Many students who earn a 650+ score on an SAT Subject Test are shocked to see that it corresponds to a low percentile. For example, on the SAT Math Level 2 Subject Test, a 690 is only the 43rd percentile. A 720 is the 51st percentile and an 800 is only the 90th percentile – implying the top 10% are indistinguishable on this test. By contrast, on the SAT Math, the 90th percentile is a 670 and an 800 means you are in the top 0.5%.

What’s Happening with Scores?

Only a self-selecting group of students who are likely to do well take the SAT Subject Tests. Since Subject Tests are optional, students who are weak at English Literature don’t bother to take it. Those who do take it are almost all bound to do well. So, the results are based on the 200 – 800 scale that the general population would use if they all took that Subject Test.

Long ago, he SAT makers reasoned that a student who earned a 670 on the SAT, a 90-percentile rank, should get a 670 on the SAT Subject Test. A student who earned a 750 on the SAT, a 98-percentile rank, should get a 750 on the SAT Subject Test. On the Subject Test, because they are self-selecting, a high percentage of students are destined for a 750+ score. Against the testing population of that test, 750 might be the median (50-percentile). So, a 50-percentile rank is accorded a 750 to attempt to show where this tester would fall in the general population of testers.

College Admissions Officers don’t pay attention to the percentiles, just the number. Many don’t know what the percentiles mean! This is because they can effectively rank students using the 3-digit score. The 760 is better than the 730 which is better than the 690. How much better as a percentile is irrelevant when they see 30 and 40-point differences on the 800 scale.

Thus, the 730 Subject Test Score is highly respected by colleges.* It doesn’t carry quite the same “clout” as a 730 on the SAT Math or SAT Verbal, but it carries more clout than a 40th – 65th percentile report on the SAT. Almost nobody gets into a top 20 college with just 65-percentile SAT scores, but plenty will with 65-percentile Subject Test scores.

*There is one non-respected element on a 730 score: The native speaker who posts even an 800 on the Subject Test in her native language. It is thus useless for the Korean-American to take the Korean Subject Test or the Chinese American to take the Chinese Subject Test. Even if your parents speak only English at home and you learned the language in school, colleges don’t know that and thus don’t respect your acquired progress.