SAT Subject tests are essentially short AP exams with more precise scoring. Whereas the AP exams are only scored out of 5 (so colleges can grant course credit based on demonstrated proficiency), scores out of 5 are so imprecise that it is hard to compare students’ subject proficiency with much precision. Hence, SAT subject tests were created and are scored out of 800.
The only SAT subject tests that do not correspond to AP exams are the Math Level 1 and Math Level 2 SAT subject tests. (The Math Level 1 is more-or-less just the ACT Math section; the Math Level 2 tests basically that same content but just with significantly harder questions on those topics.)
At Summit Prep, we have specialists that prepare students for the following SAT subject tests:
- US History
- World History
- Math Level 1
- Math Level 2
- Biology E/M
- Modern Hebrew
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How many SAT subject tests can I take in one day?
You can take up to three SAT subject tests in one day. Some students are intimidated to do so because doing so sounds like a lot of testing. But, as long as a student is prepared for three SAT subject tests, then taking three in one day is not overly difficult (both the SAT and ACT, particularly with the essays, take more time than three SAT subject tests).
Q: Can I take the SAT and SAT subject tests on the same day?
No. The SAT and SAT subject tests are run at the same time, so students have to choose whether to register for the SAT or SAT subject tests on a given test date.
Q: Can I take the same SAT subject test multiple times?
Yes, definitely. It’s a frequent misconception that students should only take an SAT subject test once. In fact, we have found that our students typically do better the second time they take any standardized test. Consequently, most of our students register for and take SAT subject tests in both May and June. (If their May test scores come back as perfect scores, then they just cancel their registration to the June test or don’t show up to the test.) Additionally, because the content on every test varies, you can have a good or bad testing day, and the curves vary, having two chances at any test increases a student’s probability of scoring higher than if they just take a test once. There is no downside to taking the SAT subject tests multiple times, so why would you not?
Q: Do colleges still care about SAT subject test scores?
Most colleges no longer emphasize SAT subject test scores. Previously, if a student scored a 30+ on their ACT or 1370+ on their SAT, they would benefit significantly from having two SAT subject tests with scores of 720+. These students typically applied to top 200 colleges. Now, however, fewer colleges are expecting SAT subject tests, so it is really just the top 50 schools that expect students to submit two SAT subject test scores (except for Georgetown, which “highly recommends” submitting three).
If a student is applying to a top 50 college, then they should aim for having at least two SAT subject tests with scores of 750+. And, if they are taking the Math Level 2 exam, they should actually aim for a perfect 800, since at least 22% of testers get a perfect score on this exam (read more about that here).
Make a Plan:
Q: What is a good SAT subject test score?
Now that primarily only the top 50 colleges expect students to submit two SAT subject test scores, the expectation of scores on those SAT subject tests has changed. Now, in general, only a score of 750 or above “looks good” to those colleges. If a student is applying to a top 10 college, then they will want scores of 770 or above on at least two SAT subject tests. The one exception: the Math Level 2 exam. Because at least 22% of test-takers score an 800 on this exam, students applying to a top 10 college should really aim for the 800. A perfect score on the Math Level 2 does not give students an advantage, but it keeps them from being disadvantaged since most applicants to top 10 colleges submit perfect Math Level 2 scores.
Q: When should I take SAT subject tests?
- Most students should take an SAT subject test around the same time (May and June) that they are taking an AP exam in a course. Keep in mind, some schools do not cover all of the required curriculum for the SAT subject tests, so most of our students still need additional tutoring in order to secure at top (770+) score on the tests.
- Because the Math Level 1 and 2 SAT subject tests do not correspond to an AP courses or exams, these tests do not need to be taken in May/June (but a lot of students still do take these exams at that time because they are already taking other SAT subject tests on those test dates). Our advice: take the Math Level 1 or 2 exam after you have finished with the SAT or ACT. Both the SAT and ACT provide a good review of foundational math topics.
- Math Level 1: In particular, the ACT Math section is almost the same as the Math Level 1 test, so it makes sense for students to finish with ACT prep before taking the Math Level 1 SAT subject test.
- Math Level 2: While the ACT Math in particular (compared to the regular SAT) does set a good foundation for the Math Level 2 exam, most students still need to do significant preparation and tutoring in order to score an 800 on the Math Level 2. Although students are often advised to take the Math Level 1 and/or Level 2 SAT subject tests as soon as they finish Trigonometry in school (the logic being that they need to take the tests before they forget the content), we have found that students almost always do better on the Math Level 1 and 2 SAT subject tests if they take them after they have finished ACT preparation. Why? Because when they have finished with Trigonometry, they have already forgotten a lot of the earlier Geometry and Algebra 2 topics that they need for the subject tests. So they need to review these earlier topics before they can excel on the Math Level 1 and 2 SAT subject tests, and the ACT Math section is great review for those foundational topics.
Q: Which SAT subject tests should I take?
- If you are taking an AP course, then typically the AP course will prepare you reasonably well for an SAT subject test on the same subject, though you may need to do either additional self-studying or tutoring in order to secure a top score. (There are many AP courses, however, that do not have a corresponding SAT subject test, such as AP Micro or Macroeconomics.) The exceptions to taking an AP course and then taking an SAT subject test are the Math Level 1 and 2 SAT subject tests: there are no AP classes that correspond to the content tested on these, so they can be taken by any student who is prepared to take them.
- There are some colleges and some majors that expect (or sometimes require) certain SAT subject tests. For example, most applicants to Caltech take the Math Level 2 SAT subject test and a Science SAT subject test (Biology, Chemistry, and/or Physics). Similarly, students applying to STEM fields at any top 50 college should typically take the Math Level 2 and a Science SAT subject test.
Q: Should I take the Math Level 1 or Math Level 2 SAT subject test?
