Does My Student Need To Take SAT Subject Tests?

One of the most common questions we get during the spring testing season is whether or not students should take any SAT subject tests. While nobody wants to add another test to their already packed junior year, the answer depends on the student and where he or she is applying.
If your student is applying to the most selective schools (think Ivy League, MIT, Duke, Georgetown, and other top-ranked colleges), SAT subject tests will be either required or recommended (which really means required). Rarely are these scores a final decision maker, but rather they are an additive measure of a student’s academic potential.
If your student is homeschooled, SAT subject tests can help validate homeschool transcripts and many colleges require these subject tests when applicants are homeschooled. 

The other category of students who may want to take SAT subject tests are those applying to highly selective programs at large state universities, such as Berkley Engineering.
Lastly, students applying to schools that offer a test flex plan (such as Colorado College, Hamilton, and NYU) that allows for multiple SAT subject tests to be submitted in lieu of SAT or ACT scores may also want to take SAT subject tests if they are choosing not to take the SAT or ACT.
The good news is that most students applying to college can breathe a sigh of relief – they don’t need to take any SAT subject tests!
What SAT Subject Tests Should My Student Take?
Checking a school’s admission policies is the only way to know for sure what tests that school requires or recommends. But typically students take a math or science test and an English or history test. Those applying to the most selective schools should take Math 2 as it will be expected by schools requiring SAT subject tests. Engineering applicants are usually required to take Math 2 and a science such as physics or chemistry. If you’re particularly strong in another subject, such as a language, taking that test may be a good idea as well if a third test is recommended by the school.
Once you’ve determined which tests you’re going to take, map out your testing plan so you space out your tests and avoid being overwhelmed. Not that anyone would want to, but you can’t take the SAT and a subject test on the same day.
What’s The Difference Between AP Tests And SAT Subject Tests?
AP Tests and SAT Subject Tests are two very different things. First of all, college admissions is not the primary purpose of AP tests. They are taken after completing an AP class to determine mastery of that curriculum and can lead to college credit. Students self-report their AP scores.
SAT Subject Tests are submitted through the College Board and measure high school-level general knowledge of a given topic. They are used in both college admissions and sometimes lead to college credit depending on the college and the score.

Is A Pre-College Summer Program Right For Your Teen?

More and more pre-college summer programs are available for high school students, with unique topic areas such as STEM, cultural immersion, performing arts, wilderness skills, and more. Whatever your student is interested in, there's likely an academic enrichment program available for them.

Programs often take place on a college campus, sometimes formally connected with the college or university, and they typically run anywhere from one to ten weeks. While some programs cost as much as $10,000 or more, others are more reasonably priced, and many offer the potential for scholarships.

The Benefits Of Pre-College Summer Programs

If you're trying to decide if a pre-college program is right for your student, consider the benefits:

  • They can give students who are highly motivated by a specific topic or field a deep dive into that subject. This also gives their credentials for their first-choice major a boost.

  • They can offer exposure to new subjects and experience for students who still don’t have any idea what they are interested in or aren’t engaged in the college process. A student might even discover a potential college major.

  • They often allow students to experience life on a college campus.

  • They give students an opportunity to make friendships with others from around the globe.

  • They often offer college credit.

What To Look For In A Pre-College Summer Program

When researching pre-college programs, look for programs that truly reflect your student’s interests, academic or otherwise. For example, if your student wants to be a doctor, a science-based summer program might show them what it’s like to study and practice medicine. Colleges will see that your student takes their potential career path seriously and that they are genuinely interested in learning more about it. On the other hand, the summer program may lead them to rule out that career path, which can free them up to pursue other potential interests. That's just as impactful.

If your student doesn’t know what they're interested in, consider a program that offers a variety of classes to choose from and ideally a schedule that allows them to take more than one class. Through exposure to a few different topics, your student will begin to form important reference points that will help them gravitate toward natural interests.

A word of caution here: We prefer programs that are actually run by the college instead of a third-party provider. It's important to be a careful consumer, so be sure to ask who will be teaching the program. If a student is aiming for highly selective colleges, the summer program should also be selective. Just remember: Attending a summer program on a college campus does not typically give your student a leg up in admissions for that college.

Researching Pre-College Summer Programs

Below is a list of websites to help you identify pre-college programs to research further.

Once you’ve identified programs that your student might be interested in, look beneath the surface, and ask these questions to ensure it’s a quality program that is also right for your students:

  • What is the program’s philosophy?

  • What are the unique features of the program?

  • How will my child be challenged?

  • What are the opportunities for leadership and personal growth?

  • What is the education and experience level of the staff?

  • How long has the staff been with the program?

  • What is the ratio of counselors/teachers to students?

