Test Prep

What to Know About the SAT Subject Test in Physics

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There are a number of reasons to add the SAT Subject Test in Physics to your schedule. Maybe you're looking to boost your college application. Perhaps you need to pass a specific test at your target school in order to be admitted to a particular program. Either way, here are a few things you should know to help you prep for the test.

A Basic Breakdown

Overall, the test contains 75 multiple-choice questions you'll have one hour to tackle. Your raw score out of 75 is converted to a scaled score of 200-800. (Don't worry, though, later I'll talk about how you don't need to answer every question correctly to snag an 800.) Topics covered are those most likely studied in a standard, college-prep level high school physics course. The major topics covered, as well as the percentages of the test they'll represent, include:

  • Mechanics (36-42 percent)
  • Heat and Thermodynamics (6-11 percent)
  • Electricity and Magnetism (18-24 percent)
  • Waves and Optics (15-19 percent)
  • Modern Physics (6-11 percent)

A number of questions fall into a Miscellaneous category (4-9 percent), which covers basic math skills related to Physics problems, and perhaps a few other minor topics.

Watch Your Math

Speaking of math — with such little time to devote to each question, rest assured that the math on this particular test will not be as intricate or complex as that on the dedicated Math Subject Tests. For the SAT Subject Test in Physics, you'll see only calculations requiring basic arithmetic, algebra and trigonometry.

Yes, I know those might not sound simple. But considering that you're not