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Standardized tests are a perennial stressor for college hopefuls. As if the SAT, ACT, and AP exams—not to mention a challenging high school curriculum—don’t keep you busy enough, SAT Subject Tests could add to your workload. Do you need to take them? Let’s break it down.

Which Schools Require SAT Subject Tests?

First things first: It’s important to keep in mind that relatively few schools require them. Among those schools that do evaluate SAT Subject Test scores, there’s variation in what they’re looking for. To be considered for the Honors Program in Medical Education or the Integrated Science program at Northwestern University, SAT Subject Tests are required. Ditto the accelerated program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Should you want to attend MIT, however, you must take one math and one science SAT Subject Test to qualify for admission. Dartmouth requires any two SAT Subjects Tests. And homeschooled applicants at a variety of institutions are often required to take two or three Subject Tests, too.

At some institutions, SAT Subject Tests may be taken in lieu of other standardized tests. For instance, Colorado College has a flexible testing policy that allows students to submit three scores from the subscores on the SAT or ACT or from SAT Subject Test scores, AP exams, or IB exams.

Many schools that don’t require the tests outright will, nevertheless, “recommend” them. Princeton, for instance, recommends two. Stanford recommends them as well, as does the University of California—Berkeley, but in the latter case, only for applicants to the Colleges of Chemistry or Engineering. The University of Delaware “strongly” recommends them for Honors program applicants.

What Are Schools Really Asking For?

As with any application material that a school says is “recommended,” as a well-informed applicant, you are likely to treat it as required. And you’re right to do so. After all, you don’t want to forfeit on a spot in your dream school’s first-year cohort just because you didn’t submit an SAT Subject Test score. We typically advise students to take Subject Tests when they’re recommended, and we strongly advise in favor of it when they’re strongly recommended.

If a school says that these scores are “considered,” however, you can take this guideline more lightly. If you think you’d get a high enough score to enhance your application, then absolutely go for it! But if you don’t think that your SAT Subject Test scores would strengthen your candidacy, then save your time and money.  (Yes, there are fees for these tests, too!) Instead of rushing out to prep for and take these tests, do a little digging to find out exactly how your scores would be considered. Some schools (like Harvard College) allow students to use foreign language SAT Subject Tests to fulfill graduation requirements. Others (like University of Rochester) might accept multiple Subject Test scores in place of scores from the SAT or ACT. Do what’s best for you. We offer just two pieces of advice:

Tip #1: Look up the requirements—and recommendations—for all the schools you’re considering. You’ll need to adhere to the strictest among these. Some schools ask that you take any two or three Subject Tests, while others designate specific areas you’ll need to cover. If even one of your schools requires that you take an exam in math, then you’ll need to do that.

Tip #2: Go big or go home. Don’t sign up for an exam just to see how you’ll do. If you decide to take one or more of the exams, then study! Prep! Get ready to ace it.

How to Prep for Subject Tests

Once you’ve decided on which tests (if any) you’ll take, you’ll want to get them on your schedule. (Quick tip: Read the College Board’s Test Dates and Deadlines page closely, as not all tests are administered at the same time.) We advise students to take each Subject Test after (as immediately as possible) they’ve completed the course in that subject. You may, for that reason, end up taking one or more Subject Tests at the conclusion of your first and second years of high school.

Keep in mind that some exams (such as the foreign language with listening tests) are offered just once a year. You will want to be ready to excel on those exams especially, since your next opportunity may not come until past the time you’ll need your score. As you plan your testing schedule, make sure you factor in how many subject tests you’ll be taking on the same day. While you can take up to three Subject Tests, we advise you to try to space them out so you take just one, or possibly two, on any given test date. Also make sure you’re setting aside testing dates—and prep time—for the SAT or ACT as well as any other standardized tests you’ll be taking. 

Once you know your test date(s), you’ll want to start prepping. Check out our series of Subject Test books to get expert knowledge and tips about the tests. You may also want to take a prep course. Preparing now can help you impress colleges in the future—whether they require your scores or merely recommend or consider them.

Think of the SAT Subject Tests as your opportunity to show off all the knowledge you’ve gained in your high school courses. Go get your well-deserved recognition!