese, every test has a few things in common:
  • You have 60 minutes to complete each exam.
  • All questions are multiple choice.
  • You gain 1 point for each correct answer.
  • You lose a fraction of a point for each wrong answer.
    • ¼ for 5-choice questions
    • ⅓ for 4-choice questions
    • ½ for 3-choice questions
  • No points will be deducted for unanswered questions.

Why take SAT Subject Tests?

There are a lot of good reasons to take SAT Subject Tests, but, first and foremost, they offer an opportunity to highlight your academic strengths — strengths that might not come through on the more general SAT and ACT. Studied Latin since you were a kid and hope to major in Classics? This is your chance to shine! Beyond giving admissions teams a fuller picture of you, SAT Subject Tests:
  • Act as course placement exams at some schools, enabling you to exempt entry-level survey classes.
  • Bolster your case for admittance to a specific major or school within a university.
  • Offer international students a chance to show subject mastery to admissions teams who are more familiar with U.S. standards of course rigor.
  • Provide multilingual and/or ESL students an opportunity to showcase expertise.
  • Give you a competitive edge.
  • Are required or recommended at many top colleges and universities.*
*Don’t be fooled by the word recommended. In recent years competitive schools have stopped officially requiring SAT Subject Tests so as not to disadvantage students who cannot afford to purchase elective exams. If you can afford to do so, recommended means you probably should. Also, if you qualified for a fee waiver when you took the SAT or ACT, you likely will for SAT Subject Tests as well. Here’s The College Board’s list of schools that require, recommend, or consider SAT Subject Tests. However, this list is not exhaustive, so it’s wise to check the testing policies of each school where you plan to apply.

When can I take SAT Subject Tests?

Most SAT Subject Tests are offered 6 times a year on the same dates — August, October, November, December, May, June — and typically at the same locations as the SAT. However, not all 20 tests are offered on every date, so be sure to check the schedule for your tests. When you register keep in mind that that you cannot take more than 3 SAT Subject Tests in one day and you cannot take an SAT Subject Test and the SAT on the same day. As with the SAT or ACT, planning ahead and thoughtfully mapping out your testing calendar will serve you well.

When should I take SAT Subject Tests?

It’s best to test right after you complete your subject(s) of choice, when everything is fresh in your memory. Many students opt to take them in May or June, while they are studying for finals or AP exams. For language exams, we recommend completing at least two years of coursework at the high school level before giving them a go. If you plan to apply Early Action or Early Decision, you’ll need to complete SAT Subject Tests by October, or November at the latest, of your senior year. 

How are SAT Subject Tests scored?

Like each section of the SAT, Subject Tests are scored on a scale of 200 to 800. A scanning program reads your answer sheet, counts 1 point for each correct answer, subtracts a fraction of a point for each wrong answer, and calculates your raw score. Note! This incorrect answer penalty differs from the SAT and ACT, so you’ll have to be more strategic about when to guess and when to omit. The good news? If your raw score includes a decimal, graders always round up before equating it to your scaled score.

What do my SAT Subject Test Scores mean?

Your percentile ranking reflects your performance compared to everyone else who took the test. When you take the SAT/ACT, other test takers come from a wide range of backgrounds – the only thing they have in common is their interest in going to college. Other SAT Subject Test takers are students who excel in physics, or U.S. History, or Spanish, and aim to attend competitive schools, so your percentiles may differ significantly from your SAT/ACT rankings. Last year the average Math Score on the SAT was a 520, whereas the average Math II Subject Test Score was a 720. We say this not to discourage you, but to give you some perspective. It’s important to think seriously about which tests play to your strengths, to study effectively, and to give these exams all you’ve got. For a full list of percentile ranks by Subject Test, check out the College Board’s data from the class of 2017.

What is a good score?

On the SAT/ACT, a good score depends on where you apply – scores that make you competitive at UGA, for example, differ from the scores you need to be competitive at Ivy Leagues. This is true to a much lesser extent on SAT Subject Tests. You don’t need the same scores to stand out at Boston College as you do at Harvard, but regardless of where you send SAT Subject Scores you’ll need to do exceptionally well. Remember, these scores are meant to show expertise, not average content mastery.
  • At moderately competitive schools – College of Charleston, George Washington University, or Colorado College – you’ll want to at least score above average. In contrast to the SAT where scores in the 500’s are average, 50th percentile on SAT Subject Tests puts you in the 650-690 range.
  • As schools get more competitive, so do the SAT Subject Test scores of admitted students. At UCLA, for example, 80 percent of admitted students score between a 700 and 800 on SAT Subject Tests, and only 15 percent score between a 600 and 690.
  • At top schools you need to score at least a 700 to make sending a subject test score worth your while. Last year, the middle score range (25th and 75th percentiles) for accepted students at MIT was [760, 800] on Math SAT Subject Tests and [760, 800] on Science tests.

How should I prepare?

To excel on an SAT Subject Test, begin by taking the high school class that goes along with it. If you sign up for the Biology E/M test in June after completing a biology course, you’ve taken an enormous first step by engaging with concepts and strategies all semester long. Next, it’s important to learn the ins and outs of the test, practice testing within the 60-minute time constraint, develop a strategy for guessing vs. omitting, and brush up on content that never quite clicked, or that your teacher covered back in September. Your level of confidence upon completing the subject, as well as your course rigor (on-level, honors, AP, etc.), can help determine how much time you should devote to each test. At Applerouth, we’ve designed a study plan for every test taker:
  • Fine Tuning: Target specific areas for maximum score increase potential during 6 hours of tutoring over 3 to 6 weeks.
  • Comprehensive: Dive into SAT Subject content and hone test-taking strategies during 12 hours of tutoring over 2 to 3 months.
  • In-Depth: Achieve the greatest score gains or focus on the largest scope of content during 18 hours of tutoring over 3 to 4 months.
Learn more about SAT Subject Prep or give us a call at 866-789-PREP with questions about test choice, testing timeline, you name it! We would love to help you navigate this process.