What’s a Good SAT Subject Test Score?

By March 29, 2016SAT Subject Tests

“What’s a good score?” is the second most common question we hear about Subject Tests—right after “Which subjects should I take?” Students struggle with these two questions because many of their traditional sources of information provide little help. College guidebooks and websites rarely touch on Subject Test scores. There are concordance tables between ACT and SAT Reasoning scores, but nothing that compares ACT or SAT scores to Subject Test results. Unfortunately, students are often drawn to percentiles to judge Subject Test performance, and that happens to be just about the worst place to look.

For example, a U.S. History score of 690 is the 59th percentile and may disappoint a student with a 90th percentile SAT score of 1300 (650 average for Critical Reading and Math). In reality, the student’s performance on U.S. History is excellent. Our analysis shows that his average SAT section score of 650 is a good benchmark for judging Subject Test performance; our student easily clears that mark.
The relationship between SAT or ACT results and Subject Test scores is useful in that it:

  • allows students to assess how “good” their scores are relative to their SAT or ACT performance.
  • helps explain why 200–800 scaled scores are an effective way of judging performance across subjects.
  • helps estimate mean Subject Tests scores at colleges, most of which only report SAT and ACT scores—e.g. a college with a mid-50th percentile range for SAT Critical Reading of 610–660 likely has a Literature score range of approximately 610–660.
  • provides educators with a way of gauging student performance for a course or cohort—e.g. if Springfield High’s Class of 2017 has U.S. History scores 25 points lower than the Class of 2016’s, it does not follow that something went wrong in the history class.

Since all available data on Subject Tests involves the old SAT, scores below refer to the old SAT. In an appendix post we cover converting new PSAT scores and ACT scores to old SAT scores. In typical Subject Test score ranges, the differences between old and new are not pronounced.

Everyone in the Pool
Understanding how SAT or ACT scores can provide these insights into Subject Test scores requires a look at how test taker pools shape percentiles and means and how disparate pools can be linked via SAT scores. All SAT students take both Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) and Math, so the pools of score recipients are identical. This allows percentiles to provide useful comparisons. For example, a student in the 80th percentile for EBRW and the 60th percentile for Math, can be said to be stronger in EBRW. Subject Tests, however, completely upend this sort of interpretation. The pool of 70,000 students taking U.S. History is different from the pool of 60,000 taking Physics. Both of those pools are very different from that of the 1.9 million ACT takers or 1.7 million SAT takers. Percentile scores for Subject Tests can mislead students into taking the wrong tests or submitting the wrong scores. Percentiles should be crossed out with a black Sharpie so that they don’t serve as a distraction.

Correlating SAT Scores and Subject Test Scores
In order to make use of SAT scores to compare pools of testers, we need to demonstrate a correlation with Subject Test scores. It seems intuitive that Literature and SAT Critical Reading would have a high correlation, and College Board studies show it as high as .84. The correlations between SAT Math and Math Level 1 and Math Level 2 Subject Tests are also high at between .77 and .84. What is more surprising—and more useful—is that SAT scores are good indications of the strength of the test taker pool across a wide range of Subject Tests. In other words, the SAT scores of test takers help explain why the average (mean) scores of some Subject Tests are much higher than others.

Plotting Means and What it Means
The chart below plots mean SAT scores against mean Subject Test scores for 9 of the 10 most popular Subject Tests (Spanish and other foreign language exams are not included, because the varying proportions of native speakers makes direct comparisons flawed). In order to keep everything on a 200–800 scale, the average of Critical Reading and Math has been used. In the case of Math 1 and Math 2 scores, only SAT Math scores are used. For the science and history tests, though, a combination of math and verbal scores better predicts mean Subject Test scores. [Data for this chart can be found in an appendix post.] SAT-to-Subject-Test-Scores
Admissions officers have to compare students taking different Subject Tests. Is it acceptable, for instance, to say that a 650 Biology-E is comparable to a 650 Math 2? The relationship between SAT scores and Subject Test scores goes a long way to explaining why it is both acceptable and useful. The Biology-E mean of 625 is 65 points lower than the Math 2 mean of 690, but that is in line with the average SAT scores for the respective pools of test takers of 627 and 693. SAT scores form a kind of bond between scores. Why is this important? Admission officers are able to compare the 200–800 scores without needing to worry that one test is more “difficult” than the other or that the percentiles are “out of whack.” Biology and Math 2 scores will never be truly interchangeable—they reflect ability in different subjects—but as reflections on an applicant’s testing ability, they have a similar validity.

More Supporting Data
One criticism of this analysis is that its inputs are the overall means, and the relationship may not be applicable across the full range of scores. For example, the data show that a mean U.S. History score of 645 is associated with a mean SAT score of 645. Does that prove that a U.S. History score of 500 is associated with an SAT score of 500? The annual data set provided by College Board is not rich enough to make this calculation, but historical results provide some level of confirmation. The pool of test takers has shifted dramatically in the last decade as SAT II: Writing was eliminated and as the UC system dropped its Subject Test requirement. Fewer students take the Subject Tests than did a decade ago, and their average SAT scores are higher (primarily the most competitive colleges have left Subject Test requirements in place). Have both sets of scores risen in a predictable manner? The chart below looks at the change in SAT scores for test takers versus the change in Subject Test scores between 2010 and 2015. [Data for this chart can be found in an appendix post.] SAT-to-Subject-Test-Score-Change
The historical figures are in line with the hypothesis that the SAT scores of test takers help explain differences in Subject Test means. State data provides confirmation for even lower scores. In 2010, for example, California students had a mean Literature score of 534 and a mean SAT section score of 548—an almost identical difference as between the 618 and 631 national scores in 2015.

