The Top 5 SAT Subject Tests

By March 20, 2018SAT Subject Tests


College Board administers twenty Subject Tests in the general areas of mathematics, science, English, history, and languages, but we’ve identified the five most popular tests with Compass students: Math Level 2, Literature, U.S. History, Chemistry, and Biology.

The popularity of these specific tests is not surprising considering that most students who take Subject Tests do so at the end of their junior year, and these tests frequently align with junior-year classes.

What students learn in the classroom, however, isn’t necessarily what’s on the test. In each tab below, we take a close look at the details of exactly what is being tested and how it relates to the SAT, ACT, and APs.

Math Level 2 tests the topics taught in geometry, two years of algebra (with some trigonometry), and pre-calculus. Frequently, students will sit for the Math Level 2 exam at the end of the term in which they’ve taken pre-calculus; for many students this is junior year, but for some accelerated students, this may be sophomore year. Math 2 is twice as popular as any other subject test and is particularly important for students applying to STEM programs.


50 questions in 60 minutes.

Although many of the easiest questions are found on the first third of the test and many of the hardest questions are found on the last third of the test, difficulty does not increase linearly. Pacing is a challenge; you can leave questions blank on the Math 2 and still achieve an 800, so avoid (or come back to) problems you think will be time consuming.


Topics tested range from counting to recursive functions, but the greatest emphasis is placed on algebra and functions, with geometry and trigonometry coming in closely behind. Here’s how it breaks out:


Note that with only 50 questions, Math Level 2 is giving you 4–6 data analysis, statistics, and probability questions, which means the exam is most likely going to test the greatest hits, whereas it will do a much deeper dive with concepts like equations and functions.

Overlap with the SAT, ACT, and AP

The topics found on Math 2 have a good deal of overlap with those on the new SAT and the ACT, but the content actually being tested and the difficulty of the problems is very different.  While there is a greater focus on geometry on the ACT than the SAT, like the SAT, the ACT does not include topics commonly taught in pre-calculus. The Math 2 has a guessing penalty and five answer choices, so you may need to adjust your strategy versus the SAT and ACT.

Every school’s AP curriculum is different but increasingly, students are taking AP Calculus AB as a combination of pre-calculus and introductory calculus. The math topics tested by the AP Calculus AB test, however, extend well beyond the pre-calculus that appears on the Math Level 2 Subject Test.


If you have taken or are about to take AP Calculus AB or BC and have been doing well in those math classes, the chances are that you have learned the requisite material. The most important preparation is reviewing topics that you may no longer be using — it may have been 3 years since you’ve been asked to multiply matrices. In order to focus your review, you should plan on using test preparation materials or working with a tutor to focus on the most important topics (skimming through several years of math textbooks would be frustrating and, likely, unhelpful). 

Effective use of a graphing calculator will increase your speed. Always practice with the calculator that you will be using on test day.

The Literature Subject Test does not align with a particular English class; instead, it draws on skills taught across years of English classes. Like other familiar reading comprehension tests, the Literature Subject Test provides students with several passages and sets of questions about those passages. Questions range from testing literary terminology to meaning.


6 to 8 passages and approximately 60 questions in 60 minutes.


Each Passage has 3 attributes: source, time period, and genre.


As a result, you may get a passage that is an eighteenth-century British poem (some Alexander Pope, perhaps) or you may get a passage excerpted from a 20th century American drama.

The questions will focus on the following topics and skills:

  • Identifying themes or main ideas
  • Understanding words in context, especially connotations of specific words
  • Recognizing text structure
  • Interpreting the writer’s use of language (i.e. how diction, imagery, and figurative language affect the reader)
  • Identifying narrative voice, tone, and point of view within the context of a narrative passage
  • Understanding speaker, audience, occasion, and purpose within the context of poetry
  • Analyzing characterization

These are all close-reading skills that students likely have been practicing throughout high school English classes.

Overlap with the SAT, ACT, and AP

Both the SAT and ACT have sections devoted to reading comprehension; only the ACT, however, includes a fiction or narrative prose passage, and neither includes poetry or drama.

