SAT Subject Tests: A Primer


Photo courtesy of Laurence Gough/

Often an afterthought in the mind of applicants, SAT Subject Tests can greatly benefit some applicants and are a near-necessity for anyone with their eye on gaining acceptance to Ivy or Ivy-caliber schools. One might say that subject tests are like the Jan Brady of the college application family, easy to forget about when surrounded by the Marsha-like SAT I, essays, GPA, class rank, credit-granting AP tests and other top focal points of the admissions process.

We receive many questions on the topic and hope the following will give you a complete understanding of what these tests entail and whether or not they should be a part of your college application process.

* For the sake of clarity, a quick note about the nomenclature …The College Board removed the “SAT II” designation in 2005 switching to only “Subject Tests,” but the defunct name continues to persist in admissions parlance. In this piece, SAT II and SAT Subject Tests are synonymous.

What’s on the menu?

There are over 20 Subjects Tests, but that number implies more variety than is reality. A dozen of those 20 tests are actually in the foreign language arena and include your usual suspect tongues such as Spanish, French, Italian, German, Chinese as well as lesser-studied languages like Korean, Modern Hebrew, and Japanese. For several of the language exams, students can choose between a purely written exam or one that includes a listening component.

The eight non-foreign language exams cover Literature, two levels of general math, Chemistry, Physics, American History, World History, and Biology, of either the Molecular or Ecological variety.

What tests should I choose?

In terms of sheer volume, the three most commonly administered assessments are the Math Level 2, U.S. History, and Literature exams. Of the science exams, Chemistry and Biology top the popularity charts. Of course, you’ll want to choose your areas of greatest strength. If subject tests are not required by any school to which you are applying, avoid tests that are redundant in terms of what they say about you. In other words, if you already got a 5 on the AP U.S. history exam, taking the SAT II: Subject Test in the same area isn’t going to reveal any significant new information about your ability, even if you register a perfect score.

When to take Subject Tests

If tests are required by your prospective colleges, you’ll be best served by focusing on areas of strength and, of course, adhering to any program specific requirements.

We advise you to take your subject tests in June of your junior year of high school, if possible. This will allow you to maximize your exposure to key concepts in the classroom and sit for the exam while everything is still fresh in your mind. From an admissions standpoint, having your scores in hand the following fall will put you in the catbird seat should you wish to submit an application during the early admissions cycle. If you are unhappy with your scores, there is always the option to retake an exam at the beginning of 12th grade.

Required, Recommended, or Considered?

Roughly 160 colleges and universities, mostly of the elite variety, required or highly recommend the submission of SAT II: Subject tests as part of an applicant’s portfolio. Many of the most selective schools in the country such as Brown, Cal Tech, Cornell, and MIT require students to take either one or two Subject Tests.

Emory, Lafayette, Georgetown, and Stanford are among the institutions that recommend or in some cases “strongly recommend” that subject tests be a part of any application.

Many other schools do not recommend subject tests but will give them serious consideration in the application process. Institutions such as Dartmouth, Duke, and Vassar operate this way.

Colleges moving away from Subject Tests

A growing number of institutions have recently dropped SAT subject test requirements, including Amherst, Duke and Barnard. However, applicants possessing strong subject test results should still submit their scores to these institutions, as doing so may help them stand out from the competition.  If your scores are not (relatively) strong, there may be no reason to worry. Schools like Columbia, Haverford and Vassar all state that students will not be penalized if they choose not to submit subject tests.

Special situations

It is worth noting that some schools will accept subject tests in lieu of the SAT I. The University of Rochester will accept two SAT II tests in place of the SAT/ACT. NYU and Middlebury offer the same deal but require three test scores instead of two.

Other schools require more research as they only require or recommend SAT II scores from applicants to certain academic or honors programs. For engineering applicants, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and UC-Berkeley strongly advise the submission of math and science subject test scores. The University of Delaware, George Washington University, and the University of Miami all strongly recommend subject tests be included as part of any application to their Honors Programs.

If you referred to your high school teacher as “mom” or “dad” then you may be held to special subject test requirements. Northeastern, Virginia Tech, and American University all require SAT subject test only for home-schooled or other non-traditionally educated applicants.

A strong cohort

While students of varying caliber typically take the SAT I, the SAT II are mostly the domain of high achievers. Over 60 percent of SAT II: Subject test takers are in the top 20 percent of their respective high school classes. The average subject test participant scored over a 600 on the reading, math, and writing section of their SAT I, over 100 points higher per section than the average student. Keep this in mind when interpreting the percentile results of any subject test; you're pitted against much stiffer competition.

Prepare for the test

If you’re going to shell out the $43 College Board fee plus number two pencil costs (approximately 17 cents) and spend a portion of your Saturday bubbling your demographic information into a Scantron for the millionth time this year, you might as well prep sufficiently so that you can excel on the SAT subject tests.

It sounds obvious enough, but some students will take an SAT Subject Test with very little preparation on the assumption that since they aced the class at their high school, they’ll nail the subject test just the same. The flaw is this logic is that high school curriculum is truly, as The Common Core Standards purport, going to be covered and taught identically in every high school classroom across the country.

Unfortunately, it is very possible to ace an honors biology class, sign up for the Molecular Biology SAT subject test and feel like you were just thrown a nasty curve ball. Remember, unlike in an AP class, your teacher, even in a very rigorous course is aligning his or her curriculum and SAT subject test. It’s on you to learn exactly what is on the SAT subject test and then fill in any gaps with supplemental learning.

Give your subject tests the love and attention they deserve or on test day you might hear your neglected test booklet uttering the lonely whispered cries of “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!”

College Transitions recently collected subject tests policies from a number of selective institutions across the country, as featured below. For an updated list of colleges requiring or recommending subject tests, please click here to review. 




Brown University

Required (or ACT)

2 subject tests or ACT w/writing

California Institute of Technology


2 subject tests: Math Level II and 1 test in Biology, Chemistry, or Physics

Carleton College


No recommended number

Carnegie Mellon University


2 subject tests for certain programs

Cornell University


Some colleges require 1 or 2 subject tests.

Davidson College


2 subject tests

Emory University


No recommended number

Georgetown University

Strongly Recommended

3 Subject Tests

Harvard University


2 subject tests

Lafayette College


No recommended number

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


2 subject tests: 1 math and 1 science

Princeton University


2 subject tests

Stanford University


2 subject tests

Tufts University

Required (or ACT)

2 subject tests for certain programs

University of Pennsylvania


2 subject tests

Washington and Lee University


2 subject tests

Wellesley College

Required (or ACT)

2 subject tests or ACT w/writing

Yale University


No recommended number

This article was first published Aug. 3, 2015 updated July, 14, 2016.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website——to learn more.

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About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at

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