- All students could theoretically prepare for and do well on the Math Level 1 SAT subject test since this test is essentially the ACT Math section. However, most schools that are looking for SAT subject tests (the top 50 and especially the top 10 schools) expect to see Math Level 2 SAT subject test scores from students, so Math Level 1 scores — even very good scores — are not particularly helpful. (The only time Math Level 1 SAT subject test scores are helpful is usually to help recruited athletes fulfill top colleges’ admission expectations of two SAT subject test scores — and Math Level 1 is the simplest way to get at least one decent SAT subject test score.)
- All students (even if they did not take an AP course) could take the Math Level 2 exam. However, the questions on this exam are quite difficult, so typically only students quite strong in Math (usually who are getting 33+ on the ACT Math section or 750+ on the SAT Math section) prepare for and take the Math Level 2 SAT subject test. The curve on the Math Level 2 exam is usually quite forgiving (sometimes a student can get 6 out of the 50 questions wrong and still get a perfect score). But, the curve is so forgiving because the questions are so challenging.
Q: Can I still take an SAT subject test even if I did not take an AP class?
- Yes. Some students who have taken an Honors or Accelerated course choose to take an SAT subject test that corresponds to the subject matter of their course. However, most students do not score particularly well when doing so (almost all score below a 700 when doing so). Granted, there are some students who can score a 750+ on an SAT subject test after an Honors or Accelerated course in a subject, but it’s rare and usually takes significant additional studying and/or tutoring. To determine if taking an SAT subject test is feasible and how much preparation you might need to achieve your score goal on it, try out an official past SAT subject test to assess your current score.
- As mentioned, the Math Level 1 and Math Level 2 SAT subject tests do not correspond to an AP course, so any student could prepare for and take these exams.
- If a student needs an additional SAT subject test score, then (after the Math Level 1 SAT subject test) the next “easiest” SAT subject test to prepare for and take without an AP background in the subject is the Literature SAT subject test. That doesn’t mean the test is easy (it’s not). But it’s less work for most students to prepare for and score a 750+ (or at least 700+) on the Literature SAT subject test than on others, such as History or Science SAT subject tests.
Q: Can I take both the Ecology and Molecular Biology SAT subject tests on the same day?
Unfortunately not. You can only take one Biology SAT subject test on a given test date. After the first 60 questions, you must choose which version of the Biology exam you would like to complete.
Prepare for and Take the Test:
Q: Can I change which SAT subject tests I am taking on test day?
Yes. When you take the SAT subject tests, the proctor gives you a packet that contains one of every SAT subject test. You then choose which SAT subject test to take from the packet. After an hour when time is called, you could then leave and turn in your scantron with one SAT subject test completed or stay for the next hour and take another one of your choosing. The same process is repeated for the third hour. You could also just register for one SAT subject test to save yourself a seat at the test center and, if you choose to then take more than one SAT subject test, you are allowed to do so. The Collegeboard will bill you afterwards for the additional one or two tests that you were not originally registered for but decided to take on test day.
Q: What is the best way to prepare for SAT subject tests?
- When considering taking any SAT subject test, first take an official past exam in order to establish a baseline so that you know if taking or preparing for an SAT subject test makes sense to do and, if so, how much preparation it will likely take for you to reach your score goal.
- As mentioned, AP classes typically prepare students quite well for corresponding SAT subject tests. To achieve top scores (750+), however, most students need significant self-studying and/or tutoring from a specialist on the subject in order to re-learn the topics they forgot and to teach them the topics that their class might not have covered.
- For the Math Level 1 SAT subject test, preparation for the ACT Math section is typically sufficient or almost completely sufficient. If a student is scoring a 33+ on the ACT Math section, then they will likely score a 750+ on the Math Level 1 SAT subject test with even minimal additional preparation. If a student has taken the regular SAT, even if they have achieved a high score on the Math section (750+), they will still likely need quite significant tutoring for the Math Level 1 SAT subject test, because both the ACT Math and the Math Level 1 SAT subject test cover higher level Math topics than the regular SAT Math section does.
- For the Math Level 2 SAT subject test, students who take the regular SAT and do well on the Math section will typically need substantial tutoring in order to achieve an 800. Even students who take the ACT and do very well on the Math section (which lays a better foundation for the Math Level 2 SAT subject test than the SAT does) will still need significant additional tutoring.
- Preparation for all of the SAT subject tests must consist of taking real past exams, identifying the topics of weakness, learning and practicing those topics, and then continuing to take past exams until a student has learned all the necessary topics.
Q: Is there a guessing penalty on SAT subject tests?
Yes. Well, sort of. It’s not really a penalty: there is just no advantage from randomly guessing because the questions you guess correctly will be negated by the “penalty” from the questions you guess incorrectly. But guessing randomly is still not likely to decrease your score — it is just unlikely to increase your score, as explained in more detail here. Thus, it’s more accurate to say that there is not a “guessing penalty”; instead, there is simply no advantage gained from guessing like there is on the regular SAT and on the ACT. So, what should you do on SAT subject tests? If you can eliminate even one answer choice, then it is to your statistical advantage to guess. If you can’t eliminate any answers, then it’s safer just to leave the question blank.
Q: What are some advanced strategies for the Math Level 1 and Math Level 2 SAT subject tests?
- I tell my students, “If I had 5 seconds to teach you how to do these exams, the one thing I would say is: if there’s a function, graph it in your calculator.” That is the single best trick to know. To layer an advantage on top of that, you’re going to want to know how to find x-values, the minimum, maximum, and intercepts from the graph in your calculator.
- Calculator programs: Wow these are helpful… Shockingly so. Not only do the programs save time but they cut down on silly mistakes. We have a custom suite of calculator programs designed for both the Math Level 1 and Math Level 2 SAT subject tests.