Did you know that if you squeezed all the matter that makes up all the people in the world together, it could fit into the size of a sugar cube? That's because atoms are mostly made up of empty space between very tiny, very dense nuclei.
If you're intrigued by the mind-blowing facts and figures of physics, you might be considering the SAT Physics Subject Test. This comprehensive guide will go over exactly what's on the test (don't worry, nothing about sugar cubes). It will also tell you where you can find the best SAT Physics practice tests, and the study tips and strategies you need to know to master the SAT II.
Update: SAT Subject Tests Ending
In January 2021, the College Board announced that effective immediately, no further SAT Subject Tests will be offered in the United States (and that SAT Subject Tests will only be offered internationally only through June 2021). While anyone who signed up for the May and June SAT Subject Tests in the US will be refunded, many students are understandably confused about why this announcement happened midyear and what this means for college applications going forward.
There's a lot that we cover in this guide, so here's a table of contents so you can easily find the specific information you're looking for.
How Is the Physics Subject Test Formatted?
The SAT II in Physics is 60 minutes long and asks 75 multiple-choice questions. Every question has five answer choices.
There are some independent questions, while others are grouped and ask about the same graph or picture.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can't use a calculator on the Physics Subject Test. With less than a minute for each question, the test doesn't present overly complicated math. There are three main types of questions, which are important to understand so you can know which skills to apply.
Types of Questions on the Physics Subject Test
The three types of physics questions are recall, single concept, and multiple concept problems.
Recall questions make up 20% to 33% of the test. They are somewhat straightforward and test your understanding of the concepts of physics. This is an example of a recall question:
Single concept problems make up 40% to 53% of the test. In addition to recalling a concept, you have to apply a physical relationship, formula, or equation to solve a problem. These questions test your understanding of simple algebraic, trigonometric, and graphical relationships, along with concepts of ratios and proportions.
Multiple concept problems account for 20% to 33% of the questions. They have the extra step of asking you to recall and bring together two or more different relationships, formulas, or equations in order to solve a problem.
Now that we understand the format of the test, let's break down the content on the test even further so you know what to study for the test. As you'll see below, it focuses primarily on mechanics and electricity/magnetism.
What Is Tested on the Physics Subject Test?
According to College Board, the SAT II in Physics covers mechanics, electricity and magnetism, waves and optics, heat and thermodynamics, modern physics, and other miscellaneous concepts. Mechanics and electricity/magnetism questions make up over half the test. Let's look at how the test breaks down.
Mechanics: 36% - 42%
- Kinematics, such as velocity, acceleration, motion in one dimension, and motion of projectiles
- Dynamics, such as force, Newton's laws, statics, and friction
- Energy and momentum, such as potential and kinetic energy, work, power, impulse, and conservation laws
- Circular motion, such as uniform circular motion and centripetal force
- Simple harmonic motion, such as mass on a spring and the pendulum
- Gravity, such as the law of gravitation, orbits, and Kepler's laws
Electricity and Magnetism: 18% - 24%
- Electric fields, forces, and potentials, such as Coulomb's law, induced charge, field and potential of groups of point charges, and charged particles in electric fields
- Capacitance, such as parallel-plate capacitors and time-varying behavior in charging / discharging
- Circuit elements and DC circuits, such as resistors, light bulbs, series and parallel networks, Ohm's Law, and Joule's Law
- Magnetism, such as permanent magnets, fields caused by currents, particles in magnetic fields, Faraday's Law, and Lenz's Law
Waves and Optics: 15% - 19%
- General wave properties, such as wave speed, frequency, wavelength, superposition, standing wave diffraction, and Doppler effect
- Reflection and refraction, such as Snell's Law and changes in wavelength and speed
- Ray optics, such as image formation using pinholes, mirrors, and lenses
- Physical optics, such as single-slit diffraction, double-slit interference, polarization, and color
Heat and Thermodynamics: 6% - 11%
- Thermal properties, such as temperature, heat transfer, specific and latent heats, and thermal expansion
- Laws of thermodynamics, such as first and second laws, internal energy, entropy, and heat engine efficiency
Modern Physics: 6% - 11%
- Quantum phenomena, such as photons and photoelectric effect
- Atomic, such as the Rutherford and Bohr models, atomic energy levels, and atomic spectra
- Nuclear and particle physics, such as radioactivity, nuclear reactions, and fundamental particles
- Relativity, such as time dilation, length contraction, and mass-energy equivalence
Miscellaneous: 4% - 9%
- General, such as history of physics and general questions that overlap several major topics
- Analytical skills, such as graphical analysis, measurement, and math skills
- Contemporary physics, such as astrophysics, superconductivity, and chaos theory
In addition to these concepts, you have to memorize certain formulas that express physical relationships, like F = ma. You have to be able to manipulate equations, read a graph, understand the metric system, and apply lab skills to answer questions.