The Literature Subject Test takes some of the core close-reading skills necessary for success on the SAT and ACT (such as identifying main ideas, interpreting tone, and considering structure) and both sets these skills within the more specific context of literature and extends them by incorporating literary terms like speaker, audience, and narrative point of view.

There are two English AP exams: AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition. Generally, but not always, students take AP English Language in their junior year and AP English Literature in their senior year. While both classes include interpreting form and content of literary works, AP English Language tends to emphasize rhetorical analysis of persuasive texts while AP English Literature tends to focus on interpretation of poetry and prose.


Preparing for the SAT or ACT is a good start because it will help you become familiar with the style of comprehension questions these types of exams ask, which are often different from what you find in the classroom.

Given the diverse set of literary passages you will be asked to read and comprehend, it’s worth spending some time practicing reading and interpreting poems and prose passages quickly and accurately. Particular time periods may prove to be more of a struggle than others. Working in a practice book can help you determine your weak areas and working with a tutor can help you build strategies to overcome weaknesses and capitalize on strengths.


Many students elect to take the U.S. History Subject Test because at many high schools, U.S. History is an 11th grade class. This test is often a good choice for students who are taking honors or AP U.S. History and who have a good memory for names, events, and dates!


90 questions in 60 minutes.

The difficulty generally increases, with references becoming more obscure as the test progresses. Questions are arranged as either single questions or short sets relating to the same time period.


Questions can be categorized by two attributes: time period and branch of history.


Questions will ask students to identify events, concepts, and cause-and-effects relationships. Some questions will ask students to interpret data in maps, graphs, charts, or cartoons, using contextual historical knowledge.

Overlap with the SAT, ACT, and AP

Beyond basic test-taking strategy (process of elimination, timing strategies, etc), there is little overlap between the SAT, ACT and the Subject Test in U.S. History.

The AP U.S. History exam, on the other hand, shares some similar features with the Subject Test. The multiple-choice portion of the AP exam is made up of 55 questions in 55 minutes. The biggest difference is that the Subject Test includes questions based primarily on identification of a historical concept, event, or person, while the AP test organizes sets of questions around a short prompt (e.g. a graph or an excerpt from an historical writing). The AP exam asks student to connect their knowledge to the source material; the Subject Test, on the other hand, includes only a few questions with such source material.  Subject Test questions are much more trivia-like.


While you might prepare slightly differently for the Subject Test than for the AP exam in terms of test-taking strategy, you will likely benefit on either test from reviewing historical concepts and events.

Many students take the Subject Test at the end of their junior years and history classes tend to be taught chronologically; as a result, the concepts you learned at the beginning of the year (especially the pre-1790 period) may be fuzzy by the time the test rolls around. Working through a timeline or series of period overviews can help you refresh older material and draw connections between events.

While students taking the AP may want to refresh their familiarity with primary source documents, students taking the Subject Test may find that rote memorization of key concepts is the quickest way to a higher score. A good test prep guide often provides an effective encapsulation of those concepts and facts. A quality tutor can help with both material review and accountability for study plans.

Chemistry is a popular Subject Test for both sophomores and juniors, depending on when they take Chemistry in high school. Unlike other popular Subject Tests, Chemistry combines standard multiple choice questions with matching and relationship analysis (true/false with a twist) questions.


The Chemistry test presents students with 85 questions in 60 minutes.

Part A: 20–25 questions: Classification

Part B: 10–25 questions: Relationship Analysis

Part C: 40–50 questions: Five-Choice Completion

The first part consists of classification, or matching, questions, as they offer students sets of 5 options labeled A–E and a series of questions ranging from chemistry terminology to labeled portions of a graph. The questions present a definition or explanation; students are asked to match each definition to the option above.

matching questions-02-02


Relationship analysis questions present students with two columns marked I and II. Students are first asked to decide whether the statement in each column is true or false, and then determine if the statement in column II causes the statement in column I.

Relationship Analysis example-01-01

The third part, which makes up the majority of the test, consists of standard multiple-choice questions.


The Chemistry Subject Test covers a fairly wide breadth of chemistry, from the structure of matter to laboratory procedures. The good news is that this means no single concept will be tested in depth.

