The SAT subject tests are all one hour in length and are all multiple choice. However, they differ in features, format, and the time pressure you will feel depending on where your academic strengths and weaknesses lie.
Let's discuss the differences among the subject tests and how you can beat the time pressure. First, let's consider the unique features of the test.
UPDATE: SAT Subject Tests No Longer Offered
In January 2021, the College Board announced that, effective immediately, no further SAT Subject Tests will be offered in the United States. SAT Subject Tests ended internationally in June 2021. It is now no longer possible to take SAT Subject Tests.
Many students were understandably confused about why this announcement happened midyear and what this means for college applications going forward. Read more about the details of what the end of SAT Subject Tests means for you and your college apps here.
There are 21 different subject tests (I'm counting Biology E and Biology M as two separate tests). Of these tests, the language, biology, math, and chemistry tests have some special features, as explained below.
Language Subject Tests
Some language tests include a Listening component. Listening tests are always given in the first hour on test day, so you can only take one Listening test per test date.
French, German, and Spanish have non-Listening and Listening options. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese can only be taken as Listening tests. Language Subject Tests are also the only Subject Tests with four answer choices per question. All other Subject Tests have five answer choices per question.
Biology Subject Tests
If you choose to take the Biology subject test, you have the option of Biology E or Biology M. While they share 60 core questions, each has an additional 20 questions with an ecological or a molecular focus. Learn more about which concentration makes sense for you by taking a look at some practice questions.
Math Subject Test
There are two math subject tests, Level 1 and Level 2. Level 1 requires two years of algebra and one year of geometry. Level 2 requires the same plus some understanding of trigonometry and pre-calculus. Level 2 also requires more extensive use of (and comfort with) a graphing calculator.
Chemistry Subject Tests
The chemistry test has a separate section on the bubble sheet for you to answer 5 special questions. These questions will ask you to compare two statements by balancing equations or making predictions about chemical reactions.
The other tests are relatively straightforward in their format. Since all of them are one hour, a better question than, "How long are SAT subject tests?" would be "How many questions are on SAT subject tests?" This is where the answer gets a little more complicated.
How Many Questions Are On Each Subject Test?
# of questions
|Math Level 1&2||50|
|French and German||85 (~85 with listening, 35% are listening)|
|Spanish||85 (~85 with listening, 40% are listening|
|Chinese with Listening||85 (33% are Listening)|
|Japanese and Korean with Listening||80 (35% are listening)|
There isn't a huge amount of variation in the number of questions per SAT subject test time—the Literature test is the one that stands out as having significantly fewer questions. Don't assume this means it's easier, though! The Literature test involves close reading of passages, which takes up some of your valuable 60 minutes of test-taking.
Now that you know how many questions are on each test, how can you use this information to maximize your time management under these strictly timed conditions?
Tips on Timing
Time Yourself When You Prep
As you can see in the above chart, almost all of the tests have more questions than minutes. This means you are expected to spend less than a minute on each question.
The best way to master the material and perfect your pacing is to practice under simulated timed conditions. Sit down for exactly one hour with a practice test, and don't give yourself extra time. Record how you do and see if you can beat your score each time you practice. You'll almost certainly see improvement as you get more familiar with the test.
Use Questions From Real Tests
College Board offers useful practice material here. You can learn about the content of each individual test and practice with questions taken from real tests administered in the past. Using high quality, relevant prep materials is the only way to prep effectively for the real thing.
Move Quickly and Efficiently
The strict timing of these tests allows no room for lengthy consideration or debate. If a question completely stumps you, don't waste valuable time on it. Mark it, skip it, and come back to it at the end with fresh eyes, or simply to make a guess and fill in a letter on the bubble sheet. You might get lucky and get the point!
If you're skipping questions, leave a small amount of time at the end to revisit them or fill in the bubble sheet with guesses.
Understand Your Ideal Testing Style
Will taking three tests in one morning energize or exhaust you? Will you be able to focus on two or three subjects in one sitting, or will fatigue prevent you from performing well?
The subject tests start between 8:30 and 9:00 in the morning. You'll get a five minute break between each test. Some students get an adrenaline rush jumping from one subject test to another. Others might have trouble shifting gears between subjects.
Again, practicing under simulated conditions may help you figure out your testing style and whether you should take several subject tests on one date or space them out. Not only will timing yourself help create the conditions of the real test, but finding friends and peers to practice with will also resemble the experience of testing beside others.
Guessing Strategies for SAT Subject Tests
Unlike the general SAT, for SAT Subject Tests you lose a fraction of a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Here's how scoring works for Subject Tests (all the Subject Tests except the foreign language tests have five answer choices. Foreign languages tests have four answer choices):
- You get 1 point for each correct answer.
