The SAT Subject Tests have been produced by the College Board since 1937, though over the years they have gone by several different names and seen several redesigns of the tests. As the tests themselves have changed, so have the ways in which schools use them in the admissions process. In the current landscape, many colleges have shifted from requiring Subject Tests for admission to either recommending them or considering them. Even as this shift occurs, it is important for students and parents to understand how Subject Tests can work to their advantage in the admissions process.
For highly achieving students in school, the Subject Tests offer an opportunity to show a more specialized level of knowledge than either the general SAT or ACT would. Though many schools have removed the requirement of Subject Test scores because of the financial burden they place on lower-income students, many of these same schools still recommend or consider these tests, meaning they can help boost your profile for admission or help you earn merit-based scholarships from the school. For certain test-optional schools, Subject Tests may actually be submitted in place of an SAT or ACT score on the application. Most schools that consider the Subject Tests will ask for scores from two subjects, and a full list of universities that use Subject Test scores can be found here.
As students start to consider what colleges they may be interested in, it makes sense to start to develop a plan for how and when to tackle Subject Tests. As freshmen or sophomores, some students take their first AP classes, such as AP Biology or AP World History. As a freshman or sophomore taking AP classes, I would recommend exploring a practice Subject Test as you start to prepare for the AP in the spring. The May Subject Test date tends to coincide well with the AP testing dates, so if you are feeling strong in your AP classes, you could get a head start on these exams. However, the vast majority of students who take these tests will do so in their junior year, while some will even wait until senior year.
For juniors who are interested in schools that consider Subject Tests, there are a few possible paths for getting them done. Though most students will simply wait until the May and June Subject Test dates because they line up with the AP testing dates, this can create an overwhelming spring workload for students who are in multiple AP classes and taking multiple Subject Tests. Though waiting for the spring dates makes the most sense for the Subject Tests that relate to specific class material, the Math and Literature Subject Tests are not directly tied to a curriculum. For students looking to alleviate some of the anxiety of spring, tackling these Subject Tests in October, November, or December of junior year can be a great way to get ahead. For students who may not have realized they needed or wanted Subject Tests until later in the process, taking them in May or June of junior year may not be an option since the focus may still be on the ACT or SAT. In this case, the Math and Literature Subject Tests offer a great alternative, as you can take the summer between junior and senior year to prepare for them. Like with the SAT or ACT, the Subject Tests are highly predictable in their content, so the best way to tackle them is to start thinking about your planned schedule early and to give yourself plenty of time to study and prepare.