Here’s the breakdown of topics covered:


Overlap with the SAT, ACT, and AP

There is little to no content that directly overlaps between the SAT, ACT, and Chemistry Subject Test.

The AP Chemistry Test is another matter altogether. The general consensus is that the AP covers the same material, but with greater depth, making it a more difficult test. The AP is also more focused on application, whereas the Subject Test is more conceptual.

Instead of disparate topics, the AP exam lumps content into 6 themes:

  • Atoms, Elements, and the Building Blocks of Matter
  • Chemical and Physical Properties of Matter
  • Chemical Reactions, Energy Changes, and Redox Reactions
  • Chemical Reactions and their Rates
  • Laws of Thermodynamics and Changes in Matter
  • Equilibrium, Acids and Bases, Titrations and Solubility

These themes contain the concepts tested by the Subject Test, as well as additional topics generally taught in college. Remember that an AP test is intended to assess competence with material that would be presented in a first-year college class; Subject Tests are designed to assess facility with high school curricula.


Because the Chemistry Subject Test includes a wide breadth of material, having a broad knowledge, even if it’s not very deep, can benefit you. As you can see from the breakdown above, half of the Subject Test derives questions from three main areas: structure of matter, states of matter, and reaction types. Mastery of these topics along with a general overview of additional concepts will help you succeed on the exam. Tutors and preparation books can help you refresh the main topics tested.

If you are taking AP Chemistry, and doing well in the class, it’s often a good idea to take the Chemistry Subject Test in May or June. If you are in regular or honors Chemistry, a practice test and review of college admission requirements can help determine whether Chemistry will bolster your application. 

The Biology Subject Test includes general biology topics and asks students to answer specialized questions about ecological biology (Biology-E) or molecular biology (Biology-M). Ecological biology focuses on biological communities, populations, and energy flow, while molecular biology focuses on biochemistry and cellular structure and processes.

When choosing which Biology Subject Test to take, it’s important to remember that the questions common to both tests will include ecological and molecular biology concepts – the decision is whether to further specialize in ecological or molecular biology.

Though there is a general rumor floating around that ecological biology is “easier,” this is not the case. In fact, when using the mean SAT section scores (200-800) of testers as an indicator, Biology-M students perform slightly better than similarly situated Biology-E students. The reality, though, is that you should specialize in the area for which you are better prepared.


The test has 80 total questions, the first 60 of which are common to both Biology-E and -M. For the final 20 questions, students answer EITHER the Biology-E questions OR Biology-M questions.

You must indicate whether you are taking Biology-E or Biology-M on your answer sheet in order to make sure the correct questions are graded. You cannot take both tests on the same day, but you can take them on different test dates.


Questions are split nearly evenly between those that test fundamental concepts and knowledge, those that ask students to apply that knowledge, and those that ask students to interpret results obtained by observation and experimentation.

Biology EM-ST-charts-04

Overlap with the SAT, ACT, and AP

Like Chemistry, there is little to no content overlap between the ACT or SAT and Subject Test. And like Chemistry, the AP exam is harder than the Subject Test because the AP assumes the student has had a year of a freshman-level college course, whereas the Subject Test assumes a year of high school curriculum. College Board specifically notes that due to the differences in curricula across high schools, there will likely be concepts tested on the Subject Test that students have not encountered. That’s okay, College Board explains, because you don’t need to get every question correct to get an 800 on the test.


The first step in preparing for this Subject Test is to decide whether to specialize in Ecological or Molecular content. This decision won’t negate the need to study topics in the other area, but it will help to craft a study plan. From there, you can decide which topics you learned at the beginning of the school year and so need to refresh, and which topics you feel comfortable with now. Working with a tutor can help you balance your study plan between general knowledge and the application of that knowledge.

Ash Kramer

About Ash Kramer

With a career in test prep and higher education that began in the late 90s, Ash has held a variety of educational roles from tutor to administrator. She is currently a PhD candidate at USC and the Director of Curriculum at Compass, where she is lucky to lead a brilliant team creating the very best learning materials for students and their tutors.

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