Tuesday, February 18, 2014

SAT Subject Tests: A Crash Course

What Are They?

The SAT Subject Tests are one-hour exams designed to test your knowledge in specific subjects. Students can choose from among 20 different tests in five subject areas. The tests are based on material that is taught in high school, and they give you the chance to showcase what you have learned and demonstrate to colleges how you are uniquely qualified in your best subjects. If you're doing well in your classes (and especially if you're taking advanced classes such as honors or AP) you're probably prepared to take subject tests and do well on them. 

Should I Take Subject Tests?

Around 160 colleges and universities require or recommend that students provide two (and sometimes three) Subject Test scores along with their SAT or ACT scores. They may also require scores if you are applying for a specific major. Check the websites or call the admissions offices of the colleges you are planning to apply to to see if you will need to submit scores. 

Even colleges that don't require Subject Test scores will often consider them when reviewing your application. This can be a great opportunity to differentiate yourself from other applicants and give colleges are more complete picture of your academic interests and abilities. If you're planning to apply to a particular major or program, subject tests can also let you show your preparation in those areas. 

In short, if testing doesn't make you a crazy person or a complete basket case, it's probably worth it to spend an afternoon taking Subject Tests in areas where you excel. 

When Should I Take The Tests?

Since Subject Tests are based on material taught in high school, it makes sense to take the tests in subjects you are currently studying (and doing well in) as close to the end of the course as possible. For example, if you take Chemistry as a sophomore and are getting great grades, take the Subject Test in May or June of sophomore year when the information is still fresh in your mind. After taking the main SAT reasoning test in March of junior year, you might take Math 2, US History, literature, or some combination of tests in May or June. 

If you're taking AP classes, you're exceptionally well-prepared to succeed on the Subject Tests, but the college-level knowledge that AP classes teach isn't required to score well.

You can take up to three Subject Tests at a single administration, but you can't take the reasoning test and Subject Tests on the same day. 

Am I Prepared?

For the Literature Subject Test, 3-4 years of college-preparatory study is recommended. The test reflects what is commonly taught in high school, but due to differences in high school classes, it's likely that you'll find questions on material that you've never studied. Don't worry about this: It's possible to do very well on the test even if you haven't learned everything that is covered (you can even get an 800 without answering every question correctly). This also applies to the U.S. and World History tests. 

After taking one year of Biology, Chemistry or Physics, you are ready to take Subject Tests in those areas. Again, don't be concerned if you haven't learned all the material that is on the test. 

There are two Biology tests: Biology E and Biology M. Take Biology E if you feel more comfortable answering questions about biological communities, populations and energy flow. Take Biology M if you feel more comfortable answering questions about biochemistry, cellular structure and processes, such as respiration and photosynthesis. You can't take both tests on the same date, but you can take them on two different test dates.  

While the SAT offers two levels of Math Subject Tests, Math 1 and Math 2, almost all colleges are only interested in Math 2, which covers three years of college-prep mathematics (two years of Algebra plus Geometry) as well as trigonometry and elementary functions (pre-calculus). For most students, this means that the earliest the Math 2 Subject Test should be taken is the end of junior year. 

There are also two types of foreign language tests: With listening and without. Like Math 2, almost all colleges want only scores from foreign languages "with listening". You should have at least two years of strong preparation in the language (more is better). Ideally, take the test as close to the end of the last level of the language that you plan to take in high school. 

Just to make things even more fun, the College Board only offers foreign language tests with listening in November. In general, this means the best (and probably only) time to take the tests are in November of senior year.

The College Board website has a wealth of information to help you learn about and sign up for Subject Tests. 

Even if you find you don't need to take them, Subject Tests are probably worth the time and brain fatigue. When it comes to college admissions, you never know what might make the difference between getting in and getting passed over. It can pay to take advantage of every opportunity you've got to shine.