An Historical Outlier
In looking closely at both scatterplots, there is an obvious outlier—World History. On average, current test takers underperform by 35 points on World History than would be predicted by SAT scores alone. Removing Math from the mix is of no help in explaining the difference. The gap may reflect the difficulty of the World History test, the difficulty in being properly prepared for it, or a miscalculation on the part of test takers. The end result is the same—test takers are more likely to have a low, discrepant World History score than are testers in other subjects. To avoid any unwelcome surprises, we strongly advise prospective testers to take a World History practice test before adding the exam to their line-up.

Questions, Answers, and Limits of the Relationship
It’s important to understand the limitations of this hypothesis. Just because a student obtains a high score on the SAT does not mean that she will obtain a high score in Chemistry. She still needs to know Chemistry. Subject Test results come from self-selected pools of students who have, presumably, felt qualified in their chosen subjects. The data also reflect overall test taker means, so the relationship is more appropriately applied to groups of students than to individual students. A much better solution exists for estimating the scores of a specific student—taking an official practice test (College Board has released at least one practice test for each subject, and Compass can provide a proctored testing environment and scoring for the most popular exams).

Below are examples of how the score relationships help answer real world questions.

  1. My 660 Literature and 710 Physics are both in the 58th percentile. Does that mean that they are the same?”
    The difference in percentile scores reflects the differences in test taker pools and not how “good” your score is. Coming in 58th out of 100 means something different at a local road race than at an Olympics trial. The difference between Literature and Physics test takers is not that stark, but it is important not to let percentile scores cloud your judgment about Subject Tests.Ignoring percentiles does not mean, though, that the 200–800 scaled scores are the only thing to consider in a testing plan. The scores alone do not factor in what the subjects tell colleges about you. For example, submitting U.S. History and Literature as your only Subject Tests is usually not advisable when applying to an engineering program—at least one that requires or recommends Subject Test scores. The storytelling aspect of Subject Tests is why we recommend against taking a foreign language test in which you are a native speaker and against taking Math 1; other parts of your application better address your language fluency, and Math 2 sends a more convincing signal about your math skills—something particularly important for STEM applicants. There are exceptions to every rule, but these recommendations hold for most students.
  2. My ACT Composite and ACT Math of 28 are both 91st percentile, but my 700 on Math 2 is only the 48th percentile. Should I retake Math 2? Is it worth submitting?”
    As with Subject Test to Subject Test comparisons, percentiles are poor indicators of cross-test performance. Almost 2 million students take the ACT each year, whereas only 145,000 talented math students take Math 2. Your ACT Math score can be better compared to your Math 2 score by using a concordance table to find the comparable SAT Math score. [A partial concordance table can be found in Appendix B below.] An ACT to old SAT concordance table shows that a 28 is comparable to a 640 SAT Math. This means that you likely scored higher on Math 2 than did most students with your ACT score. A decision on whether or not to submit a Subject Test score depends on a variety of factors, but it appears that Math 2 would strengthen your testing profile.
  3. “Alma Mater University shows average old SAT scores of 651 CR, 660 M, and 645 W for its recently enrolled class. My SAT scores are good, but how can I know if my Subject Test scores are strong enough?
    Not all students who take Subject Tests end up submitting any or all scores to colleges. Since students are likely to submit their best Subject Test scores, the mean Subject Test scores for enrolled students are often slightly higher than the college’s mean SAT scores. It’s likely that Alma Mater’s mean Subject Test scores are in the 650–680 range. Although having Subject Test scores above or below that mark does not mean acceptance or rejection any more than it would with SAT or ACT scores, you can use average scores or mid-50th percentile scores as a rough way of assessing the strength of your own test scores. This becomes more important if Alma Mater views Subject Test scores as optional. If your scores are above average, they may be useful “plus factors.” If you struggled to get 600s on your Subject Tests, you may want to submit only your SAT or ACT scores. This decision also comes up frequently when students apply to colleges that allow the ACT to substitute for both the SAT and Subject Test.
  4. Our high school has an average Biology-M score of 690 and an average Math 2 score of 640. Is our Math Department doing something wrong?
    There are many reasons why Subject Test scores might differ within a school. For example, the Math Department may encourage all students to take the Math 2, whereas only AP Biology students take Biology-M. An initial step is to compare the pools via SAT scores (or concorded ACT scores). For Math 2, the input is simple: SAT Math scores. A range of 630–650 would be expected based on the Math 2 mean. If the school sees SAT Math scores well outside of that range, it may need to evaluate whether it is having students test at the appropriate time or whether it should add some review of important Math 2 concepts. It’s likely that the pool of Biology-M students has a mean SAT (CR and M) score between 670 and 700. Students taking AP Biology are usually well-prepared for the Biology Subject Test. In fact, given the scores presented, the school may want to consider having more students attempt the exam or take practice tests. These are just thumbnail sketches of how Subject Test scores can be analyzed; there are many factors that educators should consider.

The appendix post contains concordances for ACT and New PSAT and data for the scatterplots above.

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.


  • stajirovka says:

    Thank you for usefull article. Also I have found more information about SAT here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAT_Subject_Tests

  • Rita Tepper says:

    What advise would you give to a student applying to Harvard with the following test profile:
    SAT( taken only once March 2016) EBRW 790, Math 760 , Total 1550
    SAT Subject Tests Bio M (taken June 2014 after 9th grade) 740 American History (May 2016 ) 760 and Math 2 (taken June 2016) 720
    Would you send the Math 2 ?
    Student is interested in Cognitive Science

  • jf says:

    ACT super score of 35 (35, 35, 35, 33)…should I submit to highly selective but optional schools subject test scores of: Math 2 -790, US History – 720, Spanish Language (w/o Listening) – 710?

    Thanks from a Compass Student

    • Art Sawyer says:

      At highly selective schools where Subject Tests are simply “considered,” then I might let your ACT scores do the talking. While excellent, the scores will not necessarily help you stand out. I do think that you should submit them to schools that “recommend” Subject Tests. A number of highly selective schools in that camp expect to see Subject Tests except in extenuating circumstances.

