Unlike the SAT I (which attempts to measure logical thinking, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and basic math), SAT Subject Tests -- formerly known as SAT IIs -- measure knowledge of classroom subjects.
Fewer test-taking strategies apply to the SAT Subject Tests. Aside from time management, the SUBJECT TESTs do not require new skills, just thorough knowledge of what should have been presented in the classroom and the text.
Our preferred way to study for the SAT Subject Tests is to go over your materials the same way you would prepare for a year-end final. Then take a full-hour practice test. One of each test is available in the book, "The Official Study Guide for all SAT Subject Tests," published by the College Board. Analyze that test. Make sure you know the difference between a careless mistake and a topic you don't know. For all topics you don't know, make an appointment with a teacher at your school. Make sure he or she fills you in on how to solve that problem. Many courses do not cover the exact same material tested on the SAT Subject Test, so don't go with an attitude that "you failed to teach us this!" Instead, say "I've learned well what you presented to us, and in preparing for the SAT, I noticed five questions that are totally unsolvable. Allow me to give you these questions and next week please instruct me on how to attack them."
Unless there is an absolute requirement by the college you are dying to get into, only take SAT Subject tests in subjects in which you know you can do well. Our best definition for "well" is, "Get a better score than your best SAT I score." Another definition is "Get a better score than the college's posted 75 percentile SAT I score." A final definition is “700-plus” for all but the top 30 ranked US colleges, and “770-plus” for the truly top tier.
Scheduling the SAT Subject Tests
SAT Subject tests occur six times a year, on the same dates as the SAT I is given. By early in junior year, students should plan carefully when they expect to take SAT Is and SUBJECT TESTs. For most students in most subjects, the best time to take the SAT SUBJECT TEST is May and June of junior year, so as to coincide with studying for finals in that subject.
You can only take three SUBJECT TESTs on a single date, and we recommend doing only two. So here are good subjects to peel off for dates other than May and June of junior year:
- If you are completing a science class that you've done well in but won't be continuing after sophomore year, take that SAT SUBJECT TEST in May and June of sophomore year.
- If you spent the summer learning a language abroad, consider the November test date for the SAT SUBJECT TEST with listening.
- If you're simply in academic language study in the U.S., wait as long as you can before taking a language SAT SUBJECT TEST- you'll be more proficient during senior year.
- If you took US History as a sophomore and do a lot of summer reading, plan to take the US History test in October of junior year. The US History test does not ask you to regurgitate dates, people and places, but instead demands knowledge of causes and trends.
Now, if you're saying, "There's no SAT SUBJECT TEST on which I can score well right now," then wait and prepare for the SAT SUBJECT TEST Math Level One and the US History. The Math Level One only goes over topics through Algebra I; though a tutor may be needed, any diligent "B" student can individually master 80 percent of the questions. The US History is not easy, but is very straightforward -- no tricks, and many answers that are easy to eliminate if you paid average attention in your US History class.
If you think the Math and the US History will not yield good results, even with tutoring, be sure to study for the SAT Writing -- it's a very coachable portion of the SAT and it can impress colleges. Indeed, a really strong SAT Writing score can make up for a mediocre SAT Critical Reading score and mediocre SAT Subject Tests. If you feel you can get strong scores in four or more topics, it’s worth taking the tests in all four. Colleges will likely use your top three for their assessment.
Things to be wary of:
- Taking three tests in a day: Though students are capable of powering up for three separate one-hour tests, most don't. We have heard that scores in the final hour are typically the worst. If you are taking three tests, make sure you approach every one with vigor. Say, "This subject test is my one and only thing on the agenda, and I'm going to nail it!"
- The Literature Test: It is very difficult to coach, and appears to have some answers that are subjective in each test. Students whose ambitions are very high (need a 750 or better) can't afford to get more than eight wrong. These students should take at least two practice tests, and consider not taking this test at all.
- Language Reading and Listening Tests: The "listening" version is offered once a year, in November. Unlike in most high school language classes, the speakers speak with the rapidity of natives. This catches many students by surprise and many just bail out of the test. Thus we recommend this version of the test only to native speakers and to students who have spent at least a few months living abroad. If you are in neither category, take the Language test without the listening component on some other date.
- Winging it: The College Board allows "Score Choice" on the SAT Subject Tests. Yet, some colleges want to see your scores anyways. You might as well show the results of a good effort. If you're serious about doing well on a test, you might as well prep for it. You're almost certain to get a better score that way.