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As a college counselor, I see a lot of confusion surrounding the SAT Subject Tests (formerly—and still commonly—known as the SAT IIs).

For many students, these tests, as well as the AP exams, just don’t register as that important, and so some students don’t spend a lot of time preparing for them. This attitude is, to a certain extent, perfectly understandable.

Although many competitive colleges still require the SAT or the ACT, requirements for SAT Subject Tests are highly variable.

Are SAT Subject Tests required?

Many schools no longer require the SAT Subject Tests at all.

The California State University and the UC system haven’t demanded SAT Subject Test scores for several years, and this is not just a public school phenomenon. USC doesn’t require the submission of SAT Subject Test scores, with the exception of home-schooled students. And for a highly prestigious example, we can add Stanford to our list.

Should I Take SAT Subject Tests?

Just because schools such as USC and Stanford don’t require the SAT Subject Tests, it doesn’t follow that students should not take them. On the contrary, in my experience, the vast majority of successful USC applicants did take at least two Subject Tests. And both the UCs and Stanford University recommend that applicants submit SAT Subject Test scores. Other colleges have still different policies surrounding the SAT Subject Tests.

Claremont McKenna College, a highly selective liberal arts college in southern California, only requires home-schooled students to submit SAT Subject Test scores (one in math, one in any other subject).

But Pomona College, right down the street from Claremont McKenna, requires that students who are submitting the SAT also submit scores from two SAT Subject Tests in different fields. (Students also have the option of submitting just an ACT score in lieu of the three SAT scores.)

Not only do different universities have very different SAT Subject Test requirements, certain majors or special degree programs often have specific Subject Test requirements.

For example, students applying to study engineering are often required to submit scores from one of the two math and one of the three science SAT Subject Tests. And even when this is not explicitly required, admissions officers will certainly expect aspiring engineers to have taken at least some of these tests and will look closely at any test scores in these subjects.

Which SAT Subject Test Should I Take?

As this brief sampling of admissions requirements reveals, there is a wide variety of policies with regard to the SAT Subject Tests—and these policies are constantly being reevaluated and altered.

This means that it is extremely important for students and their parents to carefully research the requirements at their target universities. It also means that deciding which tests to take is not a simple matter.

Having said that, I can still offer some general suggestions.

First of all, when a particular SAT Subject Test is required, it takes on a higher priority.

For example, students applying to MIT are required to take one of the math SAT Subject Tests and a science SAT Subject Tests. Now among successful applicants to MIT, 75% had math scores of 800. What does this mean? Remember that having an SAT test that falls within a college’s range of admitted SAT scores is a minimal hurdle candidates have to pass to be seriously considered.

For candidates at MIT, attaining a 750+ in the Math 2 Subject Test should be considered a comparable minimal hurdle. Students who do not meet that criterion must have something exceptional elsewhere on their application to make up for their below-average SAT Subject Test score.

Also, students can use the Subject Tests to demonstrate their interests or highlight their strengths.

Candidates who have special aptitude in learning foreign languages, for example, might choose to demonstrate this through SAT Subject Tests, especially if they haven’t taken these languages in school and so can’t prove their level of mastery through grades.

Students can also use the Subject Tests to compensate in part for a weak school grade.

Say Ben is a student who has been pulling As, with the occasional B+, in his science classes. However, he really struggles the first semester of his Physics class and ends up with a B–. Now Ben might want to focus his energies on really acing the SAT Physics test. A very strong score—say, a 770—will prove to admissions officers that he has mastered the material. It will also show character: instead of trying to avoid a subject he has found challenging, Ben has obviously decided to dig in and really fight to master the stuff. However, students shouldn’t rely on this option too much or over-exercise it.

Even a perfect SAT Subject Test score can’t fully make up for poor schoolwork. And students with high SATs but lots of low grades showcase their intelligence at the expense of their character: they’re evidently smart students who are nevertheless irresponsible and disengaged in their day-to-day schoolwork.

Why Take SAT Subject Tests?

What about students who don’t fall under any of the categories above: students who don’t have specific majors or colleges in mind, or who don’t know where their academic interests lie, or who don’t have other pressing reasons to focus their energies on any particular SAT Subject Test?

At the broadest level of generality, I advise students who hope to be competitive at top-tier private colleges to aim to secure at least two, ideally three strong SAT Subject Test scores in different areas (one in math or science, and one in the humanities).

However, I stress that the details of each student’s academic history and goals will influence what is right for that student to do when it comes to the SAT subject tests. In the next post, I’ll present a case study to bring together and illustrate the topics discussed so far.

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