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How to study for SAT Subject Tests


SAT Subject Tests (aka SAT IIs) are required by some schools, and recommended by others (for recommended, read ‘required if you want a good chance’). The first thing you need to study for SAT subject tests is the right knowledge. Notice that they are knowledge tests! They’re not testing any kind of skill – like the SAT and ACT do – they’re testing what you know about a given subject.

Each test is 1 hour long, with the exception of languages with listening, and you can write them any day the SAT is offered, with some exceptions (although you can’t do the SAT I and your subject tests on the same day). You can do up to 3 tests on the same day, and you can usually choose the order in which you write them. You can also choose which ones to write on the day of the test. Not that you should just flip a coin on test day to decide, but if you do change your mind as you study for SAT subject tests, you don’t have to change your registration. The exception to this is languages with listening, because they need to have the right audio equipment set up in advance. The College Board’s FAQ is quite helpful if you have questions about how the testing works.


SAT bubble sheet choices study for SAT subject tests


What resources should I use to study for SAT subject tests?

First of all, make the right decision about which tests to take.

Depending on what courses you’ve taken, what country you studied in and what year of school you’re in, you might find that you know almost all the content for the subject tests, or almost none. First, as I said above, make sure you’re taking the right tests so that you minimize the amount of study you have to do. Get a contents list for the test, and work out how much you need to know. If it’s only a few topics, I would recommend looking those topics up online, and then doing a couple of practice tests. You can buy an official College Board book for each subject, which will have two official practice tests, one of which is the same as in the Complete Guide to SAT Subject Tests. Two practice tests may be enough for most students for content based tests (science and history). Four or more is ideal for Math.

If you need to brush up on most of the topics on the test, I would recommend buying a book. Personally I quite like the Barron’s series for subject tests, especially science. They’re concise, but still give you enough information, and often have little practice passages so you can figure out what you’ve learned.


How to organize a schedule to study for SAT subject tests

First off, here are the test dates!

For most people, the best time to take subject tests is the summer of their grade 11/junior year. This way, you’re sitting exams in the subjects at the same time anyway, minimizing the amount of study time you need overall. I wouldn’t recommend doing them in the fall of your grade 12 year: you’ll need to be motivated enough to give up summer vacation time to study the material from scratch again. Very few students can do this!

The typical student needs about 2 months to study for the SAT subject tests, but this will vary wildly depending on what you already know. Make sure you are researching the tests by the middle of your junior (grade 11) year at the latest! This will give you enough time to study a lot of if you need to, or put your mind at ease if you realize that you know most of the topics already.

Draw up a study schedule with what you need to learn and the time that you have. A good rule of thumb to prepare for subject tests is to do one practice test for every 4–5 hours of content study to check that you’re studying the right stuff in the right way.


What’s a good score?

Generally, you take subject test to show that you are good at that specific subject. It’s not usually recommended to submit a score that’s below average for that test. You can see the score breakdown by percentile here.