Subject Tests are required or recommended at the most competitive colleges because they provide a standardized measurement of your expertise in academic areas that interest you. If you're a history buff applying to very selective colleges, you might be considering the SAT Subject Test World History (aka the SAT 2 World History) as one of your options. This guide will help you figure out when to take the test, how the questions are formatted, and how you can study effectively.
Should You Take the World History SAT Subject Test? When?
Before you start studying, it’s important to know: Should you be taking this test right now? Or ever? Is the test even offered at the time when you plan to take it?
You only need to take SAT subject tests if you’re applying to colleges that require or strongly recommend that you submit SAT II scores. In these cases, it's best to take one science or math subject test and one humanities subject test. Make sure World History is your best option for a humanities subject test before you commit to it. If there’s another humanities subject test that interests you more (or that you think you’d do better on), you should take that one instead!
Also, be warned that the World History SAT Subject Test is only offered in December and June, not on every regular SAT test date like some more popular subject tests.
If you already knew all that and are definitely set on taking the test, you also have to think about which year you should take it. It’s best to take subject tests when you’ve just finished a year-long course in the corresponding subject. You may not need to study much at all if you’ve already spent time preparing for the final in your class.The College Board’s recommended preparation for the World History Subject Test includes:
- One-year comprehensive course in world history at the college-preparatory level
- Independent reading or study of historical topics covered on the test
- Review of world history textbooks
Make sure you take this exam when you’re in the best position to score well! In the next few sections, I'll talk more about the specifics of what you can expect to see on the test.
This test is gonna be a SLAM DUNK if you take it right after a year-long world history class.
What’s the Format of the SAT World History Subject Test?
The World History Subject Test contains 95 multiple-choice questions which you will answer over the course of an hour. Like other subject tests, it is scored on a scale from 200-800. Unfortunately, there is still a quarter-point penalty for incorrect answers on subject tests, but you won’t get any points taken off for leaving questions blank.
The College Board’s “Anticipated Skills” for SAT World History include:
- Familiarity with terminology, cause-and-effect relationships, geography, and other data necessary for understanding major historical developments
- A grasp of concepts essential to historical analysis
- An ability to use historical knowledge in interpreting data in maps, graphs, charts, or cartoons
Individual questions are presented in several different formats, which I'll detail for you in the next section.
What Types of Questions Are on the Test?
I’ve divided the questions on this subject test into three main types. I’ll tell you what each entails and go through sample answer explanations.
Type 1: Identification
These are the standard questions you’ll see on the World History Subject Test. Basically, you must identify a statement that most accurately describes a certain ideology or event in history. In this case, you just need to know the main tenets of Social Darwinism.
Social Darwinism was an ideology that modeled itself after the idea of natural selection, taking a favorable view of competition in society. Since we know Social Darwinism emphasizes competition, we can eliminate Choice B and Choice D. Choice E can also be eliminated because Social Darwinism was a highly secular ideology.
Now we’re left with just A and C. A should be eliminated. Although it’s close to being correct, it’s not as harsh as Social Darwinism and doesn’t mention the concepts involved in natural selection. It’s too nice, to put it bluntly.
Choice C is the correct answer here!
Type 2: Image-Based
These types of questions can refer to maps, symbols, or cultural markers and will ask you to interpret them based on your knowledge of world history (and, in this case, geography).
From the question, we know we are looking for the dots that represent the easternmost and westernmost borders of the Islamic world in the 8th century.
Muhammad died in the 7th century, after which the Islamic state continued to expand under the early Caliphs and the Umayyad Caliphate. At this point, the empire stretched all the way from western Asia to present-day Morocco in North Africa. This means that the easternmost limit would be dot 1, and the westernmost limit would be dot 9.
