SAT Science Subject Tests: To Take or Not?

by Katerina Buff

This year your freshmen, sophomore, or junior started taking a new science class. Whether it is biology, chemistry, or physics, you may be wondering whether your child should plan to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test or not. Here are some frequently asked questions to help you think through the decision:

My son has done well in biology; does it mean he will be as successful in chemistry or physics?
Not necessarily. Although biology, chemistry, and physics are all part of the science curriculum, in biology the flow of material differs from the other science subjects. Units in biology are not always connected and interdependent. For some, no prior knowledge is required, while units are based on understanding of chemistry or previous concepts in biology.

Should I start encouraging my son to take a science SAT Subject Test at the end of the year?
While it is good to think ahead to SAT Subject Tests, it is too early to decide whether taking a particular subject test makes sense for your student. The reality is, your child is only now getting to the meat of subjects. Give him until the end of November before talking to him about SAT Subject Tests. By then you (and he) will have some sense of his workload, amount of stress, and his grasp on the subject.

My child is taking physics in high school. Will this be enough to prepare her for the SAT Subject Test?
While taking a science course during the school year is very helpful in giving students a foundation in the material, most high school classes do not have a chance to include all of the different concepts and units within each subject. For instance, a biology class is not likely to study anatomy, physiology, or botany in depth. Also, different high school classes address different topics within a subject. Consequently, it is important to do preparation for an SAT Subject Test outside of school.

When and how should my daughter start working on SAT Subject Test preparation?
Ideally, students should start preparing for the test around the end of January or beginning of February. However, most of my calls requesting SAT Subject Test tutoring come during the first two weeks of April, which gives the student and me very little time to prepare for the test. Only on very rare occasions do I agree to work with a student at that point. It is almost never enough to have six or fewer classes for test preparation and, if it is, that child may have been successful studying without the assistance of a tutor.

How do I know it is worth my child’s effort to spend extra time on the test prep?
Whenever you or your child decides to start the test preparation, follow these basic steps. Take the appropriate SAT Subject Test book out of your public library or borrow it from a friend. Have your child take one test, and calculate the score according to the College Board guidelines: # of correct answers – (# of incorrect answers x 0.25). Take a look at your child’s test score. In my experience, the average improvement is 100 points a month. In other words, if your child got 530 in the middle of March, he/she will could be around 750-770 by the test date in June. Hopefully, this exercise will give you a rough idea on your student’s preparedness and whether taking an SAT Subject Test is the best use of time and resources.

Have a great academic year!

Katerina Buff has a master’s degree in secondary science education. She holds Massachusetts license for teaching biology and chemistry in grades 5-12. Katerina is a former private school science teacher and department chair that now devotes most of her time to private tutoring and SAT Subject Test preparation as well as science curriculum consulting. Katerina can be reached at or 617-319-5306.

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