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Interpreting SAT Subject Test Scores

By March 14, 2020 March 17th, 2020 No Comments

SAT Subject Test Scores Can Be Difficult to Interpret

Understanding your scores on the SAT Subject Tests can be confusing, especially if you’re just looking at the percentiles. These tests are graded on a scale from 200-800, just like the scale for the Math and Reading & Writing sections on the normal SAT. Additionally, students may feel like they performed poorly because of the percentile they were placed in. We hope this article will assuage your worries and clarify when you should report your SAT Subject Tests scores.

“I’m Used to Being in the Highest Percentile, so Why Am I Lower than Usual?!”

As with all standardized tests you’ve taken so far, your percentile, which ranks you against the students who took the same test on that exact date, is released along with the scaled score. Many students taking these tests are used to being high-scoring students who place in the top percentiles. However, this is precisely the reason you could be placed in a much lower percentile than you’re accustomed to! The students you are competing against are likely to be good test-takers as well. Additionally, only students who enjoy a particular subject will take that Subject Test. On the more competitive Subject Tests such as Math II, Chemistry, and Physics, a score of 750 can place you in only the 70th percentile, while the same score may put you in the 99th percentile on the normal SAT. For that reason, we suggest that you disregard your score percentile from the test day and instead focus on how your scaled score compares to the averages for the universities to which you’re applying. Optimally, your score should fall somewhere above the 50th percentile with respect to the scores of students admitted to that school. If the university to which you are applying has not released data pertaining to the average SAT Subject Test score of their admitted students for your test, you can use the 75th percentile (upper-average) SAT score by section as your baseline. Most schools will report a range of scores as their average where the higher end of that range represents the 75th percentile. You should compare your Math and/or Science Subject Test score to the Math section of the SAT and compare your Literature, History, and/or Language Subject Test score to the Reading & Writing section of the SAT.

Should You Include Your Scores on Your Application?

The answer is, “It depends.” Finding accurate information on what differentiates a good score from an okay score can be difficult, as very few colleges publish data from their students’ SAT Subject Tests results. However, using a mix of information from the College Board and various colleges that do report their data, we can say that you will need a score that ranges from the low to mid-700s to be competitive at the highly selective institutions that require, recommend, or consider the SAT Subject Tests. The answer also depends on the policy of the university receiving your application. Some universities will “Recommend Strongly” or just “Recommend” that you send SAT Subject Test scores. Others, however, will only “Consider” your SAT Subject Test scores if you attach them to your application. In general, you want to submit scores if:

  1. Your score exceeds the 50th percentile compared to other SAT Subject Test scores.
  2. Your score exceeds the 75th percentile of the equivalent section on the normal SAT.
  3. Your score falls below the above-listed thresholds by less than 25%, and the university “Recommends Strongly” or “Recommends” submitting scores.

You want to not submit scores if:

  1. Your score falls more than 25% below the score of the above-listed thresholds.
  2. Your score falls less than 25% below the above-listed thresholds, but the university only “Considers” scores.

Let’s create a hypothetical example. Say you scored a 720 on the Chemistry Subject Test. You would apply to:

  1. Any school with an average (50th percentile) Chemistry Subject Test score of 720.
  2. Any school with an upper-average (75th percentile) SAT Math score of 720.
  3. Schools that recommend submitting scores but whose lower-average (25th percentile) Chemistry Subject Test score does not exceed 720.
  4. Schools that recommend submitting scores but whose average SAT Math score does not exceed 720.

You would not apply to:

  1. Schools that recommend submitting scores but whose lower-average Chemistry Subject Test score exceeds 720.
  2. Schools that recommend submitting scores but whose average SAT Math score exceeds 720.
  3. Schools that consider submitted scores but whose average Chemistry Subject Test score exceeds 720.
  4. Schools that consider submitted scores but whose upper-average SAT Math score exceeds 720.

In the end, what this means is that you may submit your scores to one institution but not submit those same scores to a different institution. As of March 4th, 2020, two schools do not allow this and require you to submit all SAT Subject Test scores (Georgetown and Yale) while two other institutions “encourage” you to send all scores (the University of California system and University of Pennsylvania). A successful application is all about putting your best step forward, so don’t soften the impact of your application by calling attention to your weaknesses. Let the other parts of your application shine if you are not a good test-taker. After all, test-taking is just one attribute of a student.