SAT II Subject Tests: Why are they Needed

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As you work at each and every aspect, that nagging thought refuses to leave- Do you take the SAT II subject tests? If so, then which subjects do you pick? The idea is to pick the subjects that will showcase your strengths. You wish it were as easy as picking between a banana or a banana split! Fortunately, there is a way and it is not that hard!

The SAT subject test seek to test your knowledge of a certain subject at a high school level. It is also widely known that some top colleges require students to submit subject test scores. So, it is best to go through the requirements of each college before signing up for these tests.

SAT II subject tests – The list

You can take your pick here as there are 20 subjects on the SAT II list. The subjects have been broadly categorized under English, History, Languages, Mathematics, and Sciences. These subjects have several versions bifurcating them into more specialized versions or focusing on a specific branch in the subject. These tests are typically an hour long and consist of multiple-choice questions that test your skill in the concerned subject. You can opt for up to three subjects per test date.

The list of Sat II subject tests:

In the core subject areas of History, Maths, Science and English Literature, these are the following 9 subject tests you can take:

  • Literature
  • US History
  • World History
  • Math Level 1
  • Math Level 2
  • Biology — Ecological
  • Biology — Molecular
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

As far as languages are concerned, you have 12 SAT II subject tests covering them. There is a listening component to half of these exams as well.

  • French
  • French with Listening
  • German
  • German with Listening
  • Spanish
  • Spanish with Listening
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Latin
  • Chinese with Listening
  • Japanese with Listening
  • Korean with Listening

SAT II subject tests – Do I need them?

Just because you do not have enough things to worry about! Just kidding! Jokes apart, apart from this more obvious explanation, there are students who can benefit immensely from taking SAT II subject tests. For instance, students not proficient in the English language will find that they are better off showcasing their academic prowess (especially if they have not fared too well in SAT) which is what eventually matters.

There are quite a few applicants who take these tests every year. In the year 2018, 552,920 SAT II subject tests were offered and 221,316 students took them. The scores of SAT II subject tests are not mandatory and there are only a few institutions that require applicants to take the tests (essentially those that are offering technically-intensive programs) :

Colleges that require SAT II subject test scores?

There are a number of colleges that require you to take SAT II subject tests. An observation that you can make from the requirements of most colleges is that those that require subject tests are the ones offering STEM courses. MIT, Stanford, Caltech are top colleges in the USA that call for subject scores from applicants.

Harvey Mudd, California is ranked number 1 (US News best colleges ranking for the year 2019) for its Undergraduate Engineering Program.

Harvey Mudd’s Director of Admissions, Peter Osgood categorically states that in their experience, students with scores lower than 650 in Math 2 (subject test) struggle with their curriculum. Hence, they consider this test as a good guide to picking the right candidates. However, you must remember that while some colleges recommend (some highly recommend) them, while some others consider them when submitted.

Here’s a list to give you an idea about what some of the colleges state in this regard:

Brown UniversityRecommendedThe SAT and ACT scores can be submitted. They recommend but do not require, the submission of two SAT Subject Tests of the student’s choice.
Carnegie Mellon UniversityRecommendedBoth the SAT and ACT are acceptable. CMU recommends 2 SAT Subject Tests (for most applicants). Subject recommendations vary by program but include Math (Level 1 or Level 2). College of Fine Arts programs does not recommend Subject Tests.
Harvard UniversityRecommendedCandidates can submit SAT or ACT. Two SAT Subject Tests are recommended. While the university recommends the subject scores, these are exempted in case of financial constraints or if the candidate prefers to have the application considered without them.
Princeton UniversityRecommendedPrinceton recommends that applicants submit 2 Subject Tests. Engineering candidates are advised to take a math Subject Test and either chemistry or physics.
Rice UniversityRecommendedBoth the SAT or ACT scores can be submitted and recommends that 2 Subject Tests related to the proposed area of study be submitted.
University of PennsylvaniaHighly RecommendedAny 2 Subject Tests are recommended for arts, humanities, and social sciences applicants. STEM applicants are strongly encouraged to take Math Level 2 and a science Subject Test (Physics recommended for engineering applicants). Math Level 2 is recommended for business applicants.
Yale UniversityRecommendedThe university recommends that applicants take SAT Subject Tests.
Babson CollegeConsideredBabson considers SAT Subject Tests if submitted.
Boston CollegeConsideredSAT Subject Tests will help to highlight talent in a specific area.
Boston UniversityConsideredBoston University requires the SAT or ACT and considers Subject Tests if submitted.
Columbia UniversityConsideredIf submitted, these subject test scores will be considered by the university.
Cornell UniversityConsideredSubject Tests are listed as “not required” or “optional” for all Cornell colleges, however, they will consider scores if submitted by the candidates.
Johns Hopkins UniversityConsideredStudents may submit Subject Tests as a “way to demonstrate an academic strength. Engineering applicants are encouraged to submit Math Level 2 and one science.”
Northwestern UniversityConsideredSAT Subject Tests are optional for most undergraduate applicants.
Stanford UniversityConsideredSAT Subject Tests are optional. However, since SAT Subject Test scores can help highlight areas of strength, the university welcomes the self-reporting of these results in an application.
University of California, BerkeleyConsideredUC Berkeley requires the SAT with Essay or ACT with Writing and considers Subject Tests if submitted. College of Chemistry and College of Engineering recommend Math Level 2 and science related to the applicant’s intended major.
University of MichiganConsideredUMich will consider SAT Subject Tests when submitted especially when they will benefit the review of a certain application.
University of Notre DameConsideredIn the case that subject scores enhance an application, the university will consider such test scores.

