Insider Tips SAT Standardized Testing Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests – A Quick Primer

Many parents ask us why their kids should bother taking subject tests if they also take APs – why are subject tests so important anyway? A bit of background – you might remember them as ACHIEVEMENT tests as that’s what they were called for many years, then SAT IIs and now simply “subject tests.” They are sponsored by The College Board, the same organization that brings us the SAT and AP tests.


Unlike AP tests, which are college level and last 3 hours (a combination of multiple choice and essays), subject tests are all one hour multiple choice tests in subjects ranging from U.S. History to Biology to Math and Korean. Top colleges and universities used to require that all applicants submit scores from 2-3 subject tests but over the last several years, colleges have changed their language from requiring to “recommending”. Let’s look closely at why the language has changed and what that means for you.

A key strategic objective at all top colleges over the last two decades has been to increase the diversity of students applying and enrolling. There’s plenty of evidence that points to a clear correlation between economic resources and standardized test scores, as well as differences in testing across racial and ethnic groups. So, in order not to discourage minority students and students from low-income backgrounds, many colleges are now saying they do not “require” subject tests but rather only recommend them.

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Keep in mind they are just saying that so they don’t scare off the students that they seek to attract into their applicant pools. The reality is that for students who attend strong public high schools or boarding schools or private schools, “recommend” really means you need to submit strong subject tests. Colleges expect you to take as many subject tests as correspond to your actual schedule. That means if you are taking honors chemistry, pre calc and U.S. history, they will look for the Chemistry, Math II and US history subject tests. Note: the subject tests are based on honors level coursework, not AP courses, although, for sure, AP courses can be helpful. If you are taking honors chemistry in 10th and AP chemistry in 11th, you can wait till the AP level to take the subject test but, for example, if you are taking an advanced honors biology class in 9th, you can also take the subject test then. Colleges use subject tests to validate your grade in a class. How can they tell that your “A” in physics is the same as another student’s A? They simply look at the subject test results. For top tier colleges, we recommend 3-7 subject tests depending on students’ class schedules and scores on practice tests that forecast high scores.

Subject tests are scored on the same 200-800 point scale used on each section of the SAT, but not all tests are alike. As you can see from data provided by the College Board, a 750 is not the same across all tests. The scale is different for every subject test – you can see that illustrated here if you click on the percentile charts on the College Board website.


If you’re seeking a tutor, look no further. Our subject test tutors will help you define your strengths and weaknesses via diagnostic testing and then work towards maintaining your strengths and improving your weak areas. Buy the Barron’s and Princeton or Kaplan subject test books at the beginning of every school year and study every week rather than saving it till the end of the year. If your teacher doesn’t cover everything, tutor or form a study group, use Khan Academy or study on your own – either way, you will be judged on your scores so be proactive!

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