How to Choose Your SAT Subject Tests

How to Choose Your SAT Subject Tests

There are so many standardized tests to plan for when you are applying to colleges. Got your SAT or ACT score right where you want it? Ready to report some decent AP scores? Great! Now it’s time to choose your SAT subject tests — also called SAT II’s.

SAT subject tests are on a specific topic, giving you a chance to showcase your specialization or knowledge in a certain field. This application requirement can sneak up on you! Not all schools require SAT subject tests, and some require more than others. While you need to plan ahead for your SAT II’s, there are some effective ways you can check these off your list. Standardized testing is nobody’s favorite activity, but I’m going to suggest ways to choose your SAT subject tests as painlessly as possible.

Follow the APs

If you are in AP classes, you can maximize your study effectiveness by registering to take the corresponding SAT subject tests. I suggest either taking your SAT II’s in May and your studying will help your AP scores, or take them in June and the AP studying will help your subject test scores. Kill two birds with one stone – take advantage of your hard work in your APs to prepare you for your SAT subject tests!

Here’s a list of the APs that most closely line up with SAT subject tests:

  • AP Calculus: Math 1 or Math 2 SAT II
  • AP US History: US History SAT II
  • AP Biology: Biology SAT II
  • AP Chemistry: Chemistry SAT II
  • AP Physics: Physics SAT II
  • AP English Literature and Composition: English SAT II
  • AP World History: World History SAT II
  • AP Chinese Language and Culture: Chinese with Listening SAT II
  • AP French Language and Culture: French, French with Listening SAT II
  • AP German Language and Culture: German, German with Listening SAT II
  • AP Italian Language and Culture: Italian SAT II
  • AP Japanese Language and Culture: Japanese with Listening SAT II
  • AP Latin: Latin SAT II
  • AP Spanish Language and Culture: Spanish, Spanish with Listening SAT II

Follow your strengths

Take subject tests in the academic areas where you excel! There is a lot of internet chatter about taking a mix of science and humanities tests. In my admissions experience, this balance doesn’t really matter. In fact, if you express a certain academic interest, I’m going to expect you to take the corresponding SAT subject test. If you are planning to be an English major and your essay is about your love of literature, I’m going to assume you’ll take the English exam.

Not only am I going to presume that you’re going to take those subject tests, but I’m also going to expect that you’re going to perform well. If you are applying to engineering programs, I’m going to assume that math and science are your strengths and you should show strong scores on these subject tests. Use your SAT subject tests to bolster your expertise in your field of interest.

Not quite sure what you want to pursue in college? The specific SAT subject tests that you take don’t really matter in this case – just pick the tests where you think you’ll perform the best.

Follow the minimum requirements

Do not overdo it. There is no reason to take more than 3 subject tests (unless you are applying to Georgetown) – 2 is plenty. Using all of your time preparing for additional subject tests does not make you a more interesting candidate. Check 2 (3 if you must) off your list, and get back to doing activities that add depth and meaning to your application!

Follow your heart

The most useful thing that SAT subject tests can do is help you apply to a dream school that requires coursework you have not completed. The University of California system is a great example. These awesome schools share a stringent list of academic requirements but will sometimes accept subject test scores in exchange. Bilingual students who do not have two years of high school foreign language, for instance, can complete the language requirement with the SAT II in their native tongue. I typically don’t recommend that native speakers take their corresponding subject test— admissions officers see you. But in this example, an 800 on the subject test of your language demonstrates your proficiency and will be accepted as evidence in lieu of 2 years of a high school foreign language. If you have a unique situation that you hope SAT II’s can help you smooth over, I suggest confirming with each school’s admissions office.

The subject tests are a pain, but keep it simple and get them off your plate as soon as you can. If you take AP US History in 9th grade, go ahead and take the SAT II in US History. You’ll be glad you did! If you’re in 11th grade and haven’t taken any yet, don’t overthink it. Take the tests where you expect to get your highest scores with minimal extra effort. Other parts of your application need your attention more!

About the Author


I am an internationally produced playwright and novelist with 26 years of experience in Ivy League admissions. I earned my MFA from the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop and was a Senior Fellow in playwriting at Dartmouth College, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude.

I received a grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays, a project in cooperation with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. My debut fantasy novel LightLand, published by Scholastic/Orchard Books, earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

I live with my husband and children in a Connecticut farmhouse.