In this case, it's critical to know that the eastern boundary of the empire was in present-day Russia. If you could determine that dot 1 was the correct choice for the easternmost point, you were able to eliminate choices C through E right away. Then, you were left to decide whether 7 or 9 was the correct answer for the western border of the empire. Knowing that this was a time when the Islamic empire was expanding dramatically, dot 9 appears to be the most logical choice. You can see that even without EXACT knowledge of where the empire began and ended at this time, it's possible to make guided inferences to get to the correct answer. Choice B is the answer we want!
Type 3: Cause and Effect
These questions will ask why or how developments in history came about, so you'll need to possess a strong understanding of the progression of events in different geographical regions. This question asks why a certain ideology was developed. What were Christians pushing back against with the “monastic ideal”?
To choose the correct answer, you have to understand the situation of Christians at the time. Most lived in the eastern Mediterranean region around Egypt in the late 3rd and early 4th century. You might remember that some of the first Christians were persecuted, so you’d be tempted to choose A or E. However, at the time when the “monastic ideal” became popular, Christianity had already been legalized under Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. The monastic ideal was a direct rejection of riches and earthly pleasures for a Christian life of solitude and prayer.
Of the remaining choices, Choice D fits the cause and effect relationship best. It’s the answer that’s most strongly connected to the main tenets of the monastic ideal and what it attempted to counteract.
What Does the SAT World History Subject Test Cover?
Here’s a breakdown of the topics you’ll see on the test by era and geographical region:
|Chronological Material||Approximate Percentage of Test|
|Prehistory and civilizations before 500 CE||25%|
|500 to 1500 CE||20%|
|1500 to 1900 CE||25%|
|Geographical Material||Approximate Percentage of Test|
|Global or comparative||25%|
|South and Southeast Asia||10%|
|The Americas (excluding the US)||10%|
As you can see, questions are pretty evenly distributed among the different eras of world history. Europe is the most prevalent geographical region on the test, but global or comparative questions that span different regions are also common.
SAT World History Subject Test Prep Materials
There are a variety of tools you can use to prepare for the test. These include review books, online quizzes, and printable full practice tests. Here are a few examples of different prep materials that may be helpful to you:
If you're looking for a resource that will walk you through the entire study process from planning to studying to practice testing, a review book might be the best option for you. These books provide sample practice questions and content summaries that cover only the most relevant information. Referring to a review book is easier than studying a whole year's worth of notes. Review books are particularly helpful if you're not coming to the test fresh out of a world history class. They're a great way of refreshing your memory without overwhelming you with information.
Here are some options:
- Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests (if you’re taking other subject tests as well this might be nice to have)
- Official Study Guide for US History and World History
- Barron’s SAT Subject Test World History
- Cracking the World History Subject Test
- Kaplan SAT Subject Test World History
There are also free resources for practice questions on the College Board site. You'll find a few sample questions in the overall guide to every subject test as well as a set of automatically scored online practice questions:
- A few sample questions for World History (go to page 11) and answer explanations
- Online practice questions (automatic scoring)
Other Unofficial Practice Tests
Here are some additional unofficial online resources you might use to study individual topics in world history or take extra practice tests. Just keep in mind that these questions aren't always accurate reflections of what you'll see on the real exam. Maintain a balance between official and unofficial practice questions in your studying so that you don't run into any surprises on the test.
These short quizzes cover all topics in SAT World History. They also show the difficulty level next to each quiz so you can tell whether you’re up to speed with the toughest questions.
This site has two full-length practice tests with questions that accurately reflect the real test content. It also has a bunch of shorter quizzes on each historical era.
Learnerator has mini-quizzes for all the time periods and global regions up to 1945. Individual questions are categorized by difficulty level, although you do need to pay for a subscription to access the most difficult practice questions.
This is a quick 34-question diagnostic test that you can use to get a better sense of your overall readiness for the exam.
Study Tips for the SAT Subject Test World History
Here are a few tips that you should keep in mind as your review the material. Studying strategically will have a strong positive impact on your scores.
Tip #1: Think on a Large Thematic Scale
You don’t have to memorize everything that’s happened in human history to do well on this test. It’s about ideologies, empires, and major conflicts throughout history. If you understand the overall chronology, the major political players, and the different cultural viewpoints, you’ll get most of the questions right.
