Choosing SAT Subject Tests to Maximize Your Scores—And Your Time

Ah, spring! The birds are chirping, the snow is melting . . . and juniors everywhere are buckling down to study for Advanced Placement (AP) exams and SAT Subject Tests in what is likely to be the busiest season of their academic lives.

In the spring, many families come to our firm wondering which classes best prepare their children for SAT Subject Tests, how many Subject Tests their children should take, and whether there’s any magic combination of subjects or scores that could win over the steeliest of admissions officials.

Nina Marks’ advice simplifies families’ decision-making process: “The scarcest resource for high school juniors and seniors is time. They must focus on the ‘use it or lose it’ opportunities first.”

Among those opportunities are students’ regular coursework and Advanced Placement exams, which are only given once per year. In May and June, having done extensive studying for their courses and any AP exams they’re taking, students are often very well prepared for SAT Subject Tests in the same or similar subjects. In this way, students can maximize the rewards of their studies.

Who Should Take SAT Subject Tests and Why

Highly selective colleges frequently ask for two to three Subject Test scores. They are scored like SAT sections, on a scale from 200 to 800. Although the College Board allows students to take three Subject Tests in one sitting, we recommend that students space out their Subject Tests so they take no more than two on one test date. Otherwise, our data shows that students get tired and begin to make avoidable errors.

Frequently, students taking the ACT do not have to submit Subject Test scores, but many students still benefit from taking them in order to emphasize their academic strengths. For instance, students at competitive high schools may receive a “B” for high quality work, and high AP exam and Subject Test scores can show colleges the true rigor of their coursework compared to that of their peers nationwide.

When in doubt about which SAT Subject Tests to take, we recommend that students take College Board practice tests. Since time is a scarce resource, we want students to play to their own strengths by taking the tests on which they score the highest. Proctored practice Subject Tests can be taken in our offices, and the College Board has released old Subject Tests that students can proctor for themselves, if they live outside the area.

Timing is Crucial: Options for Different Types of Subject Tests

Students aiming for May and June Subject Tests should begin review and memorization in March in order to maximize their scores. Students can review material from a test prep book individually, create a study group, or work with a tutor, but they should work out a timeline for reviewing and practicing the most important concepts and skills well before their test dates.

To make use of all the preparation they’ve done over the school year, students should take the following Subject Tests in May or June: U.S. History, World History, Biology, and Chemistry. Note that World History is offered only in June, not in May.

Students planning on taking the Physics Subject Test, including many prospective engineers, should be careful. “The AP Physics curriculum no longer aligns neatly with the Subject Test,” says Marks Education Tutor and Physicist, Dan Hertz. So students may need to self-study with a Subject Test review book, or engage a tutor to learn some of the material they haven’t covered in their class.

In contrast to the more memorization heavy science and history tests, students can take Literature, Math 1, Math 2 or language exams at any time in the academic year. These tests are based on skills students are using continuously. For many busy juniors, this may mean leaving one or two Subject Tests for the fall of their senior year—or conversely, some students can take these tests early, even in their sophomore year, if prepared. Note that the language tests “with listening”—which test students’ ability to understand the spoken language—are offered only in November each year. (Choosing between the Math 1 and Math 2? See our useful rundown of their differences.)

The ACT Math section has content very similar to the Math 1 Subject Test, so students benefit from taking the ACT in late April, for example, and then the Math 1 in May. The Math 1 has different pacing and strategies, however, so we do recommend some specific prep for that test, if possible, either with a tutor or a test prep book.

While each Subject Test demands a different knowledge base and set of strategies, we hope that students will be able to avoid unnecessary stress by focusing on only those tests aligned with their academic strengths and passions. By planning ahead, students can set up a reasonable testing schedule and look ahead to a summer of sunshine, vacation, and . . . college essay writing.


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