By IvyWise Master Tutor
If you’re preparing to apply to college, you’ve probably heard a lot about the SAT Subject Tests. These SAT specialty tests might be required by the colleges to which you’re applying, but they’re also a good way to demonstrate your mastery of a particular subject as it relates to your intended college major. While the thought of taking Subject Tests may be daunting for some, you can always improve your chances of performing your best by being well prepared and well informed as to what tests to take.
For many students the idea of taking another exam in addition to the SAT or ACT can be overwhelming. However, by learning more about the tests, their content, and how to prepare for them, you can develop a clear test prep plan and go into the exams confident that you have the discipline to succeed.
Below I provide an overview of the general structure of SAT Subject Tests, as well as their main distinguishing feature from the SAT test, broken down into five tips in order to get the most out of your SAT Subject Test prep.
Tip 1: Know which Subject Tests are offered.
There are 20 Subject Tests across the five following categories: Mathematics, Science, English, History, and Languages. Every Subject Test is one hour long, multiple-choice, and scored on a 200-800 scale. Students can take more than one Subject Test on a given test day. Subject Tests are in general given on the same days and test centers as the SAT, but not all 20 tests are offered on every test date. Once you have identified the Subject Test or test you would like to take, make sure that the test dates fit in with the rest of your SAT or ACT testing schedule.
Tip 2: Take the Subject Test(s) best suited to your area of interest and knowledge level!
Generally this means taking the test in the subject in which you excel in school. For example, if you are a STEM student, it’s advisable to take SAT Subject Tests in math and science, rather than language or literature. However, this is not the only case. For international students, taking a Subject Test in math, science, or other languages might make for a stronger college application in order to demonstrate your mastery of a subject compared to students in the United States. For bilingual or multilingual students, taking a language Subject Test can be helpful way to distinguish your college application and, in some cases, fulfill foreign language requirements for some universities.
Tip 3: Study the content.
The major difference between SAT Subject Tests and the SAT, regardless of which Subject Test you might take, is that SAT Subject Tests are designed to be “knowledge” or content-based as opposed to the SAT, which is “skills” based. What does this mean? This means that the SAT Subject Tests are specifically based on high school coursework and the corresponding material and textbooks that a teacher would cover in class. In other words, the content of the SAT Math Level 2 Subject Test would be best covered by taking a Pre-Calculus course and the content of the SAT U.S. History Subject Test would be best covered by taking a U.S. History course, and so on with Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, etc. This is why at IvyWise we advise students to take SAT Subject Tests that align with their current coursework. For example, many students will take Biology in 9th grade, so planning to take the SAT Biology Subject Test at the same time they’re taking their Biology course finals is a good strategy as both tests will cover the same content.
The regular SAT, in contrast, is designed to test for general skills – logical reasoning, problem solving, reading comprehension fluency – skills that do not necessarily correspond to a specific field of coursework that a student might take. Hence SAT questions can often times frame very basic math concepts in tricky and unexpected ways, while the SAT Math Level 2 Subject Test, in contrast, presents advanced and difficult math concepts in fairly straightforward ways. This is why it’s important to have a comprehensive test prep plan that account for both content-based prep for Subject Tests, as well as skills prep for the regular SAT or ACT.
Tip 4: Know the scoring.
What many students don’t realize is that each Subject Test has it’s own ‘grade curve’ – similar to how a high school teacher may give a curve based on the class average. The College Board analyzes students’ scores, and from that is able to create their own conversion of raw scores to percentiles in order to rank students based on performance and not necessarily perfection in the sections.
For example, the language Subject Tests (e.g. Spanish, Spanish with Listening, Latin, Modern Hebrew) are generally scaled aggressively such that missing even four or five questions can lower one’s score dramatically. So a near perfect score shows near perfect performance.
However, missing four or five questions on Subject Tests such as Math Level 2, Literature, and U.S. History, would result in a perfect or nearly perfect score of 800. It’s a little deceiving, however, because while a 740 on the Math Level 2 Subject Test might seem high, it’s actually not that great of a performance as students with that score rank only in the 59th percentile.
Even the scoring difference between Math 1 and Math 2 is very dramatic, with a 790 in Math 1 putting students in the 98th percentile, but the same score on Math 2 puts test-takers in the 77th percentile.
The grading scales for each test, in other words, can vary widely, so it’s important for students to be aware of the different scoring scales particular to each SAT Subject Test and use it to inform which Subject Tests they decide to take. It is helpful to check the grading scale for each test on the College Board’s website.
Tip 5: Know Your Testing Requirements
Be aware of how many, if any, SAT Subject Tests that a university requires or recommends. Many schools do not require but recommend the submission of two Subject Tests of your choice. A rare case is a school like Georgetown that ‘strongly recommends’ submitting at least three Subject Tests. Whichever the case, it’s important to start planning which Subject Tests to take and which classes to take in order to best prepare for them – the earlier the better!
Preparing for standardized tests, whether it’s the SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests doesn’t have to be stressful or confusing. Start early by creating a test prep timeline starting freshman year.