What are SAT Subject Tests?
The SAT attempts to measure logical thinking, grammar, reading comprehension, and basic math skills. The SAT Subject Tests measure knowledge. The knowledge is of classroom subjects. Fewer test-taking strategies apply to the SAT Subject Tests. Aside from time management and format familiarity, success on the Subject Tests does not require new skills, just thorough knowledge of what should have been presented in the classroom and the textbook.
Subject Tests are a bit like APs, but shorter, and easier to study for. Subject Tests are Necessary at most of the “Top 60” universities, and “suggested” at a few others. Lesser-ranked colleges do not demand or recommend Subject Tests. (The University of California system once required SAT Subject Tests and made Subject Tests Scores equal in weight to SAT Math and Verbal scores, but it dropped this requirement in 2010).
Our preferred way to study for the SAT Subject tests is to go over your materials the same way you would prepare for a year-end final. Then take a full-hour practice test. One of each test is available in the book The Official Guide for All SAT Subject Tests, published by the College Board. (The best edition as of 2016 is ISBN-13: 9780874479751)
Analyze that test. Make sure you know the difference between a careless mistake and a topic you don’t know. For all topics you don’t know, make an appointment with a teacher at school. Make sure s/he fills you in on how to solve that problem. Many courses do not cover the exact same material tested on the SAT Subject Test, so don’t go with an attitude that “you failed to teach us this!” Instead, say “I’ve learned well what you presented to us, and in preparing for the Subject Test, I noticed five questions that are totally unsolvable. Allow me to give you these questions and next week please instruct me on how to attack them.”
If this is uncomfortable, or no good teacher is available, enlist a private tutor. A tutor will save you time and frustration by explaining answers to questions you missed. Often the tutor can teach a whole concept that was never explained clearly in class. And occasionally, a tutor will lecture on a topic the teacher never addressed in the class.
Unless there is an absolute requirement by the college you are dying to get into, only take Subject Test tests in subjects in which you know you can do well. Our best definition for “well” is “get a 700, or get a better score than your best SAT score.” Another definition is “get a better score than the college’s posted median SAT score.” If on a good day you don’t think you can attain either of those thresholds, do not take the test in that subject. Doing so will hurt you, unless you replace that score with a better score on a later test.
Scheduling the SAT Subject Tests
Subject Tests are offered six times a year, on the same dates as the SAT is given. By early in Sophomore year, students should plan carefully when they expect to take SAT Is and SAT Subject Tests. For most students in most subjects, the best time to take the SAT Subject Test is in May June of Sophomore year and again (for other subjects) in May and June of Junior year. This will coincide with studying for finals in that subject. You can only take three SAT Subject Tests on a single date, and we recommend doing only two, so here are good subjects to peel off for dates other than May and June:
- If you are completing a science class that you’ve done well in but won’t be continuing after freshman year, take that SAT Subject Test in May and June of Freshman year.
- If you spent the summer learning a language abroad, consider the November test date for the SAT Subject Test with Listening. If you’re simply in academic language study in the U.S., wait as long as you can before taking a language SAT Subject Test – you’ll be more proficient during Senior year.
- If you took US History as a sophomore and do a lot of summer reading, plan to take the US History test in October of Junior year. The US History test does NOT ask you to regurgitate dates, people and places, but instead demands knowledge of causes and trends.
Now, if you’re saying “there’s no SAT Subject Test on which I can score well right now”, then wait and prepare for the SAT Subject Test Math Level One and the US History. The Math Level One only goes over topics through Algebra I; though a tutor may be needed, any diligent “B” student can individually master 80% of the questions. The US History is not easy, but is very straightforward – no tricks, and many answers that are easy to eliminate if you paid average attention in your US History class.
If you feel you can get strong scores in 4 or more topics, it’s worth taking the tests in all four. Colleges will likely use your top three for their assessment. Use The Official SAT Study Guide for ALL Subject Tests. It contains one test in each of the 20 SAT Subjects, which you can take and score.
Things to be wary of:
- Taking three tests in a day. Though students are capable of powering up for three separate one-hour tests, most don’t. We have heard that scores in the final hour are typically the worst. If you are taking three tests, make sure you approach every one with vigor. Say “this subject test is my one and only thing on the agenda, and I’m going to nail it!”
- The Literature Test. It is very difficult to coach, and appears to have some answers that are subjective in each test. Students whose ambitions are very high (need a 750 or better) can’t afford to get more than 8 wrong. These students should take at least TWO practice tests, and consider not taking this test at all.
- Language Reading and Listening Tests. The “listening” version is offered once a year, in November. Unlike in most high school language classes, the speakers speak with the rapidity of natives. This catches many students by surprise and many just bail out of the test. Thus we recommend this version of the test only to native speakers and to students who have spent at least a few months living abroad. If you are in neither category, take the Language test without the listening component on some other date.
- Winging it. The College Board no longer allows “Score Choice” on the SAT Subject Tests; colleges will see your scores. If you’re serious about doing well on a test, you might as well prep for it. You’re almost certain to get a better score that way.
Ivy Bound Resources for Maximizing SAT Subject Test Scores in Math and Science
Proficient Instructors – Our tutors know the SAT. We take one or more of these exams ourselves each year. We help students know what to expect on each test and give strategies for successfully answering each type of question that regularly recurs.
Real SAT Subject Test Questions – We license full tests from the College Board as a supplement to the Ivy Bound materials and Barron’s workbook.
E-mail Explanations – to Real SAT SUBJECT TEST questions. We have composed these for our students. This is the only source we know of for comprehensive explanations to the published SAT Subject Tests.
Parent Seminars – “Know the SAT / Understanding College Admissions” – Students and parents are helped by proper planning. Ivy Bound instructors give monthly lectures by phone and can visit any parent group of 15 or more families who wish to learn about:
- What is tested on the SAT, and how should kids attack it?
- Where does the SAT fit into the college admissions scheme?
- Where do the SAT Subject Test tests fit in and when should we schedule these?
- Is the SAT fair? Is it “coachable”? Is it culturally biased?
- What’s the use of the PSAT?
- How does the ACT compare with the SAT?
- What are AP tests and when do students take them?
- How does Early Decision affect admissions?
- What else are colleges looking for?
- The Ivy Bound course and how to get the most out of it.
SAT Subject Test Conference Calls – the Wednesday night before the June and December SAT, 9:15pm Eastern. One instructor is on the line to answer students’ home study questions and to review general concepts.