SAT I vs SAT II: What’s the Difference?

 

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Chances are you’ve heard of the SAT I—commonly referred to simply as the SAT—a college readiness exam required for admission to most universities. However, you may be less familiar with the SAT II, or subject tests, another pre-college exam available to students.

 

Despite the commonality of the name, the SAT I and SAT II are actually very different exams. Put simply, the SAT I tests general academic preparedness, while the subject tests offer an opportunity for students to demonstrate excellence within a given topic. This manifests in a variety of content-based and logistical differences between the two exams.

 

Timing: How Long Are the Exams?

 

The SAT is a three part exam consisting of a a 65-minute reading section, 35-minute grammar section, and 80-minute math section, divided into 25 minutes without a calculator and 55 minutes with one. All in all, the test takes three hours with an optional 50 minute essay that students can opt to take should one of their target schools require this section.

 

The subject tests, however, are each tested during a one-hour examination period, and students can opt to take up to three in a given test day.

 

The SAT is offered seven times per year, and the SAT II six times per year. However, not all of the subject tests are offered on each test date. Further, the SAT I cannot be taken on the same day as the SAT II, as test times overlap.

 

Format: How Are the Exams Structured?

 

The three mandatory SAT sections are each worth between 200 and 800 points, for a total of 1600 points possible. Questions are offered in multiple choice format, with four possible answers for each. With the recent redesign of the SAT, there is no longer a penalty for incorrect guesses.

The subject tests also assume multiple choice format, with most versions of the exam providing five answer options. Similar to the SAT sections, the SAT II exams are each scored from 200 to 800. However, unlike the SAT, subject tests penalize incorrect answers, using the following guide:

  • ¼ Point deducted for every incorrect 5-choice question
  • ⅓ Point deducted for every incorrect 4-choice question
  • ½ Point deducted for every incorrect 3-choice question

Questions left blank will not be penalized on either exam.

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Content: What Do the Exams Test For?

 

As mentioned above, the SAT tests students on math, reading comprehension, and language aptitude, with an optional essay composition section. The exam is designed to assess broad skills, including critical and analytical thinking, to serve as a measure of comparison from one high school student to the next.

 

No content necessarily has to be memorized in order to do well on the SAT. In fact, most SAT study methods consist of merely becoming familiar with the various types of problems present on the exam and of learning strategies to master each.

 

On the other hand, the SAT II tests a student’s content mastery of one given topic. There are 20 offered, including:

 

  • Literature
  • U.S. History
  • Mathematics Level 1
  • Mathematics Level 2
  • Biology E/M
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • French (With or without listening)
  • Spanish (With or without listening)
  • Chinese (With listening)
  • German (With or without listening)
  • Japanese (With listening)
  • Korean (With listening)
  • Modern Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Latin

 

These exams give students the opportunity to show excellence of, or interest in, a specific topic. As such, there is generally a lot more memorization of content involved in preparation for the tests. This allows students to demonstrate high accomplishment within a specific topic.

 

Why Take the Tests?

 

Almost every college or university will require an SAT or ACT score in order for a student to be considered for admission, so this choice is less open-ended for students. Subject tests, on the other hand, offer students more freedom of decision.

 

Very few schools still ask for subject tests, with only the most selective schools, like Harvard and Rice, actually requiring them on the application. If, however, your school of choice recommends, but does not require, subject tests—as is the case with some selective schools—it is suggested that you treat this as an expectation.

 

The subject tests provide an opportunity for students to show academic versatility. If you have self-taught yourself a topic, pursued a topic extracurricularly, or want to demonstrate skill in a prospective major, the subject test is an opportunity to do so. 

 

Certain schools are renowned for specific majors and receive high numbers of candidates intending to declare in that field. Pre-medical programs, for example, are often inundated with remarkably similar applicant profiles. The SAT II subject tests will allow you to demonstrate your proficiency in a way that surpasses what you might otherwise be able to communicate.

 

These scores generally will not hurt an application, but rather serve as a supplement to the larger picture presented during admissions. This is especially relevant as the number of applicants to American colleges continues to rise. In light of this trend, anything that differentiates you from the herd will help to make you a memorable candidate. Even the strongest applications can benefit from being pointed–SAT II subject tests are just one way to begin that process. 

 

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Short bio
Rebecca Weinstein is an undergraduate student at Stanford University, where she plans to study English with an emphasis in creative writing. When she is not studying at college, she lives in Morris County, New Jersey with her two dogs and three cats.