Can Bad SAT Subject Tests Hurt You? | How Do They Affect Your Chances of Being Accepted?

SAT subject tests are themselves a subject of widespread confusion among students in the US. The fact that SAT subject tests are not usually mandatory leads many to assume they’re of no value, and can therefore be sidestepped.

In reality, a good SAT subject test score can prove invaluable when submitting applications to top colleges and universities. Even in instances where you don’t have to submit subject test scores, they can still support your application and improve your chance of being accepted.

But what about the potential for bad SAT subject test scores to have a negative effect on your application? Would a low score in a chemistry, math, history, or biology test have a major effect on the strength of your application?

Where Subject Tests Are Required, Recommended, or Optional

Technically speaking, the answer is no - submitting SAT subject test scores that are comparatively low is not going to have a negative effect on test takers' application. Whether or not you need to submit subject test scores will depend on the institution you apply to - many selective schools and colleges require certain SAT subject test scores to even consider applications.

Elsewhere, admissions departments may recommend taking subject tests, or they may be entirely optional.

In any case, the potential value or ‘harm’ of submitting low scores on specific subjects can be outlined as follows:

1. Where SAT Subject Tests Are Mandatory - If applying to colleges or universities where these additional tests are mandatory, as test-takers, you have no choice but to submit your scores to the college board. They might not be great, but submitting low scores is better than submitting no scores as they are required by the college.

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2. Where SAT Subject Tests Are Recommended - Where a university admissions department states that additional tests like these are recommended, they may as well be considered mandatory. Given how most applicants will be taking the tests and submitting their scores, you again have little choice but to send in yours - low as they may be.

3. Where SAT Subject Tests Are Not Needed - Taking SAT subject tests and submitting scores, where they are not required or recommended by a college, can give you a major competitive edge. Even if the scores you come out with leave much to be desired, they could still improve your chances over other students applying that year.

In all three of the above cases, therefore, taking SAT subject tests and submitting relatively low scores cannot cause direct harm to the application. You either need to send them in (in which case you have no choice) or they are optional extras (in which case they can only help your application).

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Hence, there are no realistic scenarios where it might work in your favor to take the tests and not submit your scores.

What is the Objective of SAT Subject Tests?

SAT Subject Tests are 1-hour long tests presented and taken in multiple-choice format. They take place on the same day as SATs and are administered by the College Board under the same formal test conditions.

Around 20 subject-specific tests can currently be taken, which include mathematics, science, biology, chemistry, and many more besides. All of these tests are technically optional, though are required or recommended by many selective colleges and universities.

For example, if you have your sights set on a place at MIT or Harvard, you’ll definitely be expected to take SAT subject tests.

Why Do Some Colleges Request SAT Subject Test Score?

Different colleges place different emphasis on the importance or otherwise of SAT subject tests. Increasingly, schools are moving away from these subject-specific exams as a formal entry requirement. But at the same time, a surprising proportion of schools continue to consider them an important measure of academic capabilities.

One of the more recent polls conducted suggested that 23% of colleges see these exam scores as important - up to 40% place at least some importance on them.

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Of course, the main thing that matters is whether your own target college or university considers SAT subject tests important. Coupled with an excellent GPA and a strong academic profile, good test scores will almost always improve your chances of getting into a good school.

But at the same time, you’ll definitely be looking at quite a lot of extra work, study time, and prep for the exam, alongside the work you’ll already be doing for your SAT using a good SAT prep book or SAT prep course.

Should I Take SAT Subject Tests?

Whatever your objectives and whichever college or city you have your sights set on, nobody’s going to force you to take these optional tests. As with the ACT and SAT, subject tests are not for everyone.

Deciding whether or not you should take SAT subject tests is therefore entirely down to you and your objectives. That said, there are three instances in which you should definitely think about taking them, or planning a retake if your initial scores were not up to scratch:

1. It is a mandatory requirement at your target college. For obvious reasons, you’ll need to take these tests if they are a mandatory requirement at the college you are applying to. And if they need a suitably high score, you’ll need to get and present a suitably high score accordingly.

2. You want to support your application by demonstrating your strengths. You may have exceptional academic strengths and talents that are not fully communicated in your application or your standardized SAT or ACT scores. If this is the case, supporting your application with excellent subject test scores could make all the difference.

3. Competition is heavy and available places are limited. If you’re applying to a junior college or university you know everybody wants to get into, you’ll need to do everything you can to strengthen your application. Given how most high school students don’t take subject tests, doing so would give you a major advantage that year.

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Referring back to the initial question, there are no instances where less-than-ideal subject test scores are going to work against you. Submitting them is either a mandatory requirement or a helpful way to support your application, meaning they can only do you good.

Preparing for SAT Subject Tests

If you have decided to go ahead and take the tests, the first thing you need to do is acknowledge that a fair amount of extra work and study will be required. If you think it’s going to be an easy ride, think again!

That is unless you naturally excel in the subject you intend to focus on, in which case you could quite easily sail through the whole thing.

In any case, there are two things you will want to do to give yourself the best possible chance at coming out with a good score:

1. Study like crazy and cram in as much knowledge as possible

2. Take as many mock tests as you can find online and retake them

It’s a similar process to preparing for an SAT or ACT, wherein practical experience is often even more beneficial than conventional research and studying. You can cram like crazy, but if you have no idea what to expect on the day, you could still come out with a disappointing score.

Mock tests - aka diagnostic tests - are the best way to get a feel for all types of standardized tests in advance. If you still feel daunted at the prospect of the test after taking a series of tests, take more!

Ideally, you want to approach the test with as much confidence and optimism as possible.

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What Are the Pros and Cons of SAT Subject Tests?

Rounding things off, it would be nonsensical to deny the fact that there are both pros and cons to taking SAT subjects tests. All of which should be taken into account by potential test-takers, before signing up and sitting these optional multiple-choice exams.

From math level to science to history and so on, all SAT subject tests bring the same advantages and disadvantages to the table. The most important of which are as follows:

Advantages of Taking SAT Subject Tests

  • They may be formally required by your target college or university
  • If not, they are almost guaranteed to boost your application
  • You stand to gain a competitive edge over most high school students
  • There is always the option to retake the tests to improve your score
  • They can help you improve your knowledge and understanding of key topics
  • Good SAT subject test scores can enhance your overall academic profile

Disadvantages of Taking SAT Subject Tests

  • You need to put in plenty of additional time and effort
  • The language used in some of the tests is quite complex
  • You still need to have good SAT scores and a decent GPA

As you can see, the advantages vastly outweigh the disadvantages.

Subsequently, taking these optional exams comes highly recommended for all high school students - even if they are not formally required at your target institution.

Leonard Haggin

I created this site to help students like you learn from the experiences my team had learned during our extensive academic careers. I am now studying Law at Stanford, but I also make time to write articles here in order to help all you fellow students advance in your academic careers and beyond. I hope our efforts on Study Prep Lounge will arm you with the knowledge you need to overcome whatever trial or test you find in front of you.

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