The Poorly Understood SAT Subject Tests

Many applicants are so consumed with the SAT, ACT, AP and IB exams that they’re not sure whether the SAT Subject Tests exist or why. Once aware, however, they often want to know whether they should take them, which ones they should take and when it’s best to take them.

The SAT subject tests are one-hour, multiple-choice tests given over 20 academic subjects. The raw score is calculated by the number of questions correct minus a percentage of the wrong answers and then converted to a scaled score of 200-800.

One of the better guides  for which colleges require, recommend, or consider SAT Subject tests and a good reference for much of the information surrounding the subjects tests is  the Compass Guide to College Admission Testing site ( This site is frequently updated, which is extremely useful as SAT Subject test requirements change year to year.

If you plan to apply to a school that recommends or requires SAT Subject tests go to that school’s website and find out the specifics. Note there are around a dozen that require two SAT Subject tests such as Cornell, MIT, and Harvard.  The Harvard Admissions site tells you: “The decision whether to take Subject Tests is entirely up to you.” If the other tests you might be submitting, AP, IB, ACT, SAT do not offer a good sense of your ‘suitability’ for studying at Harvard, then take the subject tests.  

While some universities such as Rice (TX) and Tufts (MA) also require SAT Subject Tests, they will accept the ACT with writing instead. A host of the more selective colleges recommend the SAT Subject Tests, such as Stanford, Princeton, and Dartmouth. Georgetown ‘strongly recommends’ an applicant submits three subject tests.

Columbia is the sole Ivy League school that merely ‘considers’ subject tests. This means it reviews the scores ‘if you choose to submit them,’ but, “you will not be at a disadvantage should you choose not to take the tests or submit the scores to Columbia”.

Lastly, some schools, a lot of the most selective private liberal arts colleges such as Colorado College, Middlebury (VT), and Hamilton College (NY) are test optional, meaning they’ll take SAT Subject tests instead of either the ACT or the SAT.

The rule of thumb is to take the SAT subject test as you’re finishing, or about to finish, the highest level class of the academic subject. So if you’ve just finished taking your AP exam in Biology, it is probably a good idea to take the Biology E/M exam the following June. Be aware that the AP and SAT Subject tests cover different material—it’s a good idea to take at least 2-3 practice exams, and thoroughly review them, prior to taking the real exam.

Release exams are available free online covering a number SAT Subject tests. To access a number of Biology EM (and a selection of other) Subject Tests go to

So, why in the world would you take SAT Subject tests if they’re not recommended or required? One good reason is to showcase your skills. A set combination of Subject Tests just might do the trick. If you’re angling for an engineering program taking the SAT Math 2 subject test along with one of the science tests (especially chemistry or physics) shows your strengths in this area. Language and literature will show your ability in English and the language arts. Math and language will speak to your breadth.

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.