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SAT Subject Tests Overview (Part One)

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The next two lessons are going to provide an overview of the SAT Subject Tests. These optional hour long exams cover advanced knowledge in the areas of English, history, languages, mathematics and science. While you will probably not have to take any of these, some colleges and majors do indeed require or at least recommend that students submit scores for one or more of the tests. The Subject Tests are also an excellent way to demonstrate your proficiency in areas of study that are either not taxed or not tested at all by the regular SAT.

There are twenty Subject Tests in total. We’re going to provide brief summaries of half of them in this lesson and half in the next lesson. If you need help preparing for any of the SAT Subject Tests and you live in the Atlanta area, contact the Learning Island. Our SAT Subject Test experts can design a customized lesson plan to help you excel on any of individual exams.


The Literature test is designed to gauge students’ ability to closely read and critically analyze a text. It includes about 60 multiple choice questions covering English, American, and other English-language poetry and prose from the Renaissance through the 20th century. Designed for advanced students of the English language, the test includes questions that are much more demanding than those found in the passage-based reading sections of the regular SAT. Frustratingly, the College Board does not offer a recommended reading list to prepare for the SAT. However, students wishing to take the Literature test should read as many full length works of poetry and prose from as many different countries and eras as possible. AP Language and other advanced college prep courses where students have to deal in depth with the text of a work will help students to prepare as well.

United States History and World History

The two 90 question history exams cover historical concepts common to most high school history classes. Each exam taxes both a student’s knowledge of historical events and his or her ability to critically analyze historical information. The tests themselves strongly resemble the multiple choice sections of the final exams for AP U.S. and AP World History in content and structure. Taking either class will greatly help students to prepare for its respective SAT Subject Test counterpart.

Mathematics Level 1 and Level 2

The two math exams contain 50 multiple choice questions each. Both tests cover the same mathematical concepts: numbers, operations, algebra, functions, geometry, trigonometry, data analysis, statistics, and probability. However, the exams test these skills in different ways and to different degrees, with the Level 2 test demanding far more of students than the Level 1 test. The College Board recommends three years of college-preparatory mathematics (two years of algebra and one of geometry) if you plan to take the Level 1 test. The recommended preparation for the Level 2 exam is considerably more intense. More than three years of algebra, geometry, precalculus, and/or trigonometry, with a grade of B or better in each class is recommended for students who wish to do well on the Level 2 Mathematics test.

Biology E and M

The Biology E and M tests include 60 multiple choice questions that are common to both exams. The remaining 20 questions emphasize ideas specific to each of the respective tests. Whether you should take Biology E or M depends on the areas of biology in which you are most knowledgeable. If you know more about ecology, evolution, and diversity, you should take the E exam. If, on the other hand, you have a greater knowledge of biochemistry, cellular structure, and biological processes, you should consider taking the M exam. At least one year of biology (with laboratory experience) and one year of algebra are recommended by the College Board for students preparing to take either Biology test.


Clocking in at 85 multiple choice questions, the Chemistry test assesses a student’s ability to recall, apply, and synthesize knowledge of the structure of matter, states of matter, reaction types, stoichiometry, equilibrium, and reaction rates. A calculator is not allowed, but any math involved is in the form of basic numerical calculations. One year of college-preparatory chemistry and significant laboratory experience are recommended to ensure students are prepared for the Chemistry test. The College Board also recommends students have a basic understanding of algebraic relationships and word problems, along with a familiarity with rations, direct and inverse proportions, exponents, and scientific notation.


The Physics test consists of 75 multiple choice questions that test a student’s ability to recall and understand the major concepts of high school physics, along with his or her ability to apply these principles to solve specific problems. Topics covered include mechanics, electricity and magnetism, waves and optics, heat and thermodynamics, and modern physics. The test includes single concept and multiple concept problems designed to assess a student’s ability to apply algebraic, trigonometric, graphical relationships, and laboratory skills as they relate to physics as a whole. As with the Chemistry test, calculator use is not permitted. Recommended course work includes a year of college-preparatory level physics classes and significant laboratory experience.

French and French with Listening

The French Subject Tests both cover precision of vocabulary, structure, and reading comprehension as it applies to the French language. French with Listening also includes the following listening-based questions: identify the sentence that most accurately describes what is being presented, answer general content questions based on short dialogues, and answer more specific questions based on longer dialogs. The French test contains 85 multiple choice questions covering just vocabulary, structure, and reading comprehension. French with Listening includes only 40 questions covering these three concepts but adds 20 additional listening-based questions. Recommended preparation for the French tests includes three to four years of high school French classes or two years of strong preparation, with the goal being the gradual development of French competency over a number of years. Students planning to take the Listening test should also review sample questions from the practice CD that is available from the College Board.

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