  • bafr says:

    ACT score = 36, Math 2 subject test = 800; US History subject test = 800; Chemistry subject test = 770. Applying to highly selective schools, would you recommend just sending the 2 top scores? I am writing in my applications that one of my possible majors (also History and Philosophy) is Chemistry. Will schools expect to see a Chemistry subject test if I indicate an interest in Chemistry major?
    Thanks for your advice

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You should be very proud of all of your scores. Phenomenal job. I would recommend including Chemistry.
      1) 770 is an excellent score. Just because something falls short of 800 does not mean it drags you down.
      2) I think breadth can be an excellent way of demonstrating your qualifications — that’s why Subject Tests exist.
      3) [My weakest point.] If you are an admission officer looking at a potential Chemistry major, are you happier to see a student with a 770 or one who didn’t bother to submit (or possibly even take) the Chemistry test?

  • Ramesh says:

    Hi Art
    My son has a 36 in ACT (36 in Math and 36 in Science) and a 2330 in SAT including a 800 in Math section. He has a 800 in Chem subject test, 780 in Math II (Took in Freshman year) and recently scored a 760 in Physics subject test. He is planning to apply to Cal and MIT as well as few other colleges for engineering. He is worried about submitting his Physics score, and in addition most of these schools only need two Subject tests. Will Physics hurt him or help him? Should we also submit Physics or just submit Chem and Math II? Thank you for your advise?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      What excellent scores! It’s hard to think of a 760 as being a weak score, but it is true that a number of applicants to the very top engineering programs will have even higher Physics scores. The key, though, is that this is his third subject. Colleges generally view subjects after the first two as “plus factors.” I think the fact that he took Physics and did so well would be a valuable addition to his testing portfolio.

  • Chris says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for your article. I’ve just received scores for my January subject tests but am unsure which to send in. What would you advise a student applying to Harvard/Princeton with the following test profile:
    New SAT (submitted): 1520, EBRW 740, Math 780 Essay: 18/24

    Subject Tests:
    Taken Jan 2017: Math 2 750, Biology E 660
    Taken October 2016: Literature 660, French 630 (not a native speaker)

    I think I will send in my Math 2, but which of the other three do you think would most aid my application?
    For some context: I am a UK applicant, Afro-Caribbean heritage, interested in Philosophy/Economics

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s really a toss-up on Biology and Literature (I wouldn’t worry about French). I’d like to at least suggest repeating one or both. 660’s would be on the low side of Subject Test scores at H/P. You’d only need to submit your highest scores.

  • Isabella K says:

    I recently received my SAT Subject test scores for the U.S. History Subject Test that I took in May. I received a 720. While I am not necessarily upset with this score, I was expecting to my score to be a little bit higher. Could you give some perspective on how “good” this score is? I’m in the 76th percentile, so I know I’m above the average score on the U.S. History test. Also, how much of a positive addition will this score be if I choose to include it in my applications this fall for colleges?
    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Percentiles are a tricky way to assess a Subject Test score, so you are right to be inquisitive. I like to think about how your score stacks up against your other scores. At highly competitive colleges, Subject Test scores, on average, are higher than old SAT scores. I should emphasize the “old” part. New SAT scores are higher than old SAT scores, so we can loosely say that SAT scores and Subject Test scores will be about the same at top colleges. If your SAT scores are in the 650-740 range (or lower), then your U.S. History exam certainly won’t hurt you. If you are scoring in the 1500 range on your SAT, then your U.S. History exam probably doesn’t improve your testing portfolio. In that case, I might suggest that you send it only to colleges requiring Subject Tests.

  • Alice Wang says:

    I got my son’s SAT World History score 750 that is in 87% today. His math is 800 and physics is 780. If he applies for Stanford, do you think we shall send top two subjects or we can send all three of them?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would recommend sending all three. It’s understandable that a student’s third best score is less than his best, and there is no reason to hide from a 750. It shows an excellent performance in a non-STEM area to go with his Math and Physics results.

  • Pacey says:

    Should one retake an SAT Chem Score of 700 and a SAT score of 1440?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your 700 Chemistry is a good score and matches with your 1440. I would recommend that you consider a few things:
      1) Will a higher score help you? This depends on where you are applying and also on what sort of gain you can expect. At a 700, there is still room for improvement.
      2) Do you think you can achieve a higher score? Based on your preparation and practice tests, was the 700 much lower than expected. Even more important, are you in a position to do better? Presumably you are not taking a chemistry class over the summer, so it will mean studying on your own or with a tutor.
      3) Does repeating work with your schedule. Trying to raise a good score is different than trying to raise a weak score. Don’t force it. If it is going to interfere with your SAT plans or classes or applications, you probably shouldn’t force it.
      4) Do you want to repeat. You have a good score. Are you really interested enough in raising it to put in the work and deal with the stress of another test day.

      Good luck with whichever decision you make!

      • Pacey says:

        Thank you for replying.
        1) A higher score will definitely help me and keep my higher options open. At the moment, my main goal is to get into the Honors engineering programs for UT Austin and Texas A and M.
        2) It was much lower than expected. And you do bring up a good point about improving my score whatsoever, considering that I am not taking a chemistry class.
        3) Repeating works. Should I retake the SAT score of 1440?
        4) I’m conflicted about whether I should retake both of these scores, as I believe a higher score is better, but I don’t know if I can achieve that higher score.
        Thanks again.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          I can’t speak to the competitiveness of the UT and A&M engineering programs. Subject Test scores are completely optional and are unlikely to receive much weight. If you were to repeat a test — and I’m not saying that you must — I would recommend the SAT. Students often improve with time and practice, whereas the Chemistry test poses an additional obstacle. I do think you should submit your score.

  • Yolanda says:

    Hi, I recently took two SAT subject tests in May of this year. On the Bio M test, I got a 660, and on Math 2, I got a 630. I know that these scores aren’t that high, but are they enough for a UC such as LA? I’m all debating if I should retake them or not because I don’t know if I can do better if I do retake them. What do you think i should do?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      When the UCs stopped requiring Subject Tests, they also stopped reporting scores for applicants and admits. We know from prior experience that scores were roughly in line with SAT scores. The average SAT scores for UCLA are likely to be 700-720 in EBRW and Math. Admissions rates drop off quickly for students in the 600’s. I would consider retaking the exams (at least M2) or choosing not to send the Subject Tests to the UCs. As it stands, they do not help your testing portfolio.

  • Vasu says:

    Hello Art, I have a score of 1540 on my SAT 1 (750 – EBRW and 790 – Math) with a GPA of 3.92 on a rigorous curriculum with 4 APs in Sophomore year and 4 APs in Junior year. I got four ‘5’s and three ‘4’s as my AP scores. However, my SAT II subject test scores are less than optimal with 720 in Math2, 730 in US History and 730 in Chemistry. I am planning to apply REA to Princeton this coming fall. Should I retake my Math subject test and/or US History? I am planning to major in Econ with minor in Language Studies.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The answer that throws things back in your court is that retaking one or two ST’s can provide a boost to your testing profile, but not so large of one that they distract you from other things. I think you are at the cusp of where I would recommend a retake. You should retake the ones you are most likely to improve. For example, you shouldn’t feel pressure to do better in US History just because you plan on being a Econ major. A killer Chem score would be just as effective.

  • Sung says:

    Hi Art,
    My daughter is applying to Rice which requires no Subject Test scores if you submit ACT, but two with SAT. She will be submitting her ACT with a composite of 36 (E36,M35,R36,S36, Writing8). She took SAT Subject Tests once and got MATH 2 (770), Bio-M (790) and US History(750). Should she submit her Subject scores? Will they help her application or distract from her 36? Thank you for all your great work!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I think your daughter’s scores supplement — rather than distract from — your daughter’s 36. If she is applying as a prospective STEM student, the Math 2 and Bio would be particularly relevant. Many of the ST-optional-with-ACT policies are vestiges from a time when students tended to take one test or the other and many ACT students ignored College Board exams entirely.

  • Minnesota dad says:

    My son has a 36C on ACT (single sitting). SAT II subject test scores are 800 (US History) and 750 (literature).

    Is there any advantage in taking more subject tests when target schools recommend only two? If he can score 750-800 on math II, would it be better to have third test when applying to selective schools (ivies and equivalents)? Or does that become overkill?

    I do see kids with multiple subject test 800s. Those impress me, but I am not sure if they impress admissions officers. Worth taking a third test or should we move on? My son is a senior (likely major in social sciences) so studying for the test would take away time from applications.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      MN dad,
      Additional Subject Tests can improve a student’s testing portfolio. There is certainly a diminishing return, but the tests can still provide insight. For example, Math 2 results can display your son’s math skills better than can the ACT alone. You and your son will have to decide whether or not investing in another day of testing is worth the small potential gain. If he is considering Georgetown, keep in mind that they strongly recommend 3 Subject Tests!

      • norm says:

        Thanks for all the great information. My daughter has a 34 ACT (single sitting) and her subject matter tests are US Hist (710), Chem (740) and Math II (740). She is applying to schools that recommend/require 2 or 3 subject matter tests (Penn, Georgetown, etc.) but some others (Georgia Tech, Rice) make them optional. She wants to major in chemistry. Any concerns about submitting all three of the subject matter tests even at those places where it appears truly optional?

        RI dad

        • Art Sawyer says:

          No concerns. If really pressed, I might not bother sending the US History. I don’t think it would hurt her, but it’s not going to be much of a positive, either. Rice is a good example of how colleges send mixed signals on Subject Tests. Until recently, it required Subject Tests. But it realizes that the exams are an obstacle for some students and doesn’t want that to prevent great students from applying. In other words, “we want you to apply even if you don’t have Subject Tests, but we’d love it if you did have Subject Tests, but we sort of promise not to hold it against you if you don’t.” When faced with these policies, the best decision is full disclosure unless scores are weak.

  • Vasu says:

    Hello Art,
    The Subject Test scores were released this morning and I wanted to thank you for your advice!. My original question that you had replied earlier is pasted below for reference again. I retook Math II following your recommendation and got a 790 this time. My question now is, should I subject all three subject test scores or only submit Math II and U.S History? Please let me know when you get a chance.
    Math Level II – 790 US History – 730 Chemistry – 730

    Thanks, Vasu
    I have a score of 1540 on my SAT 1 (750 – EBRW and 790 – Math) with a GPA of 3.92 on a rigorous curriculum with 4 APs in Sophomore year and 4 APs in Junior year. I got four ‘5’s and three ‘4’s as my AP scores. However, my SAT II subject test scores are less than optimal with 720 in Math2, 730 in US History and 730 in Chemistry. I am planning to apply SCEA to Princeton this coming fall. Should I retake my Math subject test and/or US History? I am planning to major in Econ with minor in Language Studies.

  • mom in NJ says:

    Hi Art,

    My son has a 35 on his ACT (36 math, 35 science). He got an 800 on his Math 2 subject test and a 740 on his physics subject test. Should he send the physics score to places like Carnegie Mellon and Cornell?

    Thank you very much!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      NJ Mom,
      Yes, send it. Colleges typically view Subject Test scores “supportively” or as “plus factors.” A 740 is not a score your son needs to hide. The percentiles on the Physics exam can make it seem as if any score less than 800 is a failure, but that’s more about the self-selection of the testing pool than anything else.

  • Devi says:

    My son is in Sophomore now and got 720 in Biology E subject test. He is going to try for BS DO dual program. Most of the schools are asking for two or three subject test. He is planning to take Math 2, Chem and US History Subject test as well in Junior. He is wondering whether he has to retake Biology E test again or focus on other test as taking it again will reduce his time for other tests.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Dual programs are one of the last strongholds of Subject Tests because they are so competitive and colleges want to make sure that students are comfortable with the math and science that will be required. I don’t think that he *has* to repeat Bio, but it would be good if he could apply with really strong M2, Bio, and Chem scores. Since he is just a sophomore, he has plenty of opportunities to retake the test. He may want to prep and re-take while the information is fresh. He’ll have Score Choice available, so only his best scores will matter.

