Even as more and more colleges are dropping their standardized testing requirements, the presence of solid test scores still looks good on any application. This is particularly true at the most competitive colleges in the country, where thousands of applicants are rejected by schools at which, by all academic measures, those students could have thrived. So, if you already have a great GPA and great SAT/ACT scores, how do you make your applications stand out further academically? One way is through a strong collection of SAT Subject Test scores that demonstrate your own specialized academic abilities.
Standardized tests came into favor among admissions officers as a way of comparing the abilities of students from different backgrounds and schools. Because the SAT and ACT only test more fundamental math and English skills – and do not really test science, foreign language, or history knowledge at all – the subject tests were created to assess students’ skills in other academic areas. In some ways, these test scores are more valuable than are ACT and SAT scores, since the academic rigor of more advanced and/or specialized courses can vary dramatically between schools in ways that, say, Algebra 2 courses typically do not. The most competitive schools often require or “recommend” (that probably means “require, unless you’re a recruited athlete”) taking two subject tests, so if you’re reaching for the stars, you had better be willing to reach for a subject test prep book or two.
The Math 2 test is probably the most frequently-taken subject test among the math/science options. To put it bluntly, subject tests are hard, and if you don’t have a real knack for the particular subject or haven’t taken the corresponding AP course, the chemistry, physics, and biology tests are not for you. However, a student who has completed and earned a B+ or better in an Honors Precalculus course should already be familiar and comfortable with at least 80% of the material on the Math 2 test. Since a good number of rising seniors and even a handful of rising juniors fit those criteria, many students can and do take the Math 2 test.
The comparative accessibility of the material does not negate the fact that this test is difficult and often takes a good deal of work to prepare for, though. It’s basically a tough, fast-paced (50 multiple-choice questions in 60 minutes) Honors Precalc/Algebra 2 final exam, and it probably includes a topic or four that you didn’t learn much, if anything, about in school. Most colleges will want to see a 700 or better on the Math 2 test, which is scored on a 200 to 800 scale; the most selective will want to see a 750 or better. (Ask your guidance or college counselor for information on the typical score ranges at specific schools.) For most students to whom I would recommend taking the Math 2, a score of 700 is a reasonable, achievable goal with 4-6 hours of tutoring and at least twice as much independent practice and study. That means getting a raw score of roughly 35 of 50 questions correct, so you don’t need to be a complete master of the material to do it. In fact, you can usually get around 5 questions wrong and still get a “perfect” score of 800 (and no, colleges have no way to differentiate perfect 800’s from less-perfect 800’s when they receive the score reports).
It’s important to note that “wrong” and “omitted” are actually different things on this test and on all subject tests. The subject tests are pretty much the last of a dying breed when it comes to the infamous “wrong answer penalty” that used to appear on the SAT and AP tests: you actually lose a quarter-point for every wrong answer and zero points for every omitted answer. Some people think this means you should never guess on subject tests. I won’t go into the math, but those people are demonstrably wrong. What you shouldn’t do is guess blindly if you have no idea how to answer a question. If you can eliminate at least two of the five answer choices for a particular question, however, you should take a shot; the odds are in your favor to earn more points than if you had just omitted all questions on which you were uncertain.
How do you know how much prep you need? Well, this set of practice questions from the College Board’s website is a good place to start: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat-subject-tests/subjects/mathematics/mathematics-2. If you want to dive deeper than that, you can try out the practice tests towards the bottom of the list here: http://www.cracksat.net/sat2/math/. If you’re not able to get more than 25 of the 50 questions on a given test right (don’t worry about the wrong answer penalty for now), you may want to consider a different subject test. At the very least, you should accept that you have a lot of work ahead of you in preparing for the Math 2. If you can get around 30 correct, the test and corresponding prep will be tough but manageable, and if you can get more than 35 right, you’re already in pretty good shape.
Regardless of your level, you may want a concise text that you can use to review particular topics that are giving you trouble. In this respect, nothing is better than the Barron’s book for the Math 2 test. It includes brief but complete review, formulas, and practice questions for all of the topics that are included on the Math 2 subject test, making it a lot easier, cheaper, and more effective to study from than a Precalculus textbook. Like all Barron’s products, this book’s questions are harder than those on the official test and touch upon topics that you almost certainly won’t encounter on test day, but if you approach using the book with that understanding, you’ll find it to be an extremely valuable resource in preparing for a challenging test.
One more time, just to make things clear: the Math 2 Subject Test is really hard and usually takes a lot of work to prepare for. A good score on it, however, will make a positive contribution to your applications, and as an added bonus, the process you go through in getting ready for it will provide a review that prepares you for calculus in a way that few things will. Now get to work.
Jon is a math and science tutor at Ivy Ed. You can read more about him here.