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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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Why Most Students Should Avoid SAT II Foreign Language Exams

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Thinking of taking a SAT Subject Test in a foreign language? While some students take these exams because they’ve performed well in a foreign language class, choosing these exams can be risky. Why should you approach these exams with caution, and what strategies should you consider instead? Read on for our advice.


What are the SAT Subject Test foreign language exams?

Formerly called SAT IIs, SAT Subject Tests assess your competency and knowledge in particular subjects. Unlike the SAT (formerly called the SAT I), which evaluates your general academic preparedness, Subject Tests enable students to demonstrate their specific strengths and skills. Some colleges require applicants to submit scores from certain exams if they want to gain admission to a specialized program — for instance, an engineering program might require applicants to take the Math II Subject Test. However, students often can choose to take whichever Subject Tests they believe will best demonstrate their strengths.


The SAT offers Subject Tests in the following languages:



Spanish with Listening


French with Listening

Chinese with Listening



German with Listening

Modern Hebrew


Japanese with Listening

Korean with Listening


Tests that do not include a listening component consist entirely of reading sections. For the tests that do include listening, students will listen to the spoken language (you will need to bring a CD player) and respond to related questions. All foreign language tests are multiple choice.


All SAT Subject Test language exams do not use words or colloquialisms from specific regions or geographic areas. For example, you will not hear phrases specific to Mexico or Spain on the Spanish test.


The College Board advises students to have at least three to four years of language courses or two years of “strong” preparation before taking the language test. Test-takers will need to know vocabulary, structurally and contextually appropriate use of idioms, and grammar. The exam also assesses reading comprehension.


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Why should most students avoid SAT foreign language exams?

Students who are strong in a foreign language may be tempted to take the SAT Subject Test in that language. However, it’s often better to opt for another exam. Even if you’ve aced your language classes, a high score on that SAT language exam can be elusive. That’s because many native speakers take the test, and your test performance will be weighed against theirs.


If you’re not a native speaker or haven’t completed the associated AP class for a language by the end of your junior year, we advise against taking the Subject Test in that language. Furthermore, note that some colleges place less weight on foreign language Subject Test because they know that many of the top performers are native speakers.


What are the curves for foreign language Subject Tests?

Percentiles reflect how your score compares to the performance of other test-takers. For example, to achieve an 800 on the French exam with listening, a student must fall in the 80th percentile; this means that a student who receives that score performs better than 80 percent of students taking the same test.


The chart below illustrates the large discrepancy in score distributions across different language exams. To achieve an 800 on Spanish with Listening, a student needed to perform better than 94 percent of test takers, while achieving an 800 on Chinese with Listening only required scoring in the 62nd percentile. Moreover, the curve is steeper for the Spanish exam. These differences are largely attributable to the difficulty of the test and the number of students who take it. Because many students take the Spanish exam, it is difficult to earn a high score.


(Source: The College Board)


How do you know which tests to take?

So, if you don’t take the foreign language exams, which SAT Subject Tests should you take? That depends on your goals and anticipated major and career path — and, of course, on the requirements of the colleges on your list. For example, most pre-med students should submit exams like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and/or Math II. Check out our articles on exams to take for specific areas of study for more guidance.


Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT.

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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.