SAT Subject Tests: Myth vs. Reality
March 10, 2021
Make sure you know the facts about the SAT subject tests before you decide which ones to take.
If you are anything like my parents and me, you are probably browsing the internet for college admissions information because it is junior year, and that is the only reason that you stumbled across this article. Hence, it will probably annoy you to know that freshman year really is a great time to start thinking about the SAT Subject tests. That doesn't mean that junior year is a bad time; it just means that it would be better if you could get these tests out of the way early.
But I am getting ahead of myself. To begin with, let me explain what the SAT Subject tests are and why you even want to think about taking them.
The SAT Subject tests are one-hour tests that each cover one high school subject, such as Biology or German. They are either required or recommended by most competitive schools, namely these. Hence, if you are thinking of applying to any of said schools in the future or now, you will want to plan on taking at least a couple subject tests. My co-worker Dan Edmonds wrote a very useful blog about which subject tests you may want to take and why. I would like to expand on it briefly and dispel some of the myths surrounding the subjects that I teach: the sciences and math.
There are many myths surrounding the subject tests.
I have heard that students should not take the subject test until they have taken the AP class, that students shouldn't take the test unless they got As in that subject, and that students should only take the tests that fit the subjects they are thinking of majoring in. All of these statements are well-meaning, but false.
In reality, The SAT Subject tests are best taken after a year of the subject being tested has been completed, and many times, as I said before, that year may be freshman or sophomore year; for example, most students take Biology freshman year. This has the added bonus of allowing students to get a test out of the way before the pressures of junior year roll around.
Before you decide whether to a take test, you should try a practice test and see how you score.
Be aware that you will probably not get the score that you want on the first try; just as you want to study for a final exam, you will want to study for the subject tests (ideally at the same time that you do study for that final exam). So if you get a score you're unhappy with on the practice test, don't give up hope: it is not unimaginable that you will be able to bring up your score at least_ 100 points, likely more, especially if you decide to hire a tutor. Of course, you should take practice tests first on those subjects you feel most comfortable with (even if it is a course you took a year or two ago); even if you don't get a score you love, if you recognize most of the material, thats a good indicator that a given subject test is worth prepping for.
The science and math tests are Biology (E or M), Chemistry, Physics, Math 1, and Math 2. With the exception of Biology (which I will address separately) these subjects are mainly about problem-solving.
If you know how to do one kinematics problem in Physics, you can do them all. If you know PV=NRT in Chemistry, you can do any ideal gas problem. Strangely enough, if you know a surprisingly small amount of trigonometry and how to test out numbers on answer choices, you can do any number of nasty-looking trig identity problems on the SAT Math 1 and 2 tests (another good thing to know about the math tests is that the best time to take one is before you take Calculus). Therefore, if you take a test and find out that you are consistently missing just a few different types of questions, you will have a much easier job studying. Once you understand the things you kept forgetting, you'll see big increases in your scores.
Biology, as I said, is the exception to this rule. Biology is typically taken freshman or sophomore year, which makes it a great test to take to get your science out of the way before your chaotic junior year comes around. However, it is very memorization-based. For that reason, studying for the Biology subject test involves a lot more flash cards and drawing and labeling diagrams. This makes Biology a little harder to study for, but it also makes Biology percentile rankings a little higher.
If you are performing reasonably well in a subject at a particularly challenging high school, you may be surprised at what is not on your subject test.
In a one-hour multiple choice test, the basics are really all that can be tested, and they may not be the basics you are expecting. With that in mind, you may be just as well off taking a subject test after taking the freshman course, even if you have some vague plans of maybe taking the AP later. Also, for the same reason, after you have tried a practice test, the next thing that you should do is obtain a copy of a test-prep book specific to that subject and that test instead of relying on your textbook and class notes. TheOfficialStudyGuideforALLSATSubjectTests is a good place to find reliable first practice tests, but there are other test prep books out there that go into the depth required for a high score. Your local bookseller usually will have an assortment of them, and if you decide to use a tutor, your tutor will probably advise you further on which books to use.
With all SAT Subject tests, you will be in best shape if you start studying two or three months before you plan on taking the test. In other words, if you are planning on taking the May or June tests, start in February or March! Whether you are a freshman or a junior, don't be afraid to try a practice test and see what you know. You might surprise yourself.
Need some extra help preparing for your SAT Subject Tests? Find a tutor or test prep course with Noodle!