  • Hi Art,
    My daughter would like to apply for Princeton University early admission. Her current GPA is 3.8 UW; will complete 9 AP courses by the end of her senior year and many Extra-curriculum, since 9th grade. She received on SAT subject test – Chem 740 and Math 1 650. She has a 34 ACT composite score. She is also taking college courses (MOWR) and currently has received A’s in the courses. We are trying to complete an holistic profile for IVY league schools due to her GPA not being 4.0 UW. I am aware, as a student she will not be in the upper end of applicable students. My questions is would it help or hurt her to send the subject test scores?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      GA Mother,
      I would submit her Chemistry score but not the Math 1 score. The latter is below what the most elite schools want to see and doesn’t improve her “testing portfolio.”

  • Farhad says:

    Hello Art,
    My daughter has 35C in ACT(superscore), Writing 9 and SAT II 760 (US History) and 740 (Literature). Her target schools are all 4-year Liberal Arts college, Claremont colleges on West coast and Amhert/Williams/Swarthmore/Haverford/Wellesley on east coast. We are hoping these scores along with her high GPA and range of extra curricular actitivity portfolio, good essays, be good enough to make her competitive? She plans to study either History or English. Any comment on her chances to get into one of these colleges?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I’m only qualified to talk about her test scores, and her ACT and Subject Test scores are in line with what those schools will want to see. Best of luck to your daughter!

  • Cali Mom says:

    Hi Art,

    It’s so nice of you to respond to all of these questions!

    My son is applying to highly selective schools that all consider SAT subject tests optional (one school says recommended). He has a 34 composite ACT, a 1520 SAT, with a 750 on his Math 2 and a 700 on his Biology M. What are your recommendations concerning submitting the subject tests?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Cali Mom,
      Subject Test scores near or above an SAT section (we’ll call it 760 from your son’s SAT score) can generally increase the strength of a student’s testing portfolio. Your son’s Bio score is borderline for the top colleges. I might opt to not submit Subject Tests to the “optionals.” Some “recommended” colleges mean “we recommend, but we really, really want them.” Harvard and Princeton fall in this camp, for example. I would submit them in those limited circumstances.

  • Ali says:

    My son has a 35 ACT, 780 math ii and 620 physics. If applying Carnegie, should he retake physics? Thanks

    • Art Sawyer says:

      He is best off retaking Physics or finding another subject where his score will be more inline with his ACT and Math 2 scores (at least 700+). If he is applying to the College of Engineering, Physics is his best choice.

  • TX Dad says:


    My son has 1400 SAT (730 Math + 670 EBRW), Math 2 is 750, Physics is 670 and Chemistry is 690. The rest of his package is exceptionally strong so he is keen to take a shot at the Ivies including Harvard and Penn. Would it be advisable for him to report his subject SAT scores and if so which ones?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      TX Dad,
      The question I ask is “Will these test results help or hurt a student’s testing portfolio? Or will they not matter?”

      Each of the elite schools is a little different. Harvard, for example, has “an expectation” of Subject Tests although it is not a hard requirement. I would recommend sending his Math 2 and Chem. Penn’s recommendation is a bit looser. Neither of his ST’s is so strong that it will dramatically strengthen his application, but I think that they are still good enough to send. I’d leave off Physics because no school — except Georgetown — expects 3 tests, and the 670 won’t help him. Overall his testing portfolio puts him toward the lower quartile of candidates, but scores are only one component. Harvard doesn’t release much in the way of stats, but Yale has posted some class of 2017 admission data that has new SAT scores for comparison.

  • Susan says:

    I have a question completely unrelated to college admissions. My son is at a top prep school and would like to show that he has sufficiently mastered freshman biology. He took the SAT II biology without prepping towards the end of his 9th grade honors biology course and scored a 650. Do you believe this score would show that he knows the material enough to move onto chemistry or does it show that he needs to retake freshman biology? I appreciate your input.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t feel qualified enough to answer this. Based on what I commonly see from students taking the Bio Subject Test after 9th grade Bio is that a 650 is a good score. I would imagine that your son’s school, though, is much more concerned about his grade in the class.

  • Chris says:

    Finally, in-depth info about the Subject tests, this has been so helpful! Would like to get your opinion about USC engineering. SAT I score is 1540; Math II is 740 and Physics is 650. Would you send all? Thanks again for the great info.

  • Chris says:

    Thank you again!

  • chris says:

    Hi Art, When the UCs say that they want all of your SAT scores, are they talking solely about the SAT I or does it include the Subject tests? Chris

    • Art Sawyer says:

      They are solely referring to the SAT, not Subject Tests. Unfortunately, there is no College Board option to state this policy, so when submitting scores, students get the scary message that the school does not recognize Score Choice. Ignore the scary message!

  • Concerned says:

    Hello Art,
    I am a senior applying for colleges this fall. When I was submitting SAT scores to colleges from College Board, I did not see the option to send certain scores so accidentally ended up sending ALL of my scores, including subject tests, which I did not want to send because I did rather poorly on them.
    I scored a 1490 on the SAT (720 Reading&Writing and 770 Math) and 690 on Math 2 Subject Test and 690 on Literature Subject Test and 640 on World History Subject Test. I submitted these scores to USC and Boston University. Again, I did not mean to send my subject test scores because they are bad in comparison to my SAT score, but since they have sent and I cannot do anything about it, do you think they will significantly hurt my chances? Do you think the 1490 is good enough for them to ignore my poor subject test scores? Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      If you just sent your scores in the last couple of days, you might try calling College Board to see if you can halt them. The only reason this *might* be possible is that scores are not zapped off to a college when you hit Send. Instead, College Board does regular uploads.

