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SAT Subject Tests: Math I vs Math II

By Priyam, IvyWise Master Tutor

SAT Subject Tests, while not always required for admission, are sometimes requested as part of the application process and can help students demonstrate their specialty in a particular subject. For those students with an interest in math or other STEM fields, the SAT Subject Tests in math can be alluring, but with two options available, Math I and Math II, how do you know which one is right for you?

So What’s the Difference?
Both the Math I and Math II Subject Tests cover material that students typically learn in their high school math courses. The College Board recommends that students who have taken at least two years of algebra and one year of geometry should take the Math I test, while additional knowledge of trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus is needed to perform well on the Math II test. Why two different levels? The College Board recognizes that not all high schools offer the same math classes. Schools with fewer resources often do not offer as much advanced math coursework, so the varying levels are there to ensure that students are getting the opportunity to take the right Subject Test, and perform well, based on the coursework available to them. Colleges that accept either Math I or Math II scores also do so for this same reason – they don’t want to penalize high-achieving students who may be coming from an under-resourced school.

Other than the differences in content, the two tests are pretty similar: both have 50 multiple-choice questions and a 60-minute time limit. Like all other SAT Subject Tests, both tests are scored on a scale from 200 to 800. There is a guessing penalty of -1/4 point for incorrect answers, so students should skip questions they find hard to answer quickly. Calculators are allowed on both exams, so bring a multi-function or graphing calculator (i.e. TI-83, 84, etc.) but not a calculator that serves as a computer. You should review the calculator rules prior to sitting for either Subject Test.

Should I Take Math I or Math II?
Historical statistics for both exams show that the average score on Math II is higher than Math I. This has largely to do with the different pool of students who take either exam. Those who have are more quantitative math experience tend to take Math II. The Math II Subject Tests also historically offers a more lenient curve (i.e. up to -7 points is still usually an 800) than Math I (-1 or -2 points is usually still an 800). However, you shouldn’t solely rely on the curve when deciding which exam to take.

In general, if you’re going to take a Math Subject Test, you should take the one that most closely aligns with the math coursework you’ve completed. Down-testing (i.e., taking Math I when you have the coursework for Math II) is likely to backfire since the material won’t be as fresh for you and the curve for Math I is less forgiving. If you’re in the middle of precalculus or trigonometry, don’t assume you will know enough content for the Math II if taking the exam toward the beginning of the school year. It’s important to understand the content of each test in order to choose the right test for your abilities.

Should you take both? It’s not recommended. First, many colleges that require or recommend SAT Subject Test scores typically give students flexibility on what Subject Tests they can send in. However, other schools might have more stringent requirements, particularly engineering or medicine-based programs. If you know that you have your eye on a program that requires or recommends the Math II Subject Test, plan ahead to take the necessary math coursework. Some high schools don’t offer an advanced enough math track for you to be able to get through pre-calculus by your senior year, in which case you may have to plan to take pre-calculus over the summer or at a local community college. If you plan to apply to highly-selective schools with a competitive applicant pool, it’s a good idea to take Math II as it’s the exam that tests students on more advanced math concepts and will be viewed more favorably in the hyper-selective admissions process. But most importantly, most colleges will not accept Math I and Math II as two separate Subject Tests because there’s so much overlap between the exams. So students should plan to take Subject Tests in other areas in addition to either Math I or II.

At the end of the day, the best way to determine which Subject Test is right for you out of Math I and Math II is to take a diagnostic in order to get an assessment of where you are in your test prep and what you need to do to improve. At IvyWise, we have a team of expert tutors who can help you reach your goal score on your SAT Subject Tests, including Math I and Math II. For more information on our SAT Subject Test prep services, contact us today.