Your SAT and SAT subject test results may both play a role in your acceptance to college, but the two exams aren't created equal. While the SAT primarily assesses a student's potential for university success in general, the subject tests assess your skill in specific courses like math, history, English and foreign languages. The two tests are structured differently and serve different functions in the application process.
Test for Success, Test to Impress
The two tests serve different purposes in evaluating student potential. Colleges use the SAT as a yardstick for measuring student aptitude in reading, math and writing, the three subjects the College Board deems most critical to success in post-secondary education. The SAT subject tests, on the other hand, augment student credentials rather than present evidence of their basic academic fitness. If you're interested in a specific major or want to test out of some of your required general education courses, subject tests can give a detailed picture of your abilities in those areas.
Some Standardized Testing Required
Standardized tests like the SAT aren't something you'll easily escape when applying to college, as most schools require them for admission. While this rule holds true for most institutions, policies on requiring subject tests for admission widely vary among different schools. At Harvard, MIT and Northwestern, for example, all applicants must take subject tests in two areas, while New York University requires three, and many other schools, like Notre Dame, don't require any of the subject tests. The College Board also reports that homeschooled students are often required to take them to provide additional insight into their abilities.
Subjects and Structures
Students taking the SAT and subject tests can expect two very different experiences. The SAT is a three hour and 45 minute exam composed of six 25-minute sections and two 20-minute sections of math, reading and writing questions, a 25-minute essay question section and 10 minutes of multiple-choice writing questions. One of the 25-minute sections includes experimental questions and does not count toward your overall score. By contrast, subject tests last only one hour and include only multiple-choice questions.
The two tests' differences also require you to study for them in different ways. The Princeton Review advises that understanding the psychology behind the SAT is just as important as sharpening your math and English skills. For example, although all questions are weighted equally, each section's questions are arranged in order of difficulty. Therefore, answering the easier questions first can earn you more points and leave you more time at the end to tackle harder questions. By contrast, the subject tests depend more on direct knowledge of course information and less on factors of reasoning.