I receive more questions from parents about the SAT Subject Tests than about any other single aspect of the college preparatory process. What are they for? Are they required? And what’s with the wildly skewed scores?  To answer these questions and more, I turned to Annie Vinik of Vinik Educational Placement Services.

Annie is an independent college counselor, a former associate director of academic advising at George Washington University, a graduate of Duke and Harvard, a lifetime Washingtonian and a local mom. In short, she has thought about these questions from literally every angle, and graciously agreed to shed some light on these quirky and misunderstood tests.

What are the SAT Subject Tests? And why do they cause such confusion?

The Subject Tests are 20 one-hour-long multiple-choice exams that the College Board administers to evaluate how much you know about a certain subject.

There are so many reasons for the confusion. First, the name has changed several times: Until 1994, they were the Achievement Tests. Then they were the SAT II Tests. And in 2005, they became the Subject Tests, but some people still use these names interchangeably.

Second, people assume that an AP exam and the corresponding Subject Test are basically the same, but that’s not the case. Subject Tests tend to be fast-paced, fact-based exams, while AP exams are three-hour exams that test both facts and the ability to think critically about college-level material. The good news is that while the content is not identical, there’s a lot of overlap, and it makes sense to use one’s prep for an AP exam to help prepare for the related Subject Test. But the differences can be significant, so it’s really important to review ahead of time and treat each test as a discrete challenge.

Of course, it’s also possible to do well on a Subject Test without having taken a related AP course. If you know the content and prep, you can do just fine! Additionally, the Math (with its two options: Math I and Math II) and Literature Subject Tests aren’t tied as closely to particular high school courses.

So are these tests required? And how many do I have to take?

This is where the confusion continues…and as with so many questions related to college admissions, the answer is: It depends. These decisions need to be viewed relative to the colleges you’re applying to and also relative to who you are as a student.

Over the years, fewer and fewer schools have required students to submit Subject Test scores. A handful of universities – typically very selective ones – still require them. Others “strongly recommend”– which most people interpret to mean “require.” Still others “recommend,” “encourage,” or “accept” Subject Tests. Even the language is opaque!

In addition to the colleges that still require Subject Tests, there are certain programs within schools that also require you to submit scores. These program-specific requirements are typically in the STEM fields — for example, an engineering program might require applicants to submit a math and a science Subject Test. But the bottom line is that if you want to be sure whether you need them, you need to carefully review a college’s website. And, keep in mind that an admissions office’s testing policy can change from year to year. You can’t assume that the policy you read about now will still be in place for next year’s seniors.

The rumor is that in the long term, these exams will go away, but in the meantime, the questions around Subject Tests will remain.

So how many Subject Tests do I have to take? And how do I choose which ones?

If you think you might be required to submit Subject Tests, you should plan to send two good scores…unless Georgetown is on your list, as they currently require three. If you take two and earn the scores you’re hoping for, great — you’re done! But remember that you might want or need additional attempts.

When thinking about which Subject Tests to take, ask yourself: Did I do well in the class? Did I enjoy the material? Is this what I want to study in college? But beyond those questions, you need to be strategic, because there are so many other factors at play. As I said earlier, some STEM programs might have their own requirements, and even if they don’t, you may wish to demonstrate your math and science skills by submitting high scores in these areas. Similarly, if you’re telling colleges that you plan to major in a foreign language and have taken that language throughout high school, it might make sense for you to take that language’s Subject Test.

So when should I take Subject Tests?

Again, it depends. If you can determine early on in high school that you might need to take Subject Tests, then you could choose to take one or two after, say, sophomore year. For instance, if you are taking AP World History or AP Chem and think you would do well, you could attempt a Subject Test at the end of the school year — maybe in June, when the material is fresh. Same goes for junior year, by which point you could have a better idea of whether you might be applying to colleges that could require Subject Tests. Remember that junior spring is a busy time and that you could potentially be juggling school work and final exams, the regular SAT or ACT, AP exams, college visits…and whatever else you do! Although it’s possible to wait and take a Subject Test later, you would need to build in time to review the material.

Scoring on the Subject Tests seems really skewed. How can I tell what’s a good score?

You’re right! The scores are confusing. For example, a 700 on the SAT puts you well over the 90th percentile, but on the Math II exam, it corresponds to the 48th percentile.  Remember that 1.6 million students take the SAT every year, while only tens of thousands – or fewer! – take any given Subject Test. It’s mostly a self-selecting group of high-achieving students, which shifts the curve dramatically.

Since it tends to be the most selective colleges that require Subject Tests, the general benchmark for a score worth sending is 700 or higher.

So how do I study for a Subject Test?

Start early. Invest in a study guide and understand the format of the test -– the pacing, the content and the type of questions asked. Before you decide to take a test, make sure it corresponds with your high school curriculum, and remember to specifically prepare for the Subject Test format. Maybe a guide book will do the trick, or it could take a few tutoring sessions. A month before the exam, set up a study schedule and stick to it – aim to take at least one practice test per week, ideally more.