Pick Your SAT Subject Tests Carefully!

This week we would like to focus on the all important SAT Subject Tests (formally called SAT II’s and longer ago, achievement tests). Many students aren’t even aware that they should take these tests after completing the corresponding course work. We want to bust some Subject Test myths.

Why are SAT Subject Tests so important for top colleges? Sure, they are yet another quantitative way to evaluate a student. They help colleges interpret your grades and equalize grading scales from high school to high school. How does an A at school X compare to an A in school Y? Well, if one student scored a 770 on the Bio SAT Subject Test and the other scored a 580, colleges would assume that the first school had a much “truer” grading scale and that the competition was simply not as strong at school Y. In effect, these scores either show that a student deserved the high grades he received, or that the school simply hands out many A’s. Many competitive colleges require 2 Subject Tests. But read on because with many things in admissions it is not what it appears. While schools “require” 2 tests, top candidates often submit 4, 5, 6 Subject Tests.

Students should consider very carefully WHICH tests they sign up for – most students don’t even realize that the average test scores are different on every SAT Subject Test! Most assume that the mean score is 500, but that is NOT the case. See the College Board’s chart for the Class of 2010:

Take the Math Level I and the Math Level II as an example. Many students take the I thinking it’s “easier,” but the average score on that test is a 605. If you miss a handful of questions, you will not even score in the 700’s! Compare that to the Math II — the AVERAGE score is 649! That means you can get a bunch wrong and still be in the 700’s (on a recent test, you could get 7 wrong and still score a perfect 800). In other words, every test has a different group of test takers — the kids who take the II are a smaller group, but a stronger group.

Then there are the tests such as the Chinese with Listening — since almost all the kids who take it actually speak Chinese, the average is very high: 761!

Here’s another fact to keep in mind: the percentile scores do NOT get reported to colleges, only the grade. Most admissions officers don’t differentiate or even worry about if your 760 was high or low for your test. So those who get a 764 on the Korean with Listening test (the highest average of all the SAT Subject Tests) score only 50%, but the score still looks strong.

The message is, it pays to study the average scores and pick tests based on your ability and the scoring curve. The average information is available on the College Board’s web site, as noted above, and is actually printed on the score reports you receive back after taking SAT Subject Tests. Use them to your advantage!

Good luck with Subject Tests if you are taking them this Saturday and one final tip: TAKE PRACTICE TESTS. The practice tests available in the College Boards book: The Official Study Guide for all Subject Tests are only an hour long (the length of the test) and the results are quite true to actual results so will help you study.