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Which SAT math subject test?

Weighing up Math 1 vs Math 2?

This is a big question for those of you taking subject tests! Sometimes it’s hard to know, because many of the topics on the SAT Math subject test level 2 are unfamiliar to some students. First of all, check out the schools you’re interested in, and see what tests they require. Most schools will have this information easily available. Many schools don’t require their students to take subject test at all. Note that if a school “recommends” that you take subject tests, that means you definitely should. You can read about other subject tests, but here, I discuss some factors that you should consider, as well as a helpful checklist of topics so you can decide whether you should take Math I or Math II.


blackboard sat math study Math II I choose
don’t freak out!


Both tests are 1 hour long, and both have around 50 questions. One quarter of a mark is deducted for every incorrect answer. Generally, Math 1 has a difficult scaling curve – you must get all the questions right to score a perfect 800. Math 2 has a much more forgiving curve. You skip 5-8 questions, depending on the paper, and still get a perfect score.

Usually a “good” score on an SAT Math subject test is one that’s above average. The average for Math 2 is 686, whereas for Math 1 it’s 696. Both have a standard deviation of 96, and yes, you do need to know what that means if you’re taking Math 2! Basically you need to get above 700 for it to be worth submitting either test. Remember that they’re supposed to showcase proficiency, so submitting a 500 is not good for your application.

For both SAT Math subject tests, you’ll find more straightforward questions than the SAT and the ACT, so you’ll find you need less study time. There’s less strategy involved. As with all subjects tests, the way to improve your score is through studying more (as opposed to the ACT and SAT, where a score improvement could happen in all sorts of different ways!).

In the US, having taken Precalculus is considered adequate preparation for Math 2. In Canada, you should have taken at least 1 grade 12 Math course. In the UK, being in your A level math year would be the ideal time to take the test.

You can see the average and percentile scores for the tests here.


What should I already know for the SAT Math Subject test level 2?

If you’re considering taking Math 2, you should already be very comfortable with the following topics:

  • Functions: y intercepts, inverse functions, absolute value functions, transformations of functions, vertical and horizontal asymptotes.
  • Linear functions: solving simultaneously by substitution or elimination, graphing, slope (parallel and perpendicular), length and midpoint formulae, word problems.
  • Quadratic Functions: factoring, roots, intercept, vertex form, application problems, using the quadratic formula including knowledge of the discriminant, quadratic inequalities
  • Higher order polynomial functions, transformations, factor & remainder theorem.
  • Circles on the Cartesian axis (not centered at the origin) and ellipses
  • Shapes/Angles: polygon angle rules, properties of triangles, and types of quadrilaterals, area and volume of 2d and 3d shapes.
  • Trigonometry & triangles: Pythagorean theorem, SOHCAHTOA, sine & cosine law, CAST rule, trigonometric identities, graphing trig functions, solving trig problems, radians
  • You don’t need to know any calculus at all for Math 2


How do I decide which SAT Math subject test to take?

You should take Math 2 if …

  • You want to go to very selective schools
  • You want to major in Math based subjects such as engineering, physics, chemistry, business etc
  • You generally enjoy Math and will be motivated to study for the test
  • Your school only accepts Math 2, such as University of California

You should take Math 1 if …

  • Math is not your strongest subject, and you don’t enjoy it
  • Your major isn’t math related*
  • You don’t have any grade 12 math courses
  • Your ACT math score was below 25 or your SAT math score was below 550

* I’m not counting subjects such as biology, psychology, sociology etc, as math related. You will do math if you choose a major in this field, but the science itself is not based primarily on math (unlike physics and chemistry, which are).


So what’s on the Math 2 test?

You should know the following topics. Don’t worry if you don’t know every single one of them. If you know less than half the topics on this list, there will be a lot of questions on the test that you’re unable to answer, unless you’re willing to spend the time teaching yourself.

  • Logarithms, including laws of logs and natural logs (ln)
  • Matrices: addition, subtraction, multilplication by scalars and matrices, inverse, transpose and determinant of a matrix
  • Implicit, explicit, polar and parametrically defined functions, inverse functions, piecewise & recursive functions
  • Hyperbola
  • Graphs of inverse trig functions (sec, csc, cot)
  • Trigonometric identities, including double angle formulae and inverse trig formulae
  • Standard deviation, interquartile range, percentiles, regression (linear, quadratic and exponential)
  • Probability using permutations and combinations
  • Limit notation
  • Imaginary numbers and the complex plane
  • Sequences and series, including sums to infinity and sigma (sum) notation
  • Elementary vectors (notation, addition, subtraction and multiplication by scalar)
  • Logic statements and contrapositives (if all As are Bs and all Cs are Bs … )

Not all of these topics are difficult, or take particularly long to study. But it’s helpful if you know at least some of them beforehand, especially logarithms (it’s probably the most involved topic on the list). Hopefully this list will help you decide whether to take Math 1 or Math 2.


How should I study for the test?

If you think you need to go over any or all of the topics I’ve listed above, whichever SAT math subject test you decide on, a prep book would be a good idea. It would also be a good idea if you’d like to practice a lot for the test. I recommend doing a minimum of 4 practice papers before the test. Some books cover both tests, so whether you end up choosing to take Math 1 or Math 2, you can still use the same book. Many books have answer explanations, which will be helpful when you’re going over your answers afterwards. If you can’t figure it out, ask your Math teacher if he or she can help you.