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The Ultimate SAT Biology Subject Test Study Guide

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Feb 20, 2016 8:00:00 AM

SAT Subject Tests



If you’re applying to selective schools, you might have to submit SAT Subject Test scores along with your regular SAT (or ACT) scores. The Biology Subject Test is a popular one because a vast majority of students take biology in high school, and most people find it less intimidating than chemistry or physics. This test can be a great way to fulfill your subject test requirements, especially if you plan on studying biology in college and want to show off your skills.

In this study guide, I’ll give you all the background information you need to start studying for the test as well as example questions, practice materials, and study tips to use along the way. 


What’s the Format of the Test, and When Is It Offered?

You can choose to take either Biology Ecological (Biology-E) or Biology Molecular (Biology-M). According to the College Board, Biology-E “leans more toward biological communities, populations, and energy flow” while Biology-M is “geared toward biochemistry, cellular structure and processes, such as respiration and photosynthesis.” 

Both versions have the same test format and guidelines:

  • 60 minutes
  • 80 multiple-choice questions
  • Scored on a scale from 200 to 800
  • No calculator allowed!

Sixty of the questions are identical for both versions of the test, and the last 20 are specialized to either E or M. Biology E/M is offered on all regular SAT test dates.


Should You Take the Biology SAT Subject Test? Which Version?

First, you should find out if the schools where you’re applying ask for Subject Tests. Check out this article for a full list of schools that ask applicants to send subject test scores (including these schools’ specific requirements). If you know you need to take Subject Tests, there are a few reasons you might look to biology as a viable option.  


Consider Taking the Biology Subject Test If...

You Just Took a Biology Class

It's best to take the test in the spring right after you finish a biology course to cut down on study time. The College Board’s “recommended preparation” for the Biology subject test is:
  • A one-year introductory college preparatory course in biology
  • A one-year course in algebra
  • Experience in the laboratory

The Biology subject test is an especially good idea if you’ve just taken AP Biology (and already prepared for the AP test). Subject tests are less intense than AP tests, so in comparison it will seem like a breeze to you.

You Haven't Taken a Science Subject Test  

Most colleges that ask for subject tests are looking for one in the humanities and one in the sciences (except for a couple of outliers like MIT, which asks for math and science subject tests). If you need to take a subject test in the sciences and you’re nervous about it, Biology is the way to go. It should be slightly easier for you than physics or chemistry if you’re a stronger humanities student. Biology involves fewer obscure concepts and calculations, and you can rely slightly more on memorization and basic logic to answer the questions.   

You Have a Special Interest in Biology

If you’re interested in pursuing biology as a course of study, it’s a smart idea to take the biology subject test to demonstrate your aptitude for the subject. If you’ve also done other specialized programs or projects in high school related to biology, taking the subject test will bolster the cohesiveness of your application.


body_backpacker.jpgAlright, let's do this.


Assuming some or all of the factors listed above apply to you, and you’ve decided to take the test, there’s still one more decision to make.


Should You Take the Biology E or Biology M Version?

There was a short description of the content of each of these tests in the previous section, but it probably wasn't enough information for you to make a decision. It comes down to whether you’re more comfortable with the macro or micro aspects of biology. SAT Biology-E deals more with large-scale energy flow in ecosystems and changes in the environment over time. This is in contrast to Biology M’s focus on the chemical elements of biology that occur on a miniscule scale. 

If you’re more of a science-oriented student, you’ll probably be better off with Biology-M. If you’re more into subjects like history and English, Biology-E might be a better choice. 

Keep in mind that the two tests aren’t completely different. There are only 20 questions out of 80 that are specific to either E or M. For this reason, I wouldn’t stress too much over your choice. If you took a biology class and did reasonably well, you shouldn’t have a problem with either version of the test. For anyone who’s wondering, yes, you can take Biology-E AND Biology-M, but you can’t take them both on the same test date (makes sense, considering they’re almost the same tests!).

body_biologym.pngBiology-M is more about this type of stuff. You know, all the creepy things happening at the molecular level inside your body. Right. Now.


What’s on the Biology SAT II?

Here’s a content overview provided by the College Board that lists the division of topics for each version of the test:


From the chart, you can see that many more questions are devoted to Cellular and Molecular Biology on the Biology-M test, and many more questions are devoted to Ecology on the Biology-E test. Notice that Biology M also has slightly more questions on Genetics while Biology E has slightly more questions on Evolution and Diversity. Both tests have the same number of questions dealing with Organismal Biology. These topics should all be familiar to you if you’ve taken a biology course.

