What Are SAT Subject Tests?

Except for those colleges and universities that have gone test-optional, every school you’ll apply to requires a different combination of the SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests. Some schools don’t require SAT Subject tests, and some require you submit ACT scores or the SAT plus Subject Tests. These combinations are always listed on each individual school’s admissions requirement page online.

While it’s easy to be over-eager about college applications and worry about them far too soon, the SAT Subjects Tests are one of the best reasons to plan as far ahead as you are possibly able.

SAT Subject Tests are one-hour, single-topic standardized tests offered on the same test dates as the SAT. While you can register to take multiple Subject Tests on one day, you can only take either the SAT or Subject Tests on a single test date. The SAT Subject tests are offered in August, October, November, December, May, and June.

SAT Subject Tests are scored on the same scale as the individual tests on the SAT: you can score anywhere between a 200 and an 800 as a result of converting your raw score to a scaled score influenced by the curve of students testing that day.

The SAT Subject Tests each cover the following topics:

Math Level 1

The Math Level 1 SAT Subject Test covers 50 questions, all multiple choice. It covers many of the same topics as the SAT itself, but at an elevated level. It includes numbers and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, data analysis, statistics, and probability. You can see previously released tests in The Official SAT Subject Test In Mathematics Level 1 Study Guide.

Math Level 2

The Math Level 2 SAT Subject Test is also a 50-question multiple choice test, and it covers most of the same material as the Level 1, but it also includes trigonometry and elementary functions. The Level 2 test is arguably more difficult than the Level 1, as its name implies, but the curve is renowned for being more forgiving than the Level 1. The College Board offers four real practice tests in The Official SAT Subject Test in Mathematics Level 2 Study Guide.

Biology E/M

The SAT Biology Subject Test is actually two different tests: you choose if you’re going to take the Subject Test in Ecological Biology (Biology-E) or Molecular Biology (Biology-M). Each test includes 80 multiple choice questions: 60 are common to each test and then the other 20 are specific to the special test you’ve chosen (E or M).

According to the College Board, the Biology-E test “leans more toward biological communities, populations, and energy flow,” while the Biology-M test is “more geared toward biochemistry, cellular structure and processes, such as respiration and photosynthesis.”

Naturally, you should choose the vein that’s easier for you and to which you’ve had more exposure. You can review two real practice tests for the Biology test in The Official SAT Subject Test in Biology Study Guide.

Chemistry

The SAT Subject Test in Chemistry is a 60-minute test including 85 questions. This fast-paced test does not permit calculator use, but obviously involves calculating for simple equations, as well as some algebraic thinking. Like the SAT itself, the Chemistry SAT Subject Test is interesting students applying scientific knowledge (rather than wrote memorization) and synthesizing knowledge to make new observation. This test is commonly taken after students enroll in an honors or AP Chemistry course.

The College Board offers to official free practice tests in The Official SAT Subject Test in Chemistry Study Guide. While you’ll need to find survey and prep material elsewhere, real tests are always your best resource. The Barron’s guide is usually a little more difficult and detailed than the real test reflects, but that feature can actually be a great resource if you’re shooting for a top score.

Physics

The Physics SAT Subject Test is a 60-minute test that includes 75 multiple choice questions–and it covers a huge quantity of material. The Physics tests covers (but is not limited to) mechanics, electricity and magnetism, waves and optics, heat and thermodynamics, and modern physics (like quantum phenomena and nuclear and particle physics). The good news is that the curve on the Physics test is incredibly forgiving, so if you’ve taken a strong physics class at school, you can still earn well into the 700s (or even earn an 800) without being familiar with everything on the test.

You can see two real practice tests from the College Board in The Official SAT Subject Test in Physics Study Guide.

Literature

The Literature SAT Subject Test is an advanced test in close reading and interpretation best selected by students with a strong grasp on historical texts and interpreting poetry. These 60 multiple choice questions range from Renaissance to contemporary literature, most of which comes from America and Britain, but some of which is literature written in English but outside the U.S. and British canon. The Literature test also often includes a passage from a play, as well.

