The Importance of the SAT Subject Tests

Many consider the SAT Subject test one test too many. Most applicants to the very selective schools are already taking AP or IB exams, the ACT and/or SAT, and the CAHSEE (in California) to determine English and math competency. Why add the SAT Subject Tests to the burden? The UC Regents concur; they’re ending the SAT Subject Test requirement beginning the fall of 2012.

Ironically, the president emeritus of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, is of a completely different mindset. He believes the SAT Subject tests are far better predictors of college performance than the SAT. Furthermore, Dr. Atkinson’s research claims that the SAT Subject tests are least affected by socioeconomic factors, and that the former subject test on writing is the best single predictor of a student’s college performance. This last finding actually led to the Collegeboard’s decision to incorporate the SAT writing subject test into the SAT beginning in 2005 (even though the debate still lingers regarding its efficacy).

Now, just as the University of California elects to dispense altogether with the SAT subject tests, NYU announces it no longer will require the submission of SAT or ACT tests; rather, applicants may elect to submit AP or SAT Subject tests in their stead. (Jaschik, Scott, “SAT Skepticism in New Form” 21 April 2009, Inside Higher Ed, NYU is also being joined in this policy by four top liberal arts schools: Hamilton (NY), Middlebury (VT), Bryn Mawr (PA), and Furman (SC); even Harvard’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, mentioned, “The more curriculum-based the test, the better a predictor the test is at Harvard.”  (Ibid.). The SAT subject tests and the AP or IB tests are as curriculum-based as they come.

By the way if you want to avoid the SAT Subject tests completely, a number of schools, including Duke, Pomona College, Johns Hopkins, Amherst, and the University of Pennsylvania clearly state on their websites that they’ll take the ACT instead of both the SAT and SAT subject tests. Many students, however, wishing to keep their options open, elect to take SAT subject tests even if they take the ACT.

Most of the schools requiring SAT subject tests are the most selective in the country. Some of the schools requiring three include Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Homeschoolers be aware that the SAT Subject test requirements are usually more stringent; Georgetown University, for instance, asks for six SAT subject tests. The Common Application, interestingly enough, has space for up to six subject test score on its main page.

Students taking SAT subject tests should consider the following. First, don’t underestimate their importance. Many of the most selective schools, including most of the Ivy League, factor the subject test score into an applicant’s academic index. Second, take your SAT subject test when you’ve attained your highest level of knowledge in the subject. For a foreign language, that would be after you’ve studied the language for three years or more. Third, look at the college’s website or catalog to figure out how the score might factor into class placement. Yale, for example, places freshmen in advanced English if they score above a 710 on the SAT Subject test in literature. Lastly, don’t believe that studying for the AP exam necessarily prepares you adequately for the SAT Subject test. We’ve had many students that get a “5” on AP Biology and then score in the mid-600s on SAT Biology EM.

Look on the SAT subject tests as a means to position your candidacy, not as a necessary evil that must be addressed. One of the big worries the admissions offices face is trying to compare students across a range of schools and curriculums. The SAT subject test is truly a great equalizer. It can be studied for, and virtually all students have a good chance at doing well on a subject test should they prepare. It appears in this particular instance, New York is leading the way for California, but that’s a rather testy subject.