  • How does the program measure and reward success?

  • How does the program deal with conflict or rule violation?

You should also try to contact former program participants and their parents for deeper insight into what it's like to participate. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How did your child grow from participating in this program?

  • How are you using the experience you gained from the program?

  • What would you have changed about the program?

The PSAT Scores Are Out—Now What?

Earlier this fall, millions of high school sophomores and juniors took the PSAT. After 9 weeks of waiting, test takers nationwide can now access their scores on their College Board accounts. For information on how to access the scores, review the instructions provided by the College Board at this link.

What is The PSAT

PSAT stands for "Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test” - you can think of it as Pre-SAT. The PSAT serves as the National Merit Scholar Qualifying Test (that's where the NMSQT part of the PSAT/NMSQT name comes from). By taking the PSAT, you're automatically entered into the National Merit Scholar competition, and if your score is in the top ~3%, you'll get recognized. Even though the score itself doesn't matter, this recognition looks really good on a college application.

Finally, the PSAT experience can help juniors decide whether to take the ACT or SAT when it comes time for the official college entrance test. Our colleagues at Compass have done some great analysis of how to use a PSAT score to determine which test to prep for.

What Makes Up The PSAT Score

A PSAT report will have six main kinds of data: scaled total scores, section scores, raw scores, subscores, Selection Index, and percentiles. Here’s a quick rundown of what all of these terms mean and what their ranges are:

  • Scaled total score: Cumulative total score on the PSAT, ranging between 320 and 1520. Half of your total score comes from Math and the other half comes from Evidence-based Reading and Writing (which is a combination of the Reading and Writing and Language sections).

  • Scaled section scores: Two scores, one for Math and one for Evidence-based Reading and Writing. Both of these scores fall between 160 and 760.

  • Section (test) scores: Three scores: one for Math, one for Reading, and one for Writing and Language. All section scores fall between 8 and 38.

  • Subscores: Seven scores, each on a scale of 1 to 15. Subscores tell you how you did on certain types of questions, some of which appear across two or more sections of the PSAT. You’ll get a subscore for questions that fall into these seven categories: Command of Evidence, Words in Context, Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.

  • Raw scores: Three scores, one for each PSAT section, representing the number of questions you got right. The ranges for raw scores vary by section. You can get a maximum raw score of 48 for Math, 47 for Reading, and 44 for Writing and Language.

  • Selection Index: One score that ranges from 48 to 228. Your selection index is the sum of your three section scores between 8 and 38 multiplied by 2:

    Selection Index = (Math section score + Reading section score + Writing section score) x 2

What Makes A Good Score ?

Before we can answer the question of what a good score on the PSAT is, we need to define what we mean by a "good score." Since everyone has different goals for the PSAT, a good score for one student may be a disappointing score for another.

To figure out what a good PSAT score is, let's consider a couple of different ways a score could be "good." First, we could define “good” as meaning that you scored better than 50% or more of other test-takers. Based on this definition, we can use percentiles to figure out what makes an above-average PSAT score.

Second, we can define “good” PSAT scores as scores that qualify for National Merit. Actually, qualifying for National Merit means that you got excellent, amazing, near-perfect PSAT scores. What the exact scores you should aim for to qualify for National Merit is something we'll talk about in a little bit.

Finally, because the PSAT is very similar to the SAT, we can use the PSAT to determine whether or not you're on track to get the SAT scores you need for the colleges you want to apply to. Figuring this out means understanding what kinds of SAT scores colleges are looking for.

Here is some recent analysis of the initial data from this year’s PSAT scores.

Regardless of how your scores came out, be sure to keep them in perspective. You have plenty of time to take the SAT and ACT this semester, and your scores will not follow you to college. Use them as a guide, get excited if your scores are high, and prepare for the real thing !

For Sophomores

For sophomores, PSAT scores are a different beast for sophomores. It's more about getting a sense for which academic areas need some work and getting some test-taking practice under their belt early in their high school careers. Students can also use their scores from sophomore year to compare to their junior year scores to see where they were able to improve and where they're still struggling. That will help them identify which study strategies were successful for them and which they should continue to adjust.

Top 7 Summer Planning Myths For Parents And Students

With today’s students coping with the ever-increasing demands of school and afterschool activities, it can be tempting to just let them relax all summer.


The need for a "summer off" is the first on our list of summer planning myths.

Let's take a look at this and six other myths that it's time to reconsider.

  1. My student spent all year working hard in school and with extracurriculars. Summer is a time to relax. We're not saying your student should be working 40-hour weeks for the entire summer. But nine weeks spent in front of the Xbox or Netflix isn't in the best interest of your teen’s development. Plus, it's a missed opportunity for helping your students develop new interests and skills—not to mention boosting their college potential.

