The SAT Tutor: How Do I Choose Which Subject Tests to Take?

Posted by Claire Salant on 4/3/15 10:00 AM

templeton-solomon-imageKing Solomon tries to decide which SAT Subject Test to take.

It’s a glorious time of year for high school juniors, with SAT and ACT tests wrapping up and spring break right around the corner. But just as you’re are getting ready to breathe a deep sigh of relief over your vacations, you have to face yet another round of standardized tests for college admissions: SAT Subject tests.

Though not required everywhere, these tests remain an important requirement for top universities and liberal arts colleges nationwide, and thus an important step for ambitious teenagers everywhere. However, unlike the SAT or ACT, you get to choose your own topics, meaning you can customize the last step of your standardized testing experience to your own personal strengths. While this gives you more freedom than other standardized tests, it also leaves you without any guidance on how to choose among an overwhelming number of options.

Not only is important to pick a test that emphasizes your best qualities, there are a number of pitfalls to choosing the wrong test. If you pick an SAT subject test and then wish to cancel it, you have to cancel every single subject test you took that day—and there are only a handful of Subject test days. So, as a high school junior already juggling the SAT or ACT, classes at school, and the beginnings of college admissions, how do you choose which SAT subject test is right for you?

Rule 1: Check your college list

Most colleges that ask for SAT subject tests offer some guidance about what to take, but as a general rule they ask for two tests, one in the humanities and one in math or science. A very small number of colleges, like MIT, ask for specific tests, and an even smaller number, including Georgetown, ask for three tests. Your first step should be to check your college list and see what they want—and if they have made your decision for you!

Rule 2: Minimize your studying

Or, put another way, maximize the studying that you are already doing. There are several different opportunities to take the SAT Subject tests, but the best strategy is to pair both the timing and the test topics to AP tests, New York Regents or other state subject-specific exams, and final exams, so that your SAT Subject test compliments the prep you’re already doing in and out of school. This way you don’t have to pile on additional material, and you can tell what topics you feel more confident with based on your progress in individual topics you’ve made so far. You can find samples of SAT Subject tests here.

If you’re not taking any exams and you’re not sure what to do, you can also see how you did on the SAT and ACT tests. The Literature test is an extended version of the Critical Reading section on the SAT, but with poetry, play excerpts, and different kinds of reading comprehension that also resemble the ACT. The tests for Math 1 and Math 2 are similar to the math on the SAT but with more school-specific content, which also resembles the math on the ACT. If you’ve studied for either of these tests already and have built a foundation in either one, you can also consider Literature and Math 1 or Math 2.

Rule 3: Understand the score curve 

The score curve explains how your raw score—the total number of questions you answer correctly, incorrectly, and skip—converts to your scaled score out of 800. It’s different on every test, but each one tells you a lot about what the College Board expects of its test takers. For example, the US History SAT Subject test has 90 questions in just 60 minutes, which is an incredibly fast-paced test. However, the College Board publishes sample tests and score curves that show students can skip up to 10 questions and still get a perfect score—demonstrating that students do not have to work as quickly if they know the material well.

Understanding the score curves can be difficult, but Cambridge Coaching can help you make sense of them and choose the right test for you. To contact an SAT Subject test tutor or arrange for SAT tutoring in Boston, New York, or online, contact us at 617.714.5956, or email 

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our private SAT tutorsCracking the Chemistry SAT Subject Test, Should I Take the Chinese SAT Subject Test?, Demystifying the Literature Subject Test.

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Tags: SAT