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(s) 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 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, both of which assess multiple subject areas. 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 offered several times a year, on all the same dates as the general SAT except for March. This means that SAT Subject Tests are offered in the following months annually:
- September (2020 only)
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 SAT 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. Here is the full list:
- US 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 of applying to require or recommend. Some schools want you to take Subject Tests in the area you plan on majoring in, whereas others want one Subject Test score from Math/Science and another from Literature/History to show that you’re well rounded.
In addition, some schools require or recommend only one Subject Test score, whereas others expect 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 actually need to take!
The other factor to 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 SAT Subject Test, you might want to consider the Chemistry Subject Test.
Finally, 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 might not need to do much studying at all in order to prepare for the World History SAT Subject Test, especially if you take it in May right after your 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 cover everything you need to do from the time you begin studying up until test day.
Step 1: Take an Initial Practice Test
One of the first things you should do is take a full-length practice exam for the Subject Test you’re planning to take. Once finished, complete and score your practice exam to see how well you did. For more tips on how to find high-quality practice exams and how to take a practice test most effectively, check out the "How to Use Practice SAT Subject Tests Effectively" section below.
Aim to get higher than the average score for that SAT Subject Test for the most competitive school you’re applying to. You can sometimes find average Subject Test scores on the admissions page of a school’s website. If you can’t find this information, though, consider contacting the school directly.
You can also check out the average score for each Subject Test. Our guide shows you how well test takers do on each SAT 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 depicted on the chart. Try to aim for the top 25% of test takers, or even the top 5% if you’re applying to top-tier schools.
Step 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 might 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 exactly what you'll need to do.
Step 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 the Subject Test you're taking. There are a lot of review books out there, but some of the most popular are those produced by Barron’s, Kaplan, and The Princeton Review.
The College Board also offers official study books for some of the more popular Subject Tests, such as Math Level 1, Math Level 2, US History, and World History. However, these books are mostly just practice exams and explanations of answers as opposed to thorough content reviews. Visit the College Board's online store for a full list of SAT Subject Test study guides (or scroll down to the next section!).
Alternatively, you might want to buy The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests, which (as you probably guessed) provides an overview of the Subject Tests, quality practice questions, and one full-length practice test per exam. At present, the book sells for around $10 on Amazon.
Step 4: Create a Study Plan
Developing a prep 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 2-4 pm on Sundays or 5-6:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This will make it easier to remember when to study and allow you to plan other activities around your prep sessions.
You should also set weekly or monthly goals you hope to accomplish. This will help track your progress and ensure you’re where you need to be. Example goals include things such as "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."
Be sure to also schedule time to take practice tests and track your progress. Ideally, you’ll take at least two practice tests before the real deal, with one 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 might want to schedule one or more additional practice tests during the middle of your studying.
Step 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 that helpful if your class didn’t focus on the same topics the Subject Test focuses on.
Prep books, on the other hand, are specifically designed to focus exactly on what the Subject Test covers. Below, we give you more information about 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 do just this.
Stick With 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 skills you should improve.
Practice tests from the College Board are the best sources to use since you can be sure they’ll give you a good idea of the real exam. As I mentioned above, the College Board's The Official Study Guide for All SAT Subject Tests includes one previously administered exam for each of the 20 Subject Tests. So if you’re planning to take multiple Subject Tests, this is a great resource to use.
There are also official prep books for the seven following SAT Subject Tests:
Unofficial practice books that are still high quality include those produced by Barron’s, Kaplan, and The Princeton Review.
There are other resources out there, too, so it can help to go to a bookstore and flip through a few books or read online reviews to decide which resource is best for you.
Take the Test Under Real Test Conditions
In order to get the most accurate idea of where you're currently scoring on your SAT Subject Test, you need to make sure your practice test conditions are as realistic as possible. This means taking the test 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 whether and where you’ve made improvements.
Almost every practice test has instructions on how to calculate your score, but if you get confused, you can always check out our guide for a review. Unlike the general SAT, for SAT Subject Tests you lose a fraction of a point for each question you answer incorrectly, so too many random guesses could very well bring down your score. 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.
If you aren’t improving as much as you want to, try using different prep resources or changing up the way you study. It might be helpful to focus more on taking practice tests, study at a different time or day, or use other study methods such as 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. Or perhaps you’re an auditory learner and learn best with audiobooks or podcasts.
You might 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 any difference.
Don't Passively Study
It might be easiest to let your eyes drift over the pages you’re studying, but this rarely gets you the results you want. Try to make your studying as active as possible. This might 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 and Skills You Need to Improve
When preparing for an SAT Subject Test, make sure you’re spending most of your time on the areas and skills you need to improve the most.
If you’re studying for the World History Subject Test and are solid on European history but struggle with Asian history, don’t spend an equal amount of time reviewing Europe and Asia. Instead, 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 have to understand how to prepare for SAT Subject Tests. Follow these five steps in order to be well prepared for any Subject Test:
- Take an initial practice test
- Decide how much you need to study
- Gather the materials you need
- Create a study plan
- Start studying!
Additionally, remember to use your practice tests effectively, practice active studying, and focus most of your time on the areas you need to make the biggest improvements in.
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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.