U.S. History

The U.S. History SAT Subject Test is a 60-minute, 90-question multiple choice test that covers U.S. History in a comprehensive manner from pre-Columbus on. Fortunately, the College Board is more forthcoming with prep materials for the U.S. History test and has released several previously administered tests for your use. You can find The Official SAT Subject Test Study Guide in U.S. History here.

World History

The SAT Subject Test in World History is a 60-minute, 95-question multiple choice test that covers world history tracing all the way back to ancient times. It only offered in August, September, and June (probably because students emphasize taking this test directly and only after they’ve completed a course in World History, preferably Advanced Placement). This test covers and enormous survey of material, but it’s still possible to get a perfect score without familiarity with every topic on the test.

The College Board offers four practice tests, two of which are previously released tests, in The Official SAT Subject Test in World History Study Guide.  

There are also nine SAT Subject Tests that cover various languages:

  • Spanish
  • Spanish with Listening
  • French
  • French with Listening
  • Chinese with Listening
  • Italian
  • German
  • German with Listening
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Latin
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening

People take the SAT Subject Tests in languages not only for college application requirements but also for placement in college-level language courses, as many colleges require a placement test before students are permitted to enroll in any language other than a beginning course.

The listening portions of the SAT Subject Tests are notorious and require students to bring their own portable CD players with headphones to the test. Many of the listening tests are only offered once a year and the test “with listening” is not offered on the same date as the test without listening; it’s not the same policy as the SAT on which the extra essay portion is simply optional.

As I said at the top, you must plan ahead, especially if you’ll be taking a language test in November; this will prevent you from taking the SAT on that test date. I would strongly recommend you check out the College Board’s official information about Language SAT Subject Tests.

When Should I Take an SAT Subject Test?

It’s usually best to take a Subject Test after you’ve taken the class the test pertains to, simply for efficiency: it’s easier to study for something you’ve just learned rather than waiting several semesters to revive the info in your head. It’s especially common for students in IB/AP classes to take the AP exam in that course and then take the SAT Subject Test in that topic, as well, within weeks of each other.

Planning ahead comes into play because these tests are course-specific. Because different high schools have different guidelines about when students take AP science classes in particular, it’s not uncommon for students to take a Biology Subject Test at the end of tenth grade—so it’s good to know ahead of time if that’s an appropriate plan for you.

Special Considerations for Specific SAT Subject Tests

Should You Take SAT Subject Tests Math Level 1 or Level 2?

While you should certainly take SAT Subject Tests in those subjects in which you have the most experience and knowledge, you should also take SAT Subject Tests that display skills in the area of study you’re suggesting you’ll want to pursue once you’re in college.

Don’t shortchange yourself: take the Math Level 2 if you’ve successfully taken Trigonometry and Pre-calculus as it’ll likely feel far easier because it relies less on topics which reach farther back in your memory. The curve is far more forgiving on the Level 2 than it is on the Level 1, as well.

If you’re applying for engineering or another hard science, it’s obviously going to be more effective on an application to take the Math Level 2 and a hard science SAT Subject Test. That being said, there’s also something to be said for a student who plans to apply for a science degree who is also able to perform exceptionally well on literature and history tests.

So much of these decisions is about strategically presenting your fullest self while also showing as much believable sense of direction in your college application as possible. Consult with your college counselor for more insight—and do so early on.  

Should You Take SAT Subject Tests in a Language?  

This is such common sense but it bears repeating: high numbers of native, fluent speakers take the SAT Subject Tests in their home languages and set the curve with perfect scores. If you don’t speak a language other than English with exceptional fluency and understanding, common wisdom dictates that you not take a test that you can’t compete on.  

If you are a native speaker, it’s also key to remember that the SAT Subject Tests in languages test formal grammar and tense construction–the topics normally taught in high school–so it’s important to understand what you’re getting into. This is not a test of colloquial, everyday conversation. Use an official study guide to get an idea of what material is on the test.