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SAT Subject Tests Matter

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The SAT II Subject Tests are an important, but often neglected part of the college application process. Indeed, the exams are challenging both in the breadth of material for which students are responsible and in terms of the scale used to produce final scores -- SAT II Subject Tests attract a self-selecting group of test takers, which makes achieving a "good" score highly competitive. But however tempting it is to delay planning a strategy for taking them, it is definitely not a good idea to procrastinate for too long. And right now, when students are heading into the second half of the academic calendar, it is, in fact, a good time to move these exams from the back, to the front burner. So right now I want to correct some common misconceptions and provide sound advice to navigate yet another obstacle in the undergraduate admission gauntlet.

First things first, let's identify who is required to take the exams and how many of them they are required to take. Students who plan on applying to elite private colleges and universities -- Ivy League and other selective institutions -- will more than likely have to take two SAT II Subject Tests and for a few of these schools (e.g., Georgetown), they will even be required to submit three test scores. Contrary to popular belief, replacing the SAT with the ACT will not excuse students from the SAT II Subject Test requirement at many colleges and universities (e.g., Williams and Princeton). In sum, while there are some institutions that accept the ACT as a substitute for SAT and SAT II Subject Test Scores (e.g., Yale), there are many that do not. And ideally, students will not allow their college lists to be limited by something as superficial as standardized test requirements.

Next, students must decide which Subject Tests to take and when to take them. There are more than twenty Subject Tests offered across five disciplines: English, History, Mathematics, Science, and Foreign Languages. Subject Tests are offered six times every school year on the same dates as the SAT with the exception of the March test date. Students may take up to three Subject Tests on the same date. That seems to be an overwhelming number of possibilities, but for most high school students options are actually somewhat limited. While high school course curricula do not precisely mirror SAT II Subject Tests, there is almost always significant overlap. Therefore, the best time to take a Subject Test is immediately after completing a parallel course at school. Because almost all high school courses are a full-year, students should expect to take Subject Tests on the June test date, which is approximately the same time they study for spring semester finals. Happily, preparation for an SAT Subject Test often functions synergistically with preparation for final exams. If students strategically plan, they can be in a position to kill two birds with one stone.

There are no black and white rules governing which SAT II Subject Tests students should take to optimize their application, but there are two factors they should consider. They should choose exams that provide an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of material not already tested on the SAT or ACT. The Math I and Literature SAT II Subject Tests, for example, are very similar in content to the Math and Critical Reading sections of the SAT I and provide college admission officers with little new information. And secondly, students who are considering taking one of the Foreign Language exams should keep in mind that they attract native and/or fluent speakers who make the scale unreasonably difficult for those who do not have similar backgrounds.

Daunting as it may seem, it's wise for students and their families to begin mapping out appropriate SAT II Subject Tests and testing dates as early as 9th grade. It's a tremendous advantage to have these "pesky" exams in the rear view mirror by the end of the junior year when the college application process is definitely in high gear for everyone.

This post has been updated since its original publication.