      I don’t think it’s much of a concern. Those are not Subject Test scores that are going to hurt you (and most folks have a weak third Subject Test that is going to be ignored). No, they won’t boost your testing portfolio, but they are not that far out of line where they would damage it either. See what you can do with College Board and then let go of the worry either way!

  • Senior says:

    Hello Art,

    With an ACT composite 35 (35 in Math), 5 in the AP Calc AB exam, 800 in Bio – M SAT and 790 in Math II SAT (with Bs and B+s in math classes in an advanced college prep program), what would your advice be on whether I should submit the Math II SAT to selective schools? Does it help or detract?

    Thank you.

  • HC says:


    I am applying to Princeton, and they recommend the submission of two subject tests. Paying for them was not an issue. I take the IB curriculum and have strong scores. However, the IB curriculum and AP curriculum differ in several ways that were evident on the subject tests (which appear to favor the AP one). I got a 690 in math 2 and a 690 in physics. Would you recommend submitting these scores, or is it best to stick to just submitting the ACT (33)?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      There is not a definitive answer. In general, ST scores that are lower than SAT section scores (or ACT equivalents in your case) do not help a student’s testing portfolio. Princeton has weakened its recommendation in recent years, so I would probably recommend against submission.

  • RA says:

    Hi Art,

    I have a student applying to CMC ED with a superscore 32 on the ACT. Student is applying to Psychology for a major. She took the Bio subject test in freshman year (unclear on which one) and got a 650. Should she not report that?

  • Aria says:

    I’ve seen a lot of SAT comparison but wondering about ACT comparison to subject tests. For my 2 EA school choices-one says they will consider Subject tests and the other says subject tests are not required. With a 32 composite ACT score (30 math section) should I send my 760 math 2 and 710 physics and 700 us history-one, two or none? Thanks very much.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      My rule of thumb is that Subject Test scores should be inline with (not necessarily equal to) SAT scores. We just have to extend that by converting ACT scores. Your 32 concord with about a 1460 (or about 730 on each section). I think your Subject Test scores are strong enough to send, especially since your M2 and Physics scores speak to your quantitative skills in a way that your 30 Math does not.

  • Jenny says:

    Hi Art
    My son’s sat score is 1510. Sat subject test score is Math 2 – 800 Physics – 720.
    My son took test after physic class ( 11grade) not ap class. Is that good score (720) ?
    He will apply Havard, MIT, Stanford, Is that score enough score to apply?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Those scores probably put your son in about the middle of an admitted class at those schools (maybe low middle). The 720 is not a bad score, although for the very top schools, it is nice to have STs in the 750-800 range.

  • Kim says:

    Hi –
    My daughter is looking to major in Math (education) and scored a 30 on the ACT in Math, 28 composite. Her SAT Subject Test in Math 2 is 650. Should we send it to UCI, UC Santa Barbara, USC?

  • MP says:

    Hi Art,
    My son scored a 790 Math/730 Reading&Writing on the SAT, and a 760 Math2 and 770 Physics. He has a 3.91 unweighted GPA (straight A’s in all but French) and is applying to Caltech and Harvey Mudd as a student athlete (each school’s coaches have verbally confirmed a spot on their roster if he passes admissions). Should he retake the Math2 and Physics or just the Math2?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Both colleges (well, particularly Caltech) are outliers because of the small, elite student bodies with math and science focus. Caltech traditionally has the highest standardized test scores in the country. This means that even your son’s 760 and 770 are “below average.” However, that’s not the same thing as “they will hold him back.” I would recommend retakes only if he feels that his schedule allows for the study and testing required. 30-40 points on a Subject Test is highly unlikely to be the tip factor.

  • CJ says:

    Can you talk at all about the foreign language subject tests? My daughter has a 33 ACT (34 superscored). She wants to study languages, so she took the French and Spanish subject tests and got a 650 and a 680 respectively, which is at the 62nd percentile on both. She is not a native speaker of either language. I’ve heard it’s hard to score high on the language tests because native speakers throw off the curve. How would you recommend she handle those scores at schools that recommend but do not require subject tests, or at schools that consider, but do not require or recommend, subject tests?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Native speakers do not effect the curve in terms of the 200-800 scores, but it is true that they can impact the reported percentiles. Colleges understand this and look at Subject Tests in relation to languages a student has actually studied in high school. I don’t think that your daughter’s scores benefit her enough to submit. They can still be useful in terms of satisfying course prerequisites or language requirements in college. [I am assuming that she is a senior. If she is a junior, she should consider retaking the exams if she is still studying the languages.]

  • GS says:

    Hi Art,
    My son is a freshman and wants to pursue political science/law in a high selective school(Ivy). He just took the World History Subject exam and scored 760. He got a 4 in AP World History as a eighth grader. Do you recommend him to retake the subject exam. He is also planning to take Math 2 next year and US History as a junior.


  • J brown says:

    Art, my daughter scored a 1390 SAT (720 reading/writing and 670 math). She also scored a 680 SAT Math 2 subject test. She is straight A student and is taking AP Calculus. She is interested in engineering at UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine (SAT Math 2 recommended). Should she send in her Math 2 score?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Given her SAT Math score, I would go ahead and send her Math 2 score. My rough rule of thumb is that the Subject Test score should at least equal (approximately) the SAT score. Your daughter’s 680 fits, but it tells the schools that she also scores in that range on the advanced math expected of engineers.

  • KC says:

    Hi Art,
    My son scored a 1470 (790Math & 680CR) on the New SAT. For his SAT subject tests, he scored a 650 for Math 2 and 740 for Physics. He’s a straight A’s international student who’s planning to major in Economics. He’s particularly strong in Math and has been performing well in his practice tests. However, he got a high fever the night before the ST test day, causing him to perform poorly for both Math 2 and Physics, particularly Math 2 with a score of only 650. He’s applying to a few ivy leagues and UCs such as UCB, UCLA , UCSD, as well as Duke and Northwestern. Most of the them categorize ST as only “recommended” or “considered”.

