Deciding which SAT Subject Tests to take can be tricky, especially when it comes to choosing between Math Level I or Math Level II. Generally speaking, if you have completed an Algebra II/Trigonometry course, then you are prepared to take the Math Level I SAT Subject Test. When you have completed a course in Pre-Calculus, you will likely be ready to take on the Math Level II. However, each math student is different and going by this simple guideline can often be the wrong choice.
The subtle reality is that these tests are not very different in terms of overall content. The Math Level I test will cover most materials learned in grade school, Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. The Math Level II test covers all these materials as well as some of the more advanced topics learned in Algebra II and Pre-Calculus (e.g. logarithms, parametrics, trigonometric/piecewise/recursive functions, summations, and three-dimensional geometry to name a few). While this may seem like a significant difference, the truth is that the vast majority of questions on both tests consist of predominantly algebra and geometry topics. Most of the trickiest topics on the Math Level II are rare and, to be honest, a savvy Algebra II/Trig student can often score better on the level two test than on the level one.
While the Math Level I is easier in terms of overall content, the scaled score that one receives is actually harsher. As an example, if a student takes the level one test and gets five questions wrong, that student would receive an approximate score of 750 (95th percentile). If a student takes the level two test and gets five questions wrong, that student may receive a perfect score of 800. However, believe it or not, this perfect score on the Math Level II test only corresponds to the 79th percentile! For an unknown reason, the scaling on this test is skewed down nationwide. Personally, I would like them to scale the test in order to discern more accuracy in the upper range but this is not the case and can make interpretation of the results a little tricky.
In my opinion, all colleges view the Math Level II test as the real indicator of whether or not a student is proficient in mathematics. This is a major reason to try the harder test. If you want to apply to an upper echelon school with a technical major in the maths or sciences, then this is the test that you should prepare for. I believe that the score that you want to send with your applications and transcripts should be at or above the 700 mark. In order to break 700 on the Math Level II, you will need to answer at least 33 questions correctly while omitting the remaining 17. It is a little known fact that this marks merely the 45th percentile! In order to break 700 on the Math Level I, you will need 38 correct answers and omit the remaining 12 (74th percentile). To clarify, you’ll need fewer questions correct on the harder test yet many of the same algebra and geometry topics are covered on both.
There is no doubt that an 800 on either test is a feather in the cap of the applicant but if you are a strong math student, it is honestly easier to achieve this perfect or ‘near’ perfect score on the level two test. Regardless of what percentile the score represents or which test you ultimately decide to take, colleges like to see scores in the 700 to 800 range. In order to make an informed decision for yourself, you should try one of each and score them accordingly. If you get a score approaching the 700 mark on either the Math Level I or Math Level II, then you should strongly consider taking the Math Level II. A 700 on the Math Level II looks better than a 700 on the Math Level I. If you score in the 500s or low 600s on the Math Level I, then perhaps this is the right test for you. Based on the number of right answers and the scaled score, you can determine which test holds a better chance at a 700 for you and if you are unsure, you can always prepare for both!