Should You Take Any SAT Subject Tests?

As someone who writes a lot about college admissions, I have to come clean. Back when I was a senior in high school, I knew none of it. I was wildly unprepared for the college application process. Not only was I behind in most of the things I should have been doing to prepare, but I didn’t even know that I needed to be doing them.

Taking an SAT subject test can be very confusing.

Jenna Marbles / Giphy

On the first day of senior English class, my teacher described the assignments we could expect throughout the semester. One of the first things we’d turn in, he said, were the rough drafts of our college admissions essays. I was dumbfounded. Until that moment, I’d had no idea that an essay was a required part of most college applications.

That wasn’t the worst of it. After all, at least I caught on several months before I had to submit the essay with the Common App. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the SAT Subject Tests.

I started hearing that phrase—SAT Subject Test—a lot. “When you take the SAT Subject Tests…” or “You’ll want to study for the SAT Subject Tests…” said my teachers constantly. I thought they were just referring to the subjects tested on the regular SAT, math and verbal, not additional college admissions exams. How naïve I was. In fact, it wasn’t until October or so, when I was combing my dream school’s admissions website once more, that I reread its application requirements. “Scores from the SAT” and “Scores from two SAT Subject Tests” were very separate bullet points. A quick internet search told me everything I needed to know. The tests were not one and the same.

What are the SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT Subject Tests are standardized tests used for college admissions. They test applicants on a subject(s) of their choice.

What subjects can I choose from?

Test-takers can choose from 21 subjects, over half of them languages.

A person flips through a book and wonders "Do I need to take SAT Subject Tests?"

US National Archives / Giphy

  • Mathematics Level I (geometry and algebra)
  • Mathematics Level II (material covered in Mathematics Level I, plus precalculus and trigonometry)
  • Biology (ecological)
  • Biology (molecular)
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Literature
  • U.S. History
  • World History
  • Spanish
  • Spanish with Listening
  • German
  • German with Listening
  • French
  • French with Listening
  • Italian
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Latin
  • Chinese with Listening
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening

How much is each test?

There is a $26.00 registration fee for any given test date. On that date, you may take up to three Subject Tests. Each regular Subject Test costs $20.00, and each Subject Test with Listening costs $26.00.

How are the tests scored?

The tests are graded on a 200–800 scale.

How long is each test?

You will have 60 minutes to take each Subject Test. For tests with listening, 40 minutes are devoted to usage and grammar, and 20 minutes are devoted to listening.

The number of questions on each test varies by subject. You can find subject-specific information (and practice questions) here.

A student looks at text printed on his hand that says "You can do it!" during an SAT subject test.

Fickle David / Tumbler

And the biggest question: Do I need to take them?

It depends on the schools you are applying to. About 30 schools require SAT Subject Test scores as part of admission, and dozens more consider them or recommend you submit them. It is a good idea to submit SAT Subject Test scores if your school considers them because they beef up your application and highlight your strengths.

If any of the schools on your short-list considers SAT Subject Test scores, you should absolutely take the tests.

How many tests do I need to take?

Most of the schools that consider SAT Subject Test scores recommend that applicants take two or three tests. Check with each school you’re considering (it might recommend you take a specific subject), or sign up for three to be safe.

When should I take them?

Early. Savvy juniors may decide to get them over with now so that they don’t have to worry about them during crunch time next year. All seniors who are applying to college this fall should register now, and those applying early admission should register for the soonest test date. For seniors applying regular decision, the last date to test is December 3, 2016. Keep in mind, however, that SAT Subject Tests with Listening are only available in November.

Tick, tock, tick, tock


When I found out everything I needed to know about the SAT Subject Tests (read: when I found out that it wasn’t just another name for the regular ol’ SAT), I registered immediately. With such a late start, I didn’t have much time to prepare, so I chose to test in English and Spanish simply because those subjects came easy to me. And in the end, I made the right choice.

The SAT Subject Tests ended up being the easiest college admissions exams that I took. Maybe it was because I didn’t have enough time to let test-taking anxiety sink in, or maybe it was because I chose the tests that played to my strengths. As the SAT Subject Test website says, “The tests are a great way to show colleges your interest in specific majors or programs of study (e.g., engineering, pre-med, cultural studies), and to highlight your strong points.”
It worked out for me. My school received my scores before the deadline, and all was well. And it will work out for you, too. You even have a head start; you already know the difference between the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests.

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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