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Why Take the SAT II Subject Tests?

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Taking the SATs

Everyone knows how important standardized tests are in the college application process. But what about SAT Subject Tests? How important are they to college admissions and should everyone take them?

What are SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Tests are hour-long content based tests, which allow you to demonstrate proficiency in a specific subject. There are 20 Subject Tests in all and unlike the SAT where you have to complete all three sections, you get to choose which Subject Tests you would like to take. Subject Tests are offered on the same dates as the SAT and you can take up to three tests in one sitting.

You can check out a complete list of all Subject Tests on the College Board website here.

What do college counselors say about SAT Subject Tests?

College counselors know the subtleties in language are important when it comes to college expectations regarding Subject Tests, especially at schools where admissions are highly competitive. The International College Counselors noted:

Universities used to require or request the submission of three SAT Subject Test scores as part of a complete application for admission. Now at many schools, like Georgetown, the language on the test policies has been changed to strongly recommended.

The testing policy at Stanford University states: “We recommend taking at least two SAT Subject Tests, as such information will assist us in our evaluation process. Applicants, however, who choose not to take SAT Subject Tests will not be at a disadvantage in the admission process.”

Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, explained via an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed:

Georgetown, like Harvard and other selective schools, finds SAT IIs to be quite predictive of academic success at a high school level and we feel they are a valuable addition to SAT Is or ACTs. However, we are aware that for a variety of reasons, students may find it difficult to submit these results so we want to make it clear that they can still apply and we will do our best to consider them fairly based upon the information they are able to provide.

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Which tests should you take?

If you are especially proficient in a subject, consider taking the test in that area. No college requires more than three Subject Tests, and most colleges don’t require any. However, if you can do well on the tests, you should take the exams. The tests help with course placement and even college credit once you are offered admission. Take a few practice tests beforehand and if you are scoring in the 600s for example, strongly consider taking the test. Your best bet in scoring high on the test is to take it as close to course completion as possible. Selective colleges that require the tests often suggest a math and then one or two other exams, such as a science or history or language.

Note, however, that taking the subject tests and doing poorly on them could have the reverse effect. You could undermine solid grades by getting sub-par SAT Subject Test scores. Peterson’s, in a Q&A about SAT Subject Tests, gives the following example:

If you are taking a moderately strong curriculum at your high school, and getting Bs and B+s in regular college prep and a few honors classes, including Honors American History and Honors/Accelerated Algebra II, but then take the SAT Subject Test in American History and Math Level I and get 400 or 500 range scores, this could give colleges the sense that you are being graded too easily in your school, and are not learning a lot in your classes.

If the colleges in which you are interested do not require SAT Subject Tests, and you don't think you'll do well on them, then you should consider skipping the tests. Only take those in which you think you can earn a score on par with your SAT. If, on the other hand, some colleges that are recruiting you require SAT Subject Tests, then you'll need to take them, almost regardless of your scores, in order to fulfill entrance requirements so as to be eligible for recruiting.

Additionally, if you are considering a specific career path that requires you to demonstrate an ability to excel in that discipline, taking the SAT Subject Test for that path will demonstrate to admissions officers that you are a qualified candidate. For instance, if you’re declaring pre-med as a major, taking the Biology Subject Test and doing well could increase your admission chances.

Is there a substitute for SAT Subject Tests?

Many students take the ACT standardized test instead of the SAT. An interesting twist to taking the ACT is that a number of colleges accept it in lieu of the SAT Subject Tests. Before choosing this alternative, however, check with the colleges and your school counselor to affirm that this option is available.

Which colleges require SAT Subject Tests for admission?

As we previously stated, not all colleges require SAT Subject Tests. Consult the college’s website regarding their policies about these tests. CompassPrep.com provides a list with clickable links to each college’s recommendations and requirements. They also list the colleges that allow you to replace the tests with the ACT.

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