  2. My student is a great math student, so they should participate in an engineering program. Teens may not know what they’re interested in yet. Just because a certain subject comes easy to them, it doesn't mean that's where their interests lie. Of course, if your great math student is interested in engineering, a quality program can be a wonderful way to gain exposure to a potential major and career. But if it's just a strength—not an interest—we suggest looking for broader opportunities to let them discover their interests on their own.

  3. Attending an Ivy League summer program will help my child get into that school. This is called “gaming the system” to gain a leg up for college admissions—and it's not recommended. These programs typically don't provide any help in gaining admission to the college, so unless your child is genuinely interested in the program itself, they shouldn't attend.

  4. My student should do more than just be a cashier or waiter. This is such a common assumption, but it couldn't be further from the truth. Summer jobs can have a powerful impact on students, teaching them real-world responsibility and enhancing communication skills. It can also be more impressive to college admissions officers than working, for example, at a parent's office. For more on the subject, take a look at this article, which discusses the powerful life skills teens can learn from common jobs.

  5. Volunteer work isn’t enough. Don’t underestimate the power of meaningful volunteer work to impact both your student and your local community. With in-depth involvement, students can gain valuable career skills and develop new connections, while also helping the community. Encouraging your student to volunteer with an organization in a potential field of interest is a great way to add to their resume. For example, students interested in the veterinary field may want to volunteer at an animal shelter or with a local veterinary office. Budding writers may find great volunteer opportunities at the local library or in summer academic programs. Organizations like VolunteerMatch can help your student research volunteer opportunities related to their interests. And asking these questions can help you find the right volunteer opportunity for your student.

  6. Getting over 100 service hours during the summer is critical. It’s not the number of community service hours that matters—it's the impact those hours have. If serving others is your student’s passion, then by all means encourage them in their efforts to get deeply involved, a prospect that often naturally leads to hundreds of service hours. But doing a variety of community service projects—like volunteering at a race or working at a soup kitchen for a day—just for the sake of getting 100 hours isn’t as valuable as being able to demonstrate ongoing commitment to a certain organization and increased responsibility throughout the summer. Those kinds of experiences can also lead to great college essay topics.

  7. My student should stick with what they're already good at. Encouraging your student to try new things is a good way for them to learn more about themselves—and increase their confidence. For example, if your science- and math-oriented student wants to attend a summer program and take a science-related class, why not also encourage them to take one in an area they don't know anything about? Many programs offer morning and afternoon classes for this very reason. Students gravitate toward what they’re good at because it’s easy, but challenging themselves with new, unfamiliar opportunities is an important way for students to develop as people.

Ask These Questions To Find A Meaningful Summer Opportunity For Your Teen

For many of today’s college-bound high school students, summer is no longer nine weeks of total relaxation, but rather an opportunity to spend time actively working, learning new skills, or diving deeper into an area (or areas) of interest. Summer is the perfect time to take calculated risks that push students into unfamiliar situations, which will help them build skills and enrich life experiences.

The key ingredient in finding the most rewarding experiences: planning. In our work with hundreds of teenagers, we’ve developed a model to help guide you and your student in identifying and exploring meaningful activities.

As you and your family review possibilities for the summer, consider these key questions—based on our i4 model—to help define your search criteria:

i4 Model.jpg


What activities and subject areas spark your student’s interest? How do they spend their time? What are their favorite books, YouTube videos, documentaries?

Don’t forget to consider non-traditional activities such as personal projects, research, or hobbies. For example, if your student plays drums in the church band or teaches themselves foreign languages, these are great areas for further exploration.


How much involvement is required for each possible summer activity? When trying to decide between summer experiences, evaluate the time commitment, leadership potential, and range of responsibilities and/or learning opportunities.

Summer is a great time for a student to up their involvement level because they don't have as many other commitments.


College admissions officers highly value when students take the initiative in planning their summer activity. For example, it takes more initiative to design a video game or start a dog walking business than it does to attend a summer program.

Think about your student’s personality and previous experiences taking initiative. Are they comfortable being more self-directed, or would they rather take part in an established program? Often, this depends both on age and personality. Younger students may feel more comfortable in a structured program while juniors and seniors may be able to work on their own to find and apply for a job, internship, academic program, or research opportunity. Or they may even be able to start their own enterprise.


How will this program or opportunity impact your student and your community? Is your student taking a risk or challenging themselves in this activity or program? Impact may come in the form of individual challenge or serving the greater good. Regardless, a great activity or program will be both engaging and impactful.

Being willing to stretch and go outside one’s comfort zone is important to grow as a person. It’s okay if your student attempts a challenging activity but ultimately fails. In fact, that would make for a great college essay.