Based on the above, you can say that the addition of subject test scores will only enhance the application and display your readiness for the program.

What do colleges want?

A simple answer to this will be- the best candidates! The best way to do this is to get a clear understanding of the student’s capabilities through their scores. This is where the subject scores come in. Most colleges can be broadly categorized as technology-schools or humanity-based ones. You can pick relevant subjects based on the school you are interested in. In fact, some schools will give specific information about the number of subject tests you must appear for.

Every college has different requirements and it is best to understand them thoroughly before you begin the application process. For instance, in the long list of eligible schools, there are Test-Optional and Test Flexible Colleges.  For instance, the University of Rochester, University of Chicago, Providence College, Oklahoma University in Stillwater, University of Mississippi all require a certain level of GPA or class-rank requirements. Test-Optional colleges do not insist on SAT/ACT test scores.

This means that you may submit them if you have them already, but you are not required to do so. On the other hand, Test Flexible Colleges allow you to submit other test scores in place of the SAT/ACT scores. Here, you can submit SAT II subject scores, IB Tests or school-conducted tests.

Sometimes, colleges require listening test scores. These listening tests are more appropriate for language courses. While it may seem like a big challenge for non-native speakers, submitting scores on such listening tests will definitely make your application much stronger. So, if your college requests for such a test, understand that they are looking for a certain level of fluency in the subject.

Showcase your strengths


Engineering degrees naturally have a strong focus on scientific concepts and skills. This means that you must pick two science subjects (if not two, then highly recommend picking at least one). Obviously, the science subject must relate to the proposed program. For instance, if you are signing up for a Chemical Engineering program, then consider Chemistry as one of the subjects that you will need to take. Similarly, a major in Biochemistry will require you to showcase your strengths in Biology and Chemistry. There are bound to be multiple sciences involved in a particular degree. However, you must look beyond and pick the ones that are most relevant to the degree involved.

If you are unsure about the tests you need to take, then follow the general rule of thumb. Pick

  1. One Math,
  2. One science and
  3. One humanities subject.

Currently, there are three institutions (with instructions) that require all their applicants to take the SAT II tests and those are

  • MIT—One Math and one Science subject
  • Harvey Mudd—Math level 2 and the student’s choice of subject
  • Cal Tech–Math level 2, and either one of Biology, Chemistry or Physics.


Humanities is quite a vast field of study and there are several options as far as specializations are concerned. As regards picking the right SAT II subjects, the guiding factor must be the subjects you have signed up for. Apart from this, always check if the colleges have a list of recommended subjects. This can help in narrowing down the right subjects for your program.

Traditional Humanities

It is hard to ignore the fact that everything has become data-driven and will only be increasingly so in the future. While analytics in Technology and STEM areas is pretty much a given, Big Data is fast becoming a reality in Social Sciences as well. In the case of subjects such as Political Science, Economics, Archeology or even Human Behavioral Sciences, you will find that there is a need for professionals with a knowledge of analytics. So, if you are considering a future in Humanities at the highest level, then analytics is a good option. In such a case, it makes sense to include Math as one of the Subject Tests you must attempt.

Assuming you are interested in traditional humanities such as History or English, consider the following choice:

  1. One Math
  2. Two humanities subjects


You can attempt three humanities-related subjects.

Humanities- Religion or Culture-based Subject

If your choice of major or specialization involves a region or culture, then it makes sense to attempt a language. For instance, attempting the Spanish subject test will be of significance if you are planning a focus on this region. By showing proficiency in the regional language, you are indicating your linguistic skills. So, here, ideally you should attempt:

  1. World History
  2. Language (if the language you are specializing in is not offered as a subject test, then consider any language as this will indicate your ability to pick up languages)
  3. Math/Literature

As you deliberate over your application form and the numerous options for subject tests, you tend to second-guess your choices. Is there a method of doing it right? Well, there may not be a method but there are a few things that you can consider to arrive at the right one(s).

Know what you want!

If you know the major or specialization that you are going to pursue, then this is the best way to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Pick the subjects that you intend to pursue so colleges can judge your application based on your capabilities and skill. For instance, if you are planning to opt for a humanities course, then history or literature will be the right way to go. On the other hand, STEM courses will require you to attempt subjects such as Maths, Biology, Chemistry or Physics.

You must understand that each of these subjects has versions that allow you to pick the one that plays to your strengths.

You are confused

Are you unsure about your majors? Well, fear not, you are not alone. There are quite a few who sign up for college without a decision about the ‘major’. In such a scenario, most students would assume that the best way would be to ‘not’ attempt it at all. However, you can consider taking a diverse combination of subjects which will not only show that you can easily handle the upcoming challenges but also demonstrate your versatility. Who knows! In the process of preparation, you may be able to narrow down your interests to a major!

It is always best to use the college requirements as a guide to understanding which SAT II subjects you will need to attempt. Each college specifies what they need or recommend and this can help you to decide one way or the other.

Make sure that you pick subjects that will help you to show your flexibility as the schools need to be convinced that you will be successful regardless of the subject you choose.

Hopefully, now you have some clarity on picking the right subjects for the SAT II subject test. As you begin to do that, remember that “Successful people are not gifted; they just work hard and succeed on purpose!


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