Which of the SAT Subject Tests is best for you to take?

(If you’re having similar difficulties deciding between the SAT and the ACT, by the way, check out “SAT versus ACT: The Test-Taker’s Guide”).

First, a word to all you history buffs out there who are currently scheming to just take both U.S. History and World History and wash your hands of the matter: most colleges that oblige you to take Subject Tests require they be in different subject areas.

Before deciding, you should first make a list of all the colleges you’re considering.  Then spend some time checking (and double-checking!) their requirements – make sure, for instance, you’re looking in a recent catalog.  Many schools have modified their requirements in the past few years, and the school’s website is where you’re likely to get the most up-to-date information.  It’s best to make this list of requirements early so you can use it to plan your class schedule in high school, making appropriate adjustments based on your college’s prerequisites. While the schools that do require subject tests generally require two of them, a few of the most competitive schools require three.  Likewise, some colleges demand specific tests be taken for admission or placement, while others will allow you to choose.  For instance, engineering schools typically have a preference for the Math Level 2 and either the Chemistry or Physics Subject Test.

For those of you who are conveniently only applying to those schools who benevolently let their applicants choose, here are some simple – but critical – tips:

1. First, go with what your colleges require.  I’ve had too many students discovering last-minute that, in fact, they had to take a science Subject Test to be considered for their school of choice to let this fairly obvious notion remain unstated.

2. Go with what you’re good at.  If Spanish is your strongest subject, a great score on that test is going to look a lot more impressive than a gutsy (but potentially inferior) endeavor to try your hand at the Chemistry test.

3. Choose your Subject Tests to present a good scope of knowledge.  Great scores on Biology, Chemistry, and Physics is impressive – but not nearly as impressive as great scores in World History, Biology, and Korean.

4. Use the five general categories listed in the previous article and try to pick and choose from different categories.  Again, many schools don’t count tests within the same subject areas as separate tests – so don’t prepare yourself to take the Math I and Math II Subject Tests, or you’ll be highly disappointed when those college replies start rolling in.

5. If there’s an area you excel in, we suggest you take that Subject Test – even if the colleges you’re applying to don’t require it.  What the admissions officers want to see is a well-rounded student – which is why you’re required to send so much information in your application package.  Adding yet another fantastic score to that is only going to make you look that much better – and might tip an admission officer’s “maybe” into a definitive “yes.”

The Subject Tests are offered six times a year – except for the language tests, which are generally administered only once a year, in November.  While most students take them at the end of their Junior years or beginning of their Senior years, it’s smartest to take certain tests immediately after completing their corresponding courses.

Many students have found that the AP exams are much more difficult than the SAT Subject Tests, so studying for your APs is often akin to studying for your Subject Tests.  I’d suggest waiting until just after you’ve completed a year-long course in each of the subjects you’ve chosen to test in, and testing while the material is still fresh – unless you plan to take a higher level class in the same subject.  For instance, if you’ve just finished an Introductory Physics class, and intend to go no further, take the Subject Test toward the end of that year (May or June).  If you intend, however, to go on to AP Physics, then of course it’s best to wait until you and Physics have boxed out your second round.  The History Subject Tests and the Science Subject tests are examples of exams it’s best to take immediately after completing the courses.  However, it’s best to take the Literature and Foreign Language Subject Tests after you’ve had as much study in the area as possible – so if you plan on taking any of these, I would suggest holding off (at least two years of study is suggested for the language tests).

The best time to take the Subject Tests is generally May or June (unless you’re one who likes to study during the summer); if you wait until November, you might lose some valuable information over break and find yourself working double-time to recall everything you’ve forgotten.

Lastly, try to finish all your subject tests before fall of your senior year – winter may be too late to send scores.  Remember too that, as with the SAT, so with the Subject Teste– you’ll need to sign up about a month before whichever Subject Tests you plan to take – and the earlier you sign up, the better your chances of getting a test center close by.

So how will test day work?  You are allowed to take up to three (3) Subject Tests in one afternoon.  Note that most of the administration dates of the Subject Tests are the same as the administration dates of the SAT. What this means is that you cannot take the SAT and the Subject Tests in the same day (and who would want to, really?).

Once you’ve been seated at the administration site, you’ll receive a large booklet that contains all the subject tests available that day, along with an answer sheet (or two, or three).  When it’s time to begin, you’ll open the booklet to the first subject (you’re allowed to take the tests in whatever order you prefer), copy that test’s code into your answer sheet, and begin.  There is generally a 5-minute break between the first and second tests and another break between the second and third.  When it’s time to begin your second and third tests, simply turn to the page at which those tests begins, copy down the answer codes again, and begin.  You can also decide last-minute to take a different subject test than you signed up for (just turn to the page on which that test begins), or decide to take an additional test.

My best advice, of course, is to plan early so that you’re not biting your fingernails until the scores come out.  By going the extra mile – in all your classes, but especially in the classes you plan on testing in – and putting in a little extra study time throughout the year, you’ll be well ahead of the rest of your classmates when it comes time to play the Subject Test game.

Which Subject Tests are you taking and why did you pick those?