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10 Things You Need to Know About SAT Subject Tests

10 Things You Need to Know About SAT Subject Tests

Do you have questions about SAT Subject Tests? If so, you are in the right place. Here are 10 things you need to know about SAT Subject Tests.

1. Few Colleges Mandate the SAT Subject Tests

If you are stressed about the prospects of taking SAT Subject Tests, only a tiny percentage of colleges and universities mandate them for every single applicant.

"These four institutions require the subject test results from all of their applicants," said Cigus Vanni, a college consultant in Wynnewood, PA, who compiled the subject test list for members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC):  

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Harvey Mudd College
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Webb Institute

2. SAT Subject Test Requirements are Flexible

In recent times, the trend was for schools to loosen their subject test requirements. For example, at least three institutions that mandated some or all of their applicants to submit subject tests in 2017 no longer require them. They are Brown University, Carnegie Mellon University and Wellesley College.

3. Understand How to Handle Recommended Testing

It can be tricky interpreting how important these tests are at individual campuses. Universities like Georgetown University and Duke University strongly recommend applicants turn in subject test scores, but they don’t officially require them.

That position irritates some families, school consultants and high school counselors who wonder why they don’t just say they are mandatory. You also will encounter schools that offer more nebulous guidance when advising students about these tests.

Here, for instance, is Stanford University’s advice: “If you believe Subject Tests can highlight your areas of strength, we welcome the self-reporting of these results in your application.”

This is what Georgia Institute of Technology’s has to say about the exams: “You are welcome to submit them if you think they support your application.”

And here is the University of Michigan’s take on subject tests: “If you include these (Subject Tests) results as part of your application, we will consider them only in light of how they might benefit your review.”

So what should students do when agonizing about whether to take the subject tests, as well as how many to take? “The more competitive the applicant pool, the more you should interpret recommended as expected,” suggested Bruce Reed, co-founder of Compass Education Group, a test-prep firm in Los Angeles.

If a student can excel on more than the number of subject tests recommended by a school without too much effort, it’s probably worth doing, Reed said. It’s not uncommon for his firm’s most ambitious students to take three to five subject tests, when such an approach is supported by their academic coursework and strengths.

4. SAT Subject Tests Can Be Required or Recommended for Certain Majors

Some universities require subject tests for engineering majors. The University of California–Los Angeles makes it crystal clear on their website that taking the subject tests are crucial, stating that merely meeting the minimum admission requirements is rarely sufficient. The engineering school states that engineering applicants are strongly encouraged to take the SAT Math Level 2 and a science subject test. 

Northwestern University puts would-be engineering applicants through the most test stress. It is the only university that requires engineering applicants to submit three subject test results. Some universities also will require subject testing if applicants are applying for accelerated bachelor’s degree or medical degree programs.

5. Understand How to Avoid Subject Tests

Take the ACT and you can skip the subject tests in a handful of institutions. Tufts University and Rice University are in that category.

6. Take Practice Tests

Before taking a subject test, you should try a timed practice test. You can often take these tests while experiencing actual testing conditions at a test-prep firm and then review the results.

7. Pick the Right Time to Take Tests

Teenagers typically take a subject test that corresponds to their current coursework in school. Studying for the subject test can be done when getting ready for a final exam or Advanced Placement (AP) test. A popular time to take the subject tests is in May, because students can study simultaneously for the AP exams and subject tests.

Some AP exams dovetail nicely with subject tests, but others don’t. For example, the AP Literature exam aligns closely with the testing on the subject test for literature. The Math Level I and Math Level II tests, however, aren’t aligned to a specific AP course.

8. Pick Your Strengths

Unless certain tests are mandated, it’s best to pick the ones that provide you with the best chance of success. Here is the line up of the subject tests:

  • Literature
  • United States history
  • World history
  • Math level I
  • Math level II
  • Biology (Ecological/molecular)
  • Chemistry
  • Physics


  • Chinese with listening
  • French
  • French with listening
  • German
  • German with listening
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Japanese with listening
  • Korean with listening
  • Latin
  • Spanish
  • Spanish with listening

9. A Subject Test Is Done in an Hour

Each subject test, which is a multiple-choice exam, lasts for one hour. Students can take up to three subject tests during one testing date. The AP tests are a tougher process. They are each three hours long and include multiple choice and essay prompts.

10. When You Can Take the SAT Subject Tests

Here are the dates for the SAT Subject Tests. Not all of the tests will be available on each testing date. For instance, the foreign language with listening is only available in November.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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