Types of skills tested on both Biology-E and Biology-M include:

  • Recalling fundamental concepts and specific facts (about 30% of test)
  • Applying biological knowledge to practical scenarios presented on the test and solving problems using mathematical relationships (about 35% of test)
  • Making inferences and forming conclusions based on qualitative and quantitative data (about 35% of test)

Essentially, 70 percent of questions will present a scenario and then ask you to make deductions or calculations based on it. The scenario could be a chart of bacteria growth or a description of a lab procedure. It’s important to know the fundamental parts of an experiment (independent and dependent variables) and be able to project your understanding onto unfamiliar situations. The other 30 percent of questions just ask you to recall biological facts directly. I'll provide examples of different types of questions you can expect to see on the test in the next section. 


body_ecosystem.jpgYou might see questions about changes in species population density in a particular ecosystem. It's the ciiiiiircle of liiiiiiifeeeee!


Question Types 

Here are a few examples of the different types of questions you might see on the test. Each question corresponds to one of the three skills I mentioned in the previous section. 


Type 1: Data Interpretation


As I mentioned in the previous section, many of the questions on the test ask you to look at data and make deductions from the information you’re given. Although species Y isn’t explicitly mentioned in the chart, we know from the background information that whatever percentage of species X is planted, species Y seeds must make up the remainder. 

To answer the question, we have to figure out where the graphed line intersects with the line that indicates the 25 percent mark on the x-axis (the harvest at the point where 25% species X and 75% species Y were planted). It appears that the harvest was 50 percent species X, which means it must also have been 50 percent species Y. The correct answer is C.


Type 2: Applying Concepts


In this question, you’re asked to apply your biology knowledge to a given situation. Why did the results recorded in the graph occur based on what you know about the experiment? 

From the background information (and from studying for the test) we know that thymine is one of the four main nucleotide bases present in DNA. Choice E makes the most sense as an answer to this question because as the embryos develop, they’re consistently forming DNA using the radioactive thymine that’s available to them.

As I mentioned earlier, you'll also be asked to apply your knowledge of the scientific method and lab procedures to specific scenarios on the test. Take a look at the next question dealing with this radioactivity experiment:


The correct answer is choice C. This would be an appropriate control scenario because RNA contains uracil instead of thymine. The results of the experiment upon adding radioactive uracil would demonstrate definitively that the original experiment measured DNA and not RNA synthesis.


Type 3: Recalling Facts


You'll also see questions like this on the Biology subject test that ask you to recall basic facts. The answer to question 1 would be (B), and the answer to question 2 would be (A). Sometimes these questions are accompanied by diagrams. Here's an example of one that's in a slightly different format:


This is slightly more challenging because you need to identify the parts of the flower that the numbers are labeling and then remember the functions of those parts. The answer to question 6 is (A), and the answer to question 7 is (D).


body_flower.jpg10/10 would pollinate.


Where to Find Practice Materials

If you're looking to prep for the Biology SAT Subject test, you'll need some study materials. I've compiled a list of where to find the best practice tests and review guides.


Free Online Sample Questions and Tests

This is a list of online practice materials for the Biology E/M Subject Test. Most of these resources don't provide complete practice tests, but there are tons of questions available that will expose you to the full range of the content.  


College Board Practice Questions


LearningPod Practice Tests and Questions

  • This site has one diagnostic test and two practice tests. They're not quite as long as the real test, but it's close (63-79 questions).
  • There are also mini-quizzes on individual topic areas if you find you're struggling with certain types of questions.


CrackSAT Practice Tests and Questions

  • All of these tests are much shorter than the real thing, but they're still useful as practice materials.
  • These questions also may be less advanced than the real test; there's less in the way of lab and data analysis. 


This Google Site

  • This site has two full-length practice tests and two diagnostic tests.  
  • They don't have automatic scoring (scanned pages), so these could be good to print out and take like the real test. 


Review Books

Here are a few helpful review books that are available for Biology E/M. You can also check out this article that focuses specifically on the best books to use for the test based on your score level. 

Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests
Price: $13.50 (This one is a good choice if you're looking for study materials for other subject tests as well.)