    In his application, should he send in his ST? As his Math 2 score is particularly low, would it place his application under a bad light and add negative impressions to the admission officers if he sends his ST? And if he does send his ST scores, would it be okay if he explains that his low Math 2 scores was due to the unfortunate circumstance(his fever), in the “additional comments” section in the common app? Does the 790M in his SAT Reasoning justifies his poor Math 2 scores?

    Thank you for your time and I really appreciate it. 🙂

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I do not think it would be beneficial to submit his Math 2 score. If it is required, then I could see his Reasoning score and an explanation making an admission officer feel at ease about his math skills, but it’s harder to justify a case for voluntarily submitting it. He would be better off submitting Physics only or just his SAT score.

  • KC says:

    Thank you for your reply.
    I have just found out that my son had made a request himself to send his ST scores to 4 institutions prior to the exam, and the sending of his ST score reports cannot be canceled at this point o f time.
    If that’s the case, would it be feasible for him to explain his unfortunate circumstance(his fever) in the “additional comments” of the Common App?
    Or would doing that put my son’s application at disadvantage as the admission officers might just think that he’s just giving excuses to cover up his poor scores?
    Once again, I sincerely thank you for your time invested.

  • JR says:

    Hi Art,
    I recently applied to the UCs for engineering. I received a 790 on the Math 2 Subject Test, but I unfortunately received a 660 on the Physics Subject Test which the UCs recommend taking if you’re majoring in engineering. I can’t retake it at this point, and I put on my UC app that I planned on taking it, so now I’m concerned. If I don’t submit it, they’ll know I didn’t do well, but submitting it could possibly hurt my chances even more. Would you recommend just submitting the Math 2 or submitting both? Do I need to notify the UCs if I decide to not send the Physics Subject Test score? Will the As I received in AP Physics 1 and the 4 I received on the AP Exam help compensate for not sending a Physics Subject Test score? Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sorry for the delay. I don’t think that they would read too much into the fact that you planned on taking it. You also could have gotten sick. That said, I’d probably go ahead and submit both scores. You shouldn’t be concerned if you feel differently and want to submit only the Math 2.

  • Aspirant says:

    I am an international and intend to apply to Top colleges (Ivy league ) to major in Economics. My scores are SAT 1510 Math 800 ERW 710; M2 800; US History 700. 4.0 GPA unweighted.
    I have never had a chance to formally study US History ( not taught in my country) and took it for SAT to understand USA better. Should I submit US History sores to the colleges which categorize it as i. Recommended ii. Optional?
    Thanks a lot.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You’ll want to verify policies with each college, because some schools where Subject Tests are optional for U.S. students are required for international students. In your case, yes, I would submit the U.S. History score.

  • Mom in CA says:

    Hi Art,

    Thank you for this great information about how to interpret the ST scores! We have been wrestling with what to do regarding our daughter’s scores and wondering if we got the correct advice or not. After reading this, I have more clarity but am still not completely sure if we should send them in (to Duke or Emory in particular). We have sent in both her SAT w/writing and ACT w/writing scores already; none of the schools on her list say they REQUIRE SAT Subject Tests. Duke states if you are only submitting the SAT (not ACT) then two subject tests are “strongly recommended”. Emory states that they are “encouraged, but not required”. Others (NYU, Columbia, Conn) state that they are “optional”. The rest don’t mention them at all.
    Her SAT was 1550 ( EBRW – 770, Math – 780) (99th %). ACT was 34 composite. Subject tests: Biology M – 700 (61st %) and Literature – 710 (78th %). She also scored 4 on both AP Bio and AP Lit exams.

    Duke’s new SAT ranges are EBRW 720-780 and Math 720-800, ACT 31-34.
    Emory’s new SAT ranges are EBRW 690-760 and Math 690-780, ACT 30-33.

    Based on your article it seems that her ST scores are not in line (below expectations) with her SAT and ACT scores, and would weaken her testing profile. However, they are both 700+ so not bad scores, and if these two schools encourage them then would it help her to submit these, to show them that at least she made the effort to take the exams? Our school counselor said not to because the percentiles were lower, which I now understand is not the factor upon which to make this decision, so it makes us wonder if we got the wrong advice. We would greatly appreciate your thoughts. Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Mom in CA,
      My apologies for the delayed response. The good news is that there is not really a wrong answer. Your daughter’s scores are not in a range where they would hurt her. They are also not so high that they’ll contribute much to her portfolio. As you already noted, I don’t like using percentiles for ST decisions. The pools of students taking SAT and STs are different, and the pools are not even the same when comparing different Subject Tests. Your daughter’s SAT scores are already extremely strong, so she is not needing to look to Subject Tests to act as a tip factor. I would agree with your counselor, just not quite with the reasoning.

  • stephanie says:

    My daughter took the MATH2 Subject test after her freshman year. She received a 780. She is considering retaking it since she is interested in a top engineering school. Next month she will take the full SAT, in hopes of getting 1550 or above. Would it be smart of her to try to get a perfect on the math2 after she takes calculous, or concentrate on other areas. In other words, if a perfect looks much better than a 780, she’ll retake, but if not, she’s happy with the score. Thanks for your thoughts

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t think an 800 versus a 780 will make a difference in her admission chances. Some students feel more confident if they do achieve a perfect mark even if it doesn’t change their chances. It sounds like your daughter is happy and should focus her attention elsewhere.

  • FlyerDad says:

    Hello Art: I hope you are still checking this article–it’s the only one I’ve seen that specifically addresses subject matter tests. My son has a 35 ACT. He got a 760 on Math II, a 690 in Lit, and is planning on taking Spanish in August. He is applying to schools like Georgetown, Cornell, Northwestern, Wash U, UCLA, etc., likely as an Econ or Business major.

