The College Board, generous to a fault, gives society far more than just the SAT. Not only does this venerable organization offer an entire suite of SAT-related assessments including the PSAT/NMSQT, but it also deploys an arsenal of academic subject tests. The AP exams with their related honors-level courses have changed the face of American secondary education, at least in those schools able to offer a wide range of AP classes. Running along a similar track with different destinations, however, are the SAT Subject Tests.
SAT Subject Tests address a variety of subjects: English, two levels of Math, two areas of History, three sciences, and lots of languages. The exams have been with us for decades in one form or another, yet they raise more questions today than ever. We know what these hour-long assessments test, when they are offered, and when students would be wise to take them. Unfortunately, nobody can definitively answer the most important question: should students applying to college even bother taking SAT Subject Tests?
Traditionally, SAT Subject Tests accompanied SAT or, to a lesser extent, ACT scores in college applications. Schools used to prefer three Subject Tests but have accepted two (usually one Math) ever since the College Board added multiple-choice grammar to the core SAT. Many schools also used to accept ACT scores in place of both SAT and Subject Test scores, though most of them eventually wised up to the fact that the ACT is no more a subject-based test than the SAT is.
Tradition has mostly fallen by the wayside as schools select the testing requirements that help them best reach their target populations. The SAT and ACT may still maintain influence in college admissions, but Subject Tests have never seemed so irrelevant. Every year, fewer colleges require, recommend, or even consider Subject Tests. Today, most applicants can safely skip Subject Tests without risking acceptance at any of their target schools.
Which students, then, should consider taking SAT Subject Tests?
The toughest schools to get into often impose the steepest barriers to entry. Most Ivy League and equivalent schools still require, recommend, or at least consider SAT Subject Tests, usually related to stated field of study.
A number of schools only require Subject Tests from students targeting specific programs, typically engineering or pre-med. In these cases, applicants are typically expected to submit Math Level 1 or 2 along with a science score.
Many schools, from NYU to University of Rochester, offer Alternative admissions requirements, where two or three SAT Subject Tests can be substituted in place of either the SAT or ACT. Thus, students who excel in subjects in school but don’t see their skills translate to the equivalent SAT or ACT scores can use Subject Tests to establish their objective excellence.
Some schools only ask for Subject Tests from homeschooled and other nontraditional applicants.
College search tools can be used to search and sort SAT Subject Test policies, but be advised that those policies change more rapidly these days than ever before. The declining number of schools using these tests may be reaching a critical mass. The SAT and ACT essays are quickly becoming obsolete. Without significant structural changes, the SAT Subject Tests are headed towards the same fate.