Barron's SAT Subject Test Biology E/M, 5th Edition 
Price: $11.01

Cracking the SAT Biology E/M Subject Test
Price: $17.01

Sterling SAT Biology E/M Practice Questions: High Yield SAT Biology E/M Questions
Price: $20.95


body_croissant.jpgAnd when you're done taking practice tests, you can reward yourself with something that would be unacceptable to consume in public. In the immortal words of the Goo Goo Dolls:"And I don't want the world to see me/Cause I don't think that they'd understand/When everything's made to be chocolate/I just want you to know who I am"


Study Tips

Here are a couple of pointers to keep in mind as you study for the Biology subject test! 


Tip #1: Don’t Over-Prepare

Remember, this isn’t an AP test. There are no free-response questions, and much of the test involves interpreting information that’s already provided for you. If you recently took a final exam for Biology or the AP Biology test and felt pretty confident, you shouldn’t have any issues acing the subject test. 

I’d still recommend taking a practice test (as discussed in my next point), but there’s no need to kill yourself with studying if the information is fresh in your mind. If it’s been a year or so since you took biology, a few hours of review may be in order, but again, this test shouldn’t be especially challenging for you if you’ve already been through a mid-to-high level biology course.


Tip #2: Take Practice Tests

Even if you feel very comfortable with the subject matter, you should take at least one practice test as an experiment to see how high you’re scoring. This way, if you’re at a satisfactory score level, you can avoid wasting time with additional studying. 

If your results are lower than expected, you can go through your mistakes and study the appropriate content areas (or just do similar practice problems if your mistakes are related to data interpretation more than biology knowledge). You can also do practice questions for each version of the Biology test on the College Board website or use some of the other resources I listed above. 

 body_alert.pngPractice tests can help raise alarms about unexpected problem areas on the test.


Test-Taking Tips

I'll also give you a few tips for when you actually sit down to take the test. Tailoring your strategy to the format and content will do wonders for your score!


Tip #1: Read the Background Information, but Don’t Overthink It

As you saw from the examples in the previous section, questions on the Biology subject test often come paired with background information to contextualize data. There will be a paragraph describing the experiment so you don’t get confused when you look at the corresponding chart or graph.  Always take a moment to read this. Sometimes it contains information that isn’t clear if you view the data in isolation.

However, don't get too wrapped up in understanding every aspect of the experiment. It’s best to maintain a practical mindset and just focus on understanding the parts you need to answer the questions. In the second question example above, you get some information in that paragraph - the radioactivity was measured in “counts per minute,” for example - that doesn’t help you answer the question. Be efficient, and avoid dwelling on smaller details that may not be important.


Tip #2: Don't Linger on Hard Questions

As you're taking the test, you may come across some questions that you can't figure out right away. If you spend more than 30 seconds on a question without getting any closer to the answer, you should skip it for the time being and move forward. Lingering on questions that give you trouble spells danger on this test. Answer all the less challenging questions first so you don't run out of time at the end and miss out on easy points. 


Tip #3: Keep Guessing to a Minimum

Although there's no guessing penalty on the regular SAT, subject tests are still under the quarter point subtraction's reign of terror. This means that guessing incorrectly is worse for your score than leaving a question blank. Don't guess unless you've narrowed your choices down to two possible correct answers. Otherwise, you're taking too much of a risk. If you're completely stumped by a question or can't decide between 3 or 4 answers, just leave it blank. 


body_threeoptions.jpgIf you can't decide between three options that all seem equally viable to you, leave the question blank.



The Biology subject test can be a great way to fulfill your SAT II requirements for college applications. You have the option of taking either Biology-E (ecological) or Biology-M (molecular), but 75 percent of the questions are the same on both tests. The test is an hour long and includes 80 multiple-choice questions that deal with topics ranging from cell biology to genetics to evolution. These questions cover straightforward biology knowledge, but there's also a significant amount of data interpretation and analysis of experimental scenarios. 

Take a practice test to see where you stand, and do some additional studying if you find your knowledge is lacking. If you were successful in your high school biology class, you should have no problem doing well on this test with just a little bit of preparation!


What's Next?

Are you in AP Biology? Learn more about the format and content of the AP test. 

You should also read my complete review guide for AP Biology. You can use it to brush up on some skills that will come in handy for the Biology Subject Test as well.

Still not sure whether you should take the Biology Subject Test? Check out this expert advice on which Subject Tests you should take based on your goals and interests.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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