    I have three questions for you: (1) would you recommend he retake Lit when he takes the Spanish exam in August? (2) Would you recommend he retake Math as well? (3) If you retake a test, do you need to send in the original score as well? Thanks very much for your response. Reading your columns has been enormously helpful during this process.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      For a Subject Test score to benefit your son at those schools, it would need to be above 690. That doesn’t mean he needs to retake — most of the schools you mention don’t require Subject Tests — but if he is already signed up for Spanish, I would recommend that he devote another hour to Literature. I’m sorry for the delayed response, but he can change his mind even on test day. He could also decide to retake Math if he is feeling up for it. That’s obviously not as critical, and it also depends on what he thinks he can achieve.

      • FlyerDad says:

        Hello Art: Thank you very much for your reply. My son did retake Math and Lit and this time got an 800 in Math II (previously 760) and 760 in Lit (previously 690), so he is thrilled about his scores. He will take Spanish in October to fulfill the requirement for Georgetown, which which he is currently infatuated . . . Do you think his new testing profile (35 ACT, 800 Math II, 760 Lit, 219 PSAT) is realistically strong enough for UPenn and Brown (along with G-town, Northwestern and UCLA)? I know how competitive those schools are and that his GPA (3.8 UW), ECs and letters will all of course be factors as well.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          At schools such as UPenn, Brown, et al., scores alone won’t get a student in, so the best way of considering whether or not scores are “strong enough” is to ask whether they are competitive versus other applicants. Your son’s scores would be above average for accepted students at all of the colleges you list. There is no reason for your son to re-test and no reason for him to think his scores will hold him back.

  • Elizabeth says:

    First of all, I want to say thank you so much for your posts! I am a public school counselor and I don’t have a lot of time to focus on the ins/outs of testing and want to be able to help my students present themselves in the best way possible. I am struggling with this scenario – I have a student that scored 710 on the Chem and wants to go into pre-med and is looking at some highly selective schools. Not submitting his SAT score and is going with ACT instead with a score of 34. His #1 school recommends submitting SAT subject tests in proposed areas of study. Should he submit? Or not – since they only recommend…. and could it hurt him since it is his area of study?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I’m glad that the site is of value, and I’m sorry for my delayed response. If his only strong Subject Test score is Chem, then I’d advise against submitting. If he had, let’s say, a 790 Math 2, then Subject Tests might be of benefit. A solo score of 710, though, is not going to help differentiate him. The other option would be to retake.

  • senior student says:

    Hi Art,

    I have ACT 34 (using two sittings, the composite is 35) and took two SAT subject tests: Math 2 – 770 and Literature – 730. I am considering applying REA to either Harvard, Princeton or Yale. As an international student, we have fewer testing dates and I cannot sit another test before the REA deadline. I am content with my Math 2 score, but is my Literature score good enough to apply to these competitive schools? The alternative is to retake and then apply RD with a (hopefully) higher score. If I retake, I am planning to take either US or World History in addition to Literature in order to have more options. Please let me know what you think the best course of action is. Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would not advise a student to change application strategy just to retake a Subject Test — especially one already at 730. You can always retake and update your file. It won’t necessarily be considered for REA, but it would be there should you be deferred.

  • Gatordad says:

    Hi. Thanks for a great article. What would you recommend for a student with a 32 ACT that got a 690 on LIT and a 640 on History applying to Tulane, that has subject tests as optional? Does the effort to take them outweigh the low scores, or should she not send them? Thanks!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      For Subject Test optional schools, the question is whether or not scores will help an admission officer make a favorable decision. The 690/640 would probably not be a negative, but I don’t think that they embellish your daughter’s ACT score.

  • Bigdad930 says:

    Dear Art,

    My son is a senior now and he is now prep for his common app and college supplemental essays. He is planning to major in economics or business.

    I have a question on his SAT subject test. He got a 800 on math 2, 760 on physics, 740 on US history. He got a 1570 on his SAT.

    1) I assume 760 and 740 are good ST scores and no need to retake correct? He plans to apply for UChucago, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts..
    2) For college like UChucago … will you recommend we send them the subject test scores.


    • Art Sawyer says:

      1) No need to retake. Your son’s test portfolio is already impressive enough.
      2) Since there is nothing to hide, I would definitely send them to all his colleges.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Art,
    I am planning on applying early to highly selective schools and intend to major in a STEM field. I have a GPA of 4.5, a 34 ACT and Subject test scores of 800 Math 2, 750 Physics and 800 Language with Listening. I was wondering if I should retake ST Physics, submit my highest two STs or submit all three ST scores.
    Thanks you very much for your advise!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would send all 3 scores, especially since Physics says more than a language exam about your ability to excel in a STEM field. It’s unlikely that retesting in Physics would improve your testing portfolio.

  • Subby says:

    Dear Art,

    My Daughter has ACT 30 and 690 is Math II. She is planning to do Mathematics Major. Should I report Math II ?. Is 690 is a good score. She has retaken ACT and expects about 33-35.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would probably not report it, especially if your daughter is able to raise her score to the 33-35 level. While not a bad score, the 690 does not really advance her case.

  • Ganu says:

    Hello Art,

    Really great article.

    My son has a 35 ACT and 800 in 3 Subject tests (Bio, Math & Chem). He also took the SAT once and scored 1400. My question is can he just submit the ACT and the Subject SAT scores to colleges that require all ACT or All SAT (Carnegie Mellon for example)? Or does he have to report the SAT I if he reports the Subject SATs?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      My understanding of the CMU policy is that your student must send all of the scores for a particular set of tests. If he is submitting ACT scores, he is supposed to submit all ACT scores. If he submits SAT scores he is required to submit all SAT scores. There is nothing that says he must supply all SAT scores if he submits Subject Tests. College Board Score Choice policies were written only to reflect SAT requirements (not Subject Tests), so it will display as CMU not accepting Score Choice. Simply ignore that warning and use Score Choice to send CMU your son’s Subject Test scores.

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