SAT Articles

What About Those SAT Subject Tests?

So you’ve been studying for the SAT for what seems like years now, and your critical thinking, grammar, and math skills are on par with the pros.  And yet, you’re finding your dreams of becoming an on-site biologist who studies homeostasis at the Congo River basin have not quite been furthered by all of this study.  So how do you show the colleges you’re interested in – well – what you’re interested in?  Or that you’re a much more well rounded student than the SAT (or ACT) might have them believe?  Further, when do you get a chance to prove to the world out there that everything you learned in your World History class actually “stuck”?

Lucky for you, our friend The College Board administers these fancy little tests called the SAT Subject Tests.  The Subject Tests are the collective term for 20 standardized and entirely multiple-choice tests that focus on individual subjects. The Subject Tests were conceived to measure your comprehension of, and command in, specific subject areas – and to demonstrate to colleges your ability to apply that knowledge.  The tests are not particular to any text or instructional system, and although the question types hardly differ from year to year, their content continues to evolve in correspondence with the most current high school curricula.  SAT Subject Tests are required by some colleges and universities as part of your admissions package; many others don’t require them, but high-scoring students certainly will increase their application’s appeal if they send on those results.  Colleges may also sometimes use the Subject Test to determine appropriate placement in freshman-level courses.  For instance, a high score on the Physics test may absolve you of any duties to complete an introductory science class, while a low Math score might suggest to the university that a remedial math course might be your best starting place.

So what’s the content?  All 20 tests fall into five general categories:

  • English (Literature)
  • History (U.S. History, World History)
  • Sciences (Biology (ecology or molecular), Chemistry, and Physics)
  • Math (Mathematics Levels 1 and 2)
  • Languages (Latin, Italian, Modern Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, and Spanish).

The latter languages (French, German and Spanish) contain an optional listening section, while the Asian languages (Korean, Chinese, and Japanese) have a mandatory listening section. For more information on the details of each test, including format, number of questions, and what knowledge is tested on each, see College Board website.

All the Subject Tests are 1 hour in duration (and now that you’ve defeated the almost-4-hour SAT, that’s a cakewalk), and the format for each is exclusively multiple choice.  However, there are a few features particular to certain tests to take note of, such as:

1. You may take up to three SAT Subject Tests on a single test date. You must indicate which SAT Subject Tests you plan to take when you register, but you may change which test you actually take on test day – except for Language with Listening tests.

2. You cannot take the SAT Subject Tests and the SAT on the same test date.

3. The Language with Listening tests are always given in the first hour of testing. Only one listening test can be taken per test date. The Language Subject Tests that have a listening component will require you to bring a CD player with earphones to the test center.

4. For the Mathematics Subject Tests (both 1 and 2) it will be expected that you know how to use either a scientific or a graphing calculator, so make sure you have – and are well-versed in – that technology, and that you have fresh batteries in them on testing day (the same should be said about the CD player, language testers)!

5. If you choose to take the Biology Subject Test, you’ll be asked to choose between Molecular Biology (Biology M – cell structures, biochemistry, and biological processes such as pigmentation and respiration) or Ecological Biology (Biology E – biological communities, species interaction, ecosystems, and energy flow): the difference between the two tests is only in the last 20 questions, so you cannot take both in one sitting.

Also note that all Subject Tests are scored on a scale of 200-800 (just as is each section of the SAT) – some of those with very generous curves.  The language Subject Tests have sub-scores in listening, reading, and usage (the latter depending on what test you take).

It’s probably helpful for your test-taking strategies to note that the scoring for the Subject Tests functions just the way it does for the SAT: you earn 1 point for each correct answer, you lose ¼ point for each incorrect answer, and you don’t lose any points for each question you leave blank (of course, you don’t gain any points either).

Please share what you think about the SAT Subject Tests or let me know what else you would like to see here by adding a comment below.

Up next: So, which of these tests is best for you to take?