Is there anything you don't need to know? While this test is very comprehensive, there are a few things you don't have to worry about. You don't have to know trigonometric identities, calculus, three-dimensional vectors and graphs, or physical constants.
The Physics Subject Test covers a great deal of content, and requires your ability to apply those concepts to manipulate equations and solve problems. Besides learning and studying in your physics class, what materials can you use to prep for the Subject Test?
Where to Find SAT Physics Practice Tests
You can prepare for the Physics test with high-quality practice questions in books and/or online. First, our book recommendations:
Using official practice questions is always the best way to prepare for the SAT or SAT Subject Test. College Board currently only provides Physics practice questions in its All Subject Tests Study Guide. While the questions are high quality, because they come from a previously administered test, there is actually only one practice test to try out. Obviously, this is very limited, so you'll want to supplement with another book.
You might try studying first with other books and then taking the College Board practice questions a week or two before the Subject Test to make sure you're ready. Because it's a previously administered test, it will be a good benchmark to predict how you'll score, and it can reveal any concepts you need to study last minute before test day.
For a comprehensive overview of the concepts you need to know and high-quality practice questions to apply them, I recommend Princeton Review's Cracking the SAT Physics Subject Test. You can use this book throughout the year in physics class to review the concepts and make sure you can apply them to SAT Subject Test questions. One downside of Princeton Review is that the explanations can sometimes be confusing and difficult to follow.
Barron's is also a good option with high-quality practice questions. However, some concepts are lacking, so don't rely on it to be completely comprehensive. Barron's would be best to use two to three months in advance of your Subject Test, after you've been reviewing in class and with Princeton Review throughout the school year.
Finally, two other options are Kaplan and McGraw Hill, but they would be my last recommendation. Kaplan questions are too easy, so they won't be sufficient preparation. McGraw Hill questions have the opposite problem - some are way too complicated to solve without a calculator, and thus not accurate preparation for the SAT Subject Test.
Besides books, you can also find SAT Physics questions online from these sources.
Online Practice Questions
You should definitely give College Board's 36 online practice questions a try. Make sure to thoroughly read the explanations of any questions you're unsure about or don't know. Then review the concepts, from your class or other test prep materials, and take notes and do practice problems to shore up your understanding.
Varsity Tutors has a bunch of helpful practice questions broken up into subsets of concepts. These are a good way to really identify what you know and what you need to review. This similar site also has helpful practice questions that you can automatically score, along with some glossaries and study guides.
Finally, Sparknotes, though it doesn't have practice questions, has an informative overview and glossary of terms.
How to Prep Effectively for the Physics Subject Test
Now you have a bunch of good resources for the Physics Subject Test, but how can you use them effectively to maximize your scores? This section goes over three key study tips to follow.
#1: Use Class Material
The Physics Subject Test is a challenging test. It covers a lot of material, and this material takes a significant amount of time to learn. Thus staying focused and up to speed in class is vital, as well as reviewing the concepts and practice problems frequently to retain your cumulative knowledge.
As you go through your physics class, you should review your classwork in conjunction with a test prep book like Princeton Review or Barron's. Then you can really do more intensive test prep in the two to three months before the Subject Test. Make sure to do a practice test a couple weeks before the test to get a good sense of your preparation and fill in any last minute gaps in knowledge. While you're taking these practice tests, you should make sure to time yourself.
#2: Time Yourself
Physicist John Wheeler Archibald explained, "Time is what prevents everything from happening at once." With the Physics Subject Test, you might feel like everything is happening all at once because you don't have much time at all.