- A fraction of a point is subtracted for wrong answers:
- 1/4 point is subtracted for five-choice questions.
- 1/3 point is subtracted for four-choice questions.
- 1/2 point is subtracted for three-choice questions.
- No points are deducted for questions left blank.
- If your final score is a fraction, it's rounded to the nearest whole number — 1/2 or more is rounded up; less than 1/2 is rounded down.
What does this mean for you? Too many random guesses could bring down your score, so you have to be smart on when to guess on a question (and risk a point deduction) and when to leave a question blank (with no change of getting it right). Here are some strategies to follow:
If You Can't Eliminate Any Answer Choices
If you're really stumped on a multiple-choice question and can't eliminate any of the options, don’t guess yet. Skip the question for now and return to it after you've finished the rest of the exam. What if you still can’t eliminate any answer choices? Then leave the question blank. Don’t blindly guess without eliminating any answers.
Without eliminating any of your answer choices, you have a high chance of losing points by choosing the wrong answer.
Here's the math: on a question with five answer choices, you have a 20% chance of selecting the right answer by guessing blindly. If you guess on five questions, odds are you will get four questions wrong and one right, or zero points total! This is why there is a wrong answer penalty on SAT Subject Tests-- it makes blind guessing pointless (literally).
But because of how randomness works, you might end up guessing incorrectly on more questions than expected—leaving you with a net negative number of points.
If You Can Eliminate Only One Answer Choice
It may make sense to guess here. Cross off the answer choice that you know is incorrect, and take a look at the rest of the answer choices to see if you can narrow down your options further.
In this situation, you'll likely gain more points than you lose by guessing. If you guess randomly on 16 questions where you can eliminate one answer choice for each (with five answer choices to start), you will gain a full point on average (4 - (.25 x 12) = 1). It's not huge, but compared with leaving all those questions blank and getting nothing, that’s a pretty good deal.
But remember, this advice assumes purely random guessing, which is rare. A certain answer might be appealing to you for whatever reason, so you will go for that choice instead of taking a truly random guess. Test makers often try to make incorrect answers look more appealing so students are more likely to get tricked and choose them.
When taking these factors into account, your chance of guessing correctly after eliminating one answer choice is actually less than 25 percent. In the example above, if you were to get even three questions right rather than four and 13 wrong rather than 12 you would be losing a quarter of a point (3 - (.25 x 13) = -0.25).
If you do decide to guess in this situation, pick an answer as much at random as possible, rather than getting mired in the wording of each choice. For example, you may choose to always "A" on questions you're guessing on (unless that's the choice you've eliminated) to make your guesses as random as possible.
If You Can Eliminate Two or More Answer Choices
Now we’re talking! Even with the tricky wording of SAT questions, your chances of choosing the correct answer are high enough here that it may be appropriate to guess.
Say you have a set of 15 questions where you guess after eliminating two choices (leaving you with three answer choices per question). With random guessing, this gives you a net total of 2.5 points (five questions correct, 10 incorrect; 5 - (0.25 x 10) = 2.5). Even if you don’t do quite that well and end up getting one more question wrong and one less right, that still gives you 4 - (0.25 x 11) = 1.25 points earned.
Of the answer choices you have left in this scenario, try to guess randomly.
It can still be risky to guess here because we're assuming that all the answer choices you eliminated are definitely incorrect. However, if you have done your homework on the SAT and are familiar with strategies for eliminating incorrect answers, you should be good to go.
Additional Note: If you take a practice test, I would recommend marking all the questions you guessed on so that you can later evaluate the success of your guessing strategies. This will also prevent you from just ignoring questions you got right by chance, which you should still revisit if you don't understand the material.
While these tests seem to have a lot of questions in a short amount of time, you'll definitely be able to get to all of them if you study effectively. Prep with high quality materials and train yourself in time management and pacing, the same way you would as an athlete.
Taking two or three subject tests in one day may sound tough, but a lot of students actually get into a highly focused zone and feed off the energy of the challenge.
Be strategic about how you schedule your tests, but remember you can always take the subject tests again if need be—most colleges will take your highest scores. Click here to learn about when you should take the SAT Subject Tests in and around the general SAT and all your other tests and finals.
Now that you're familiar with the length of the subject tests, how can you decide which subject tests to take? This article will help you choose which subject test is best for you.
Are you also taking the SAT? Just like with the subject tests, it's vital to know the format and timing of the SAT. Click here to learn about the SAT and how you can manage your time during this long test. Also, check out our famous guide to how you can score a perfect SAT score.
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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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.