Are you taking an SAT Subject Test soon and want to know how to be well-prepared on exam day? You've come to the right place! In this guide, I explain everything you need to know about how to study for SAT subject tests, including which exam (or exams) you should take, the five most important steps for preparing for a Subject Test, and additional tips to help you maximize your score.
This guide can be used to help you prepare for any and all of the 20 different Subject Tests offered, so let’s get started!
Introduction to SAT Subject Tests
Before we get into how to prepare for SAT Subject Tests, let’s first go over some basic information on them. SAT Subject Tests are meant to measure your knowledge and skills in a specific area. This is in contrast to the ACT and regular SAT which assess multiple subjects. Some colleges require or recommend that you submit Subject Test scores when you apply to that school so they can get a better idea of your academic abilities.
SAT Subject Tests are an hour long, and each exam has 50-95 multiple-choice questions. Each Subject Test is scored on a scale of 200-800.
SAT Subject Tests are offered several times a year, on all the same dates as the general SAT except for March. This means Subject Tests are offered in January, May, June, October, November, and December. However, not every Subject Test is available on every date. Check out our guide to learn the exact dates each Subject Test is offered. In most cases, you can take up to three Subject Tests in one day.
Which Subject Tests Should You Take?
Before you can begin preparing for SAT Subject Tests, you need to decide which ones to take. The College Board offers 20 different SAT Subject Tests in five main areas.
- U.S. History
- World History
- Chinese with Listening
- French with Listening
- German with Listening
- Japanese with Listening
- Korean with Listening
- Modern Hebrew
- Spanish with Listening
- Mathematics Level 1
- Mathematics Level 2
- Biology E/M
The most important factor when deciding which Subject Test to take is what the colleges you’re thinking about applying to require or recommend. Some schools want you to take Subject Tests in the area you plan on majoring in, while others want one Subject Test score from Math/Science and another from Literature/History to show that you’re well-rounded. Some require only one Subject Test score, while others require two or three. Be sure to research this information before you begin studying, so you don’t end up preparing for and taking a Subject Test you didn’t need to take.
The other thing you should consider is which subject areas you are best in and/or enjoy the most. For example, if you did well in your chemistry class at school and need a science Subject Test, you may want to consider the Chemistry Subject Test.
Also, it’s often easier to do well on Subject Tests that are closely related to classes you've already taken, especially AP classes. If you just took AP World History and studied a lot for the AP exam, you may not need to do much studying at all in order to prepare for the World History Subject Test, especially if you take it in May, right after the class ends.
How to Study for SAT Subject Tests
After you’ve figured out which SAT Subject Test you’ll be taking, follow these five steps in order to prepare for the exam. These steps will cover everything you need to do from the time you begin studying up until test day.
1. Take an Initial Practice Test
One of the first things you should do is take a practice exam for the Subject Test you’re planning to take. Complete and score the practice exam, and see how well you did. For information on how to find high-quality practice exams and how to take a practice test most effectively, check out the How to Use Practice Tests Effectively section below.
You should be aiming to at least get higher than the average score for that Subject Test for the most competitive school you’re looking at. You can sometimes find average SAT Subject Test scores on the admissions page of a school’s website, but if you can’t find the information, you can contact the school directly, or check out the average score for each Subject Test.
The link above lets you know how well test-takers do on each Subject Test, but if you’re applying to a particularly competitive school, you’ll likely have to aim higher than just the average test score shown on the chart. Try to aim for the top 25% of test takers, or top 5% if you’re applying to top tier schools.
2. Decide How Much You Want to Study
Once you have your practice test score, see how far it is from the goal score you’re aiming for. If your practice test score is pretty close to the score you’re hoping to get on the real Subject Test, you may only need to do light studying between now and the exam.
If you have some ground to gain, you’ll likely want to do some more serious preparation. Keep reading to find out how.
3. Gather the Materials You Need
Now it’s time to start gathering the materials you need to prepare for your SAT Subject Test. Study materials can include class notes as well as review books specifically focusing on that Subject Test. There are a lot of review books out there, but some of the most popular are produced by Barron’s, Kaplan, and Princeton Review. The College Board also has official study books for some of the more popular Subject Tests, such as Math 1 and 2 and US and World History, although these books are mostly practice exams and explanations of the answers, as opposed to a review of the material you need to know.
4. Create a Study Plan
Developing a study plan is important because it helps you commit to study times and track your progress. Try to set aside the same time to study each week, such as 2-4PM Sundays or 5-6:30PM Tuesdays and Thursdays. This will help make it easier to remember when to study and let you plan other activities around your study time.