During any given century, you should have a basic idea of what was going on in each geographical region. Ask yourself these questions: Who was in control? What was the ruling political ideology or religious philosophy? Which other important ideologies or political factions existed on the fringes? What major developments in the arts and sciences were facilitated? Then, you should be able to say why and how control shifted to other world powers in the next century or era and ask yourself the same questions!
Tip #2: Time Yourself on Practice Questions
As I mentioned, this is a fast-paced test. You should prepare yourself to move quickly (no more than 30 seconds per question). The best way to do this is to take timed practice tests, or at least do sets of questions where you time yourself as you go through them. Get used to what 30 seconds per question feels like so you don’t run out of time when you have to take the real test!
Tip #3: Map It Out
If you find that diagrams and other visual aids help your studying, it might be helpful to bring a world map into the mix. If you can see the territory governed by various empires at certain times and how it was transformed, you might have an easier time remembering the information on the test. A global map is a good way to view change and cause-and-effect in history concretely on a large scale. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could label world maps for each historical era with the major states and empires that were active and how much territory they covered. This way you can see how things have evolved from the beginning of human history to the present day.
Or, you can take things one step further and carve a realistic silhouette of the continents out of a slice of an old stump. Worth it.
Test Taking Tips for the World History Subject Test
Finally, here are some tips that will come in handy on test day! Even if you feel confident about your knowledge of the material, you can always improve your overall approach.
Tip #1: Don’t Get Distracted By Extra Info
Sometimes the questions on the test will give you the name of a historical figure or specific place that’s not necessary to know to answer the question correctly. For instance, in the multiple-choice example dealing with Social Darwinism, the question mentions Herbert Spencer. It’s great if you knew who Herbert Spencer was, but if you didn’t, it really wouldn’t matter as long as you were familiar with Social Darwinism overall. These extra details can be distracting because they make it seem like the question is asking for something more specific than it is. Most of these questions are pretty broad when you get down to what they’re asking at their core, so don’t panic if you see an unfamiliar name.
Tip #2: Avoid Guessing
Guessing on Subject Tests is (mostly) a no-no because the incorrect answer penalty still exists. Don’t take a guess unless you can narrow down your choices to just two possible answers. The risks outweigh the benefits otherwise. If you don’t get to a question or are just completely stumped, leave it blank.
Tip #3: Skip Hard Questions
This is a fast paced test. Ninety-five questions in 60 minutes means a little more than 30 seconds per question. You absolutely cannot afford to waste any time. If you find yourself lingering on a question for more than 30 seconds without coming up with any answers, skip it and move onto the next one. Don’t risk missing out on points you might earn later in the section by dwelling on tough questions that you’re unlikely to answer correctly. If you do end up getting through the whole test before time is called, you can always go back and work on these questions.
Don't commit self-sabotage by obsessing over the most difficult questions!
The World History SAT Subject Test will ask you to demonstrate a general knowledge of the progression of events throughout human history. It's best to take the test right after you finish a year-long class in world history so that you're already familiar with most of the information.
The study tips I recommend employing for this test include:
- #1: Think on a Thematic Scale
- #2: Take Timed Practice Tests
- #3: Map Out History
Some test-taking tips you should remember on exam day are:
- #1: Don't Get Distracted By Extra Information
- #2: Avoid Guessing
- #3: Skip Hard Questions (at First)
You can use the review books and online resources listed in this guide to hone your skills and refresh your memory on content. If you've been primed by a course in world history, you shouldn't have a problem mastering this information and earning a high score.
Will you be taking both AP tests and SAT Subject Tests? Read this article to find out which type of test is more important and how they differ from one another.
Are you applying to Ivy League or other highly competitive colleges? This article details the average subject tests scores for admitted students at these schools so you can set smart goals!
If you think you'd be more interested in a Subject Test that covers a shorter period of history, head over to my ultimate study guide for the US History Subject Test.
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:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.