SAT 1 vs SAT 2: Whats the Difference


You may have heard of the SAT II (or SAT 2) and wondered what it was all about. Perhaps a secret, more difficult version of the SAT? The reality is less dramatic: the SAT II is simply a renamed version of the SAT Subject Tests.

This guide will explain the current format of the SAT II, outline the differences between the SAT 1 and SAT 2, and assist you in deciding which test to take.


UPDATE: SAT Subject Tests No Longer Offered

The College Board announced in January 2021 that no further SAT Subject Tests will be offered in the United States, effective immediately. SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT 2s) will be phased out globally in June 2021.

Subject tests on the SAT are no longer available.

Many students were understandably perplexed as to why this announcement came so late in the school year and what it meant for future college applications. More information about what the end of SAT Subject Tests means for you and your college applications can be found here.

What Are the SAT 1 and the SAT 2?

As I mentioned earlier, these are simply out-of-date names: the SAT I is now simply known as the SAT, and the SAT II is more descriptively known as the SAT Subject Tests. Colleges may still refer to the tests as the SAT I and SAT II, so don’t be alarmed if you come across those terms.

The SAT began as a military intelligence test and was first used as a college admissions assessment in 1926. Since then, it has undergone a number of changes to focus less on innate ability and more on testing concepts and skills learned in school. Despite a few controversies, it is still regarded as a good predictor of how students will perform in college.

The SAT Subject Tests have been around almost as long as the SAT itself. The Subject Tests, officially known as Scholarship Tests but colloquially known as Achievement Tests, first appeared in 1937 and were essentially the same thing they are now: one-hour tests on specific subjects such as biology and world history. Currently, there are 20 different Subject Tests available, with the option of signing up for up to three per test date.

Here is an overview of all SAT Subject Tests:


Math and Science
Literature Math Level 1
US History Math Level 2
World History Biology (E/M)


Languages (No Listening)

Languages (w/ Listening)
French French with Listening
German German with Listening
Spanish Spanish with Listening
Modern Hebrew Chinese with Listening
Italian Japanese with Listening
Latin Korean with Listening

What’s the Difference Between the SAT 1 and the SAT 2?

Originally, the SAT I was designed to assess aptitude, while the SAT II was designed to assess achievement. That is, one tested your abilities, while the other tested your knowledge.

When the College Board abandoned the idea of the SAT I testing innate ability, they reframed it as a reasoning test, blurring the distinction between the two SATs. Because of changes made in 2016, the SAT I (now simply the SAT) is now more focused than ever on testing knowledge rather than logic. At this point, I’d say the SAT assesses general knowledge and the SAT Subject Tests assess topical knowledge.

There are also some significant structural differences between the two tests. For one thing, while both tests’ questions are primarily multiple choice, SAT questions typically have four answer choices, whereas SAT Subject Test questions typically have five answer choices. This means that on the SAT, you’ll have a slightly higher chance of guessing the correct answer (25 percent chance) than on the SAT Subject Tests (20 percent chance). Furthermore, SAT Subject Tests have a penalty for incorrect answers, whereas the SAT does not (though it used to). It’s worth noting that you don’t get or lose points for leaving questions blank on either test. On the SAT II, the guessing penalty works as follows:

  • 1/4 point deducted

    for every incorrect five-choice question

  • 1/3 point deducted

    for every incorrect four-choice question

  • 1/2 point deducted

    for every incorrect three-choice question

Look at the chart below for a breakdown of the key differences between the two types of SAT tests in their current incarnations:


SAT Subject Tests

Other Names
SAT 1, SAT I, SAT Reasoning Test SAT 2, SAT II, SAT Achievement Tests

3 hr 50 min multiple-choice test (with one essay question) 1 hr multiple-choice test

Subject Matter
Reading, Writing, Math 20 different topics (listed above)

Guessing Penalty?
No Yes

Which Schools Require It?
Almost all colleges Only some

very selective colleges

It’s also worth noting that, due to the timing of each test, you can’t take the SAT and any SAT Subject Tests on the same day.

How to Determine Whether You Need to Take the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests, or Both

You’ll almost certainly have to take the SAT I (or the ACT), but you’ll probably only have to take the SAT II if you’re applying to highly selective colleges.

Nonetheless, you should double-check the testing requirements for each school to which you’re applying, as they can vary significantly. The majority of colleges have one of three basic SAT Subject Test policies. Let’s take them one at a time.

Policy 1: They Only Ask For the SAT (or ACT)

The majority of schools, including major state universities, do not require applicants to submit Subject Test results. However, because some colleges will consider SAT II scores, they can be a useful way to demonstrate your mastery of a specific subject area (as long as you do well).

Policy 2: They Ask For the SAT (or ACT)and SAT Subject Tests

A few highly selective schools, such as Harvard and Rice, require applicants to submit SAT I and one to three (usually two) SAT II test scores. Some colleges have more specific requirements for which Subject Tests you must take. MIT, for example, requires a Math SAT II and a Science SAT II. Other schools, such as McGill, Tufts, and Duke, will waive the Subject Tests requirement if you submit ACT results.

However, if you send SAT Subject Test scores, these schools will still consider them.

Policy 3: They Ask For the SAT or SAT Subject Tests

A growing number of schools have adopted a test-flexible policy, which allows students to select which scores they want to submit from a variety of tests.

NYU, Colorado College, and Middlebury are just a few of the schools that allow students to submit SAT II results instead of SAT I or ACT scores.

Recap: Should You Take SAT I or SAT II?

The SAT I is the standard SAT test format, and it is required for most college applications. The SAT II tests are subject-specific exams that may or may not be required depending on where you intend to apply.

As you can see from the examples above, colleges’ SAT II policies vary greatly. Make sure to research the testing requirements for each school you intend to apply to and figure out what you need to do ahead of time. You should start by reviewing our complete list of schools that require SAT Subject Tests. That being said, don’t forget to double-check college policies on their official websites!

What’s Next?

If you’ve decided that you need to take the SAT II, the next step is to figure out which Subject Tests to take and what scores you should aim for. You may also be interested in our SAT Subject Test study guides for US History and Physics.

Check out our guides on what SAT score you need, what their average SAT II scores are, and how to get into Ivy League schools.

Do you want to raise your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by four points?

We’ve created a guide for each test that outlines the top five strategies you must employ in order to improve your score. Download it now for free: