Is It a Bad Idea to Retake SAT Subject Tests?

Literature is the only major content area without multiple SAT Subject Tests.
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College entrance requirements are changing. More than 800 U.S. colleges and universities don’t consider SAT or ACT scores when admitting students. However, selective schools -- ones that have low acceptance rates in relation to the number of applications -- may require one to three SAT Subject Tests. Students who apply to these schools might need to consider retaking the SAT Subject Tests if their scores aren't as high as they'd like.

1 The Subject Tests

The College Board, which develops the SAT, also creates Subject Tests to give colleges information about students’ abilities in specific content areas. Twenty tests are available in literature, sciences, history, mathematics and languages. For example, prospective pharmacy or pre-med students can take the Biology Subject Test to highlight their skills and knowledge. Because high school curricula and grading systems vary so much across the United States, SAT Subject Tests are considered reliable assessments of student understanding.

2 Test Background

The College Board offers SAT Subject Tests six times during the year, though not all exams are available on each date. Each test is a one-hour multiple-choice exam covering up-to-date high school curricula. Students can take no more than three tests on one day, and Subjects Tests cannot be taken with the general SAT. Extra materials are required for certain tests. Some language exams include a listening component, and students must supply their own CD players and headphones. A graphing calculator is recommended for questions on the Mathematics Subject Tests.

3 Test Scheduling

The College Board reports that students usually take SAT Subject Test at the end of their junior year or the beginning of their final year in high school. Test scores indicate that, in general, students do best on History and Science Subject Tests when they’ve just completed the related courses. For the other tests -- mathematics, literature, languages -- the College Board recommends that students have taken at least two years of the subject first. Students will be better prepared for Subject Tests if they take honors or advanced placement courses.

4 Considerations for Retaking the Test

About half of the students who take the general SAT take it twice: once as juniors and again as seniors. Most students' scores go up. It’s also possible to retake Subject Tests, and many colleges consider only the better score. Peterson’s, which prepares SAT practice materials, recommends taking a Subject Test after introductory high school courses, especially if it’s an honors-level class. Then, students unsatisfied with their score can retake the test after another year of study, particularly if they are in Advanced Placement classes. Students must pay to take the exam a second time, but some students from low-income families are eligible for fee waivers. The bottom line is that retaking Subject Tests doesn't hurt, but students shouldn't waste their time unless they've had extra preparation in the content area.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.