Timing yourself while you take practice tests will help you with pacing and time management. As you strengthen your ability to answer questions quickly and efficiently, you'll both score higher and breathe easier that you have enough time to get to all the questions and answer them well.
When you take a full-length practice test, give yourself exactly 60 minutes and sit in a quiet room with few distractions. The more you practice under simulated testing conditions, the more prepared you'll be on test day. Once you take the test, you want to score your questions actively and critically.
#3: Analyze Your Answers
Correcting your practice tests should be a very active process. By this I mean don't simply let a wrong answer or lucky guess go. Wrong or skipped answers are an opportunity to really analyze the questions, diagnose your weaknesses and misunderstandings, and figure out where you need more prep.
If you get a question wrong, mark it down in a notebook. Figure out why it was wrong—did you not know the concept, misunderstand the question, or make a careless error?
If the first, you should definitely go back in your notes and review. Then find practice questions that test those concepts. So much of the Physics Subject Test is about application, not just recall.
If you didn't understand the question or made a careless error, you probably need to focus on your time management and ability to focus and work efficiently. Practicing under timed conditions, as mentioned above, is the best way to train this skill.
Practice tests will reveal where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Each question is an opportunity to pinpoint what you know and what you need to study further.
Remember important formulas, like this one.
Test-Taking Strategies for the Physics Subject Test
Besides getting ready through test prep, there are some strategies you should keep in mind while taking the Physics Subject Test that should help you boost your scores.
#1: Know Your Formulas
You can't bring a formula sheet with you when you take the Physics Subject Test. The test will give you some constants, but you have to know the formulas that express physical relationships. Note that you also can't bring a calculator into the test.
While it might seem like there are a lot of formulas to remember, they will probably start to seem intuitive the more you understand the laws and concepts of physics.
If there are any that you have a hard time remembering, it might be a good idea to jot these formulas down in your test booklet at the beginning of the test. This way you can refer back to them as you go along.
Make sure you know your formulas as you're studying, as well as how to apply them to single concept and multi-concept problems.
#2: Use Process of Elimination
On the Physics Subject test, you lose 1/4 of a point for every question you answer incorrectly. If you can't eliminate any answer choices, you should leave the question blank and avoid a point deduction, but if you can eliminate at least one wrong answer, then you're better off making your best guess.
Go through the answer choices and see which ones you can cross off as definitely incorrect. This may also jog your thinking in how to approach the correct answer.
#3: Don't Dwell
With 75 questions in 60 minutes, you have less than a minute to spend on each question. If one of them leaves you stumped, it's best to mark it, skip it, and return to it at the end of the exam if you have time.
Remember, it's always a good idea to guess if you can eliminate at least one of the answer choices. But don't spend a disproportionate amount of time on a problem, as all problems count equally toward your ultimate score.
#4: Read Critically
Sure, this is the Physics SAT, not a critical reading test, but the same skills of close and critical reading apply. Make sure you understand exactly what the question is asking before rushing to answer it, and be on the lookout for words like EXCEPT, BUT, ALWAYS, NEVER, or any other superlatives or words that mark a shift in emphasis.
The more you practice, the more calmly you'll be able to approach the questions and deploy these strategies.
When Should You Take the SAT Physics Subject Test?
You can take the Physics Subject test on the May, June, August, October, November, or December test dates. College Board recommends that you have at least one year of college prep Physics before taking the Subject Test, as well as courses in algebra and trigonometry and experience in the lab.
The end of junior year is a common time to take the Physics test, but some students might feel prepared at the end of sophomore year. Either way, it's best to take the test at the end of the academic year when the course content is fresh in your mind. You might also be studying for a final, which will further reinforce your understanding.
Remember, you can't take an SAT Subject Test on the same day as the SAT, but you can take up to three Subject Tests in one day. It might be smart to take the SAT first, so that your math studying can inform your physics prep.
With these considerations in mind, the June test date would be an ideal time to take the Physics Subject Test. You can read about other considerations for scheduling your SAT Subject Tests and the full list of dates here.
With your study plan and test schedule all planned out, you will be well prepared to show off your physics skills on the SAT Subject Test and add this impressive exam to your college applications.
What's a good score for an SAT Subject Test? Actually, what makes a good score depends on the test. Read about the good scores broken down by each Subject Test here.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.