You should also set weekly or monthly goals you hope to accomplish to help track your progress and ensure you’re where you need to be. Example goals include, “I want to understand properties of functions by the end of the week” or “I want to raise my score 20 points by the end of the month.”
Also be sure to schedule time to take practice tests and track your progress. Ideally, you’ll want to take at least two practice tests before the real thing, with one practice test at the beginning of your studying and one at the end. If you’re studying a lot or over a long period of time, you may want to schedule one or more additional practice tests during the middle of your studying.
5. Start Studying!
Now it’s time to get down to business and begin studying. When you’re reviewing material, your best bet is usually to use your prep book as your main resource, and use your class notes for any topics you want more in-depth information on.
Trying to review all your class notes for a subject can be very time consuming and possibly not even particularly helpful if your class didn’t focus on the same topics the Subject Test does. Prep books, on the other hand, are specifically designed to focus exactly on what the Subject Test covers. Below is more information on how to use practice tests as well as final tips for studying for SAT Subject Tests.
How to Use Practice SAT Subject Tests Effectively
Practice tests are one of the most important tools in helping you reach your SAT Subject Test score goals, so you want to use them wisely. These three guidelines will help you out.
Use High-Quality Tests
Your practice test results are only as good as the quality of the practice test itself. If your practice test isn’t very similar to the real Subject Test, you won’t be getting an accurate idea of how well you’re scoring or what you need to improve on.
Practice tests from the College Board are the best source to use since you can be sure they’ll give you a good idea of the real exam. The College Board produces a book called The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests. This book includes one previously administered exam for each of the 20 Subject Tests, so if you’re planning on taking multiple Subject Tests, it can be a good resource to use. There are also official prep books for Math 1 and 2 and US and World History, which come with two practice exams for each Subject Test.
Unofficial practice books that are still high-quality include those produced by Barron’s, Kaplan, and Princeton Review. There are other resources out there too, so it can help to go to bookstore and flip through a few books or read online reviews to decide which is best for you.
Take the Test Under Real Test Conditions
In order to get the most accurate score, you need to make sure your practice test conditions are as close as they can be to the actual test.
This means taking the test all in one sitting, timed (each Subject Test is an hour), and with no distractions.
Track Your Progress
Tracking your practice test scores over time is one of the best ways to see if and where you’ve made improvements.
Almost every practice test comes with instructions on how to calculate your score, but check out this guide for a review. Remember, on SAT Subject Tests, you lose a fraction of a point (usually ¼ a point) for each question you answer incorrectly, so a lot of random guesses could bring down your score.
If you aren’t improving as much as you want to be, try using different prep resources or changing up the way you study. It may be helpful to focus more on taking practice tests than reviewing material, studying at a different time or day, or using different study methods like flashcards.
3 Tips For Getting Your Best SAT Subject Test Score
Now that we've thoroughly covered the basics of how to study for SAT Subject Tests, here are three advanced tips to help you get your best score:
Know Your Learning Style
There is no “one size fits all” study plan, and the best way to see the results you want is to use your learning style to your advantage. Maybe you’re a visual learner and need to see diagrams, charts, and images for the information you’re learning to sink in. Perhaps you’re an auditory learner and learn best with audiobooks or podcasts. Or maybe just listening to information will put you to sleep.
You may already know what your learning style is, but, if not, try out different methods of studying and see which work best. You can also alter the day of the week, time of day, and length of time you study to see if that makes a difference.
Don't Passively Study
It may be easiest to let your eyes drift over the pages you’re trying to learn, but this rarely gets you the results you want. Try to make your studying as active as possible. This may mean drawing diagrams, making flashcards, having a friend quiz you, or even just pausing every few minutes to review what you’ve read and ensure you’re actually retaining the information.
The less passive your studying is, the more likely you are to see significant improvements.
Zero In on the Areas You Need to Improve In
When you’re preparing for an SAT Subject Test, make sure you’re spending most of your time on the areas you need to improve in the most.
If you’re studying for the World History test and you’re solid on European history but struggle with Asian history, don’t spend an equal amount of time reviewing Europe and Asia. You’ll want to spend more time focusing on important Asian events, periods, and people, and only come back to Europe for a quick, occasional review to make sure you still remember everything.
By spending the majority of your time on the areas where you have the most room to improve, you’ll likely see score improvements more quickly.
Summary: How to Study for SAT Subject Tests
If you want to get top scores, you’ll have to understand how to prepare for SAT Subject Tests. Follow these five steps in order to be well prepared for any exam:
- 1. Take an initial practice test
- 2. Decide how much you need to study
- 3. Gather the materials you need
- 4. Create a study plan
- 5. Start Studying!
Also remember to use your practice tests effectively, practice active studying, and focus most of your time in the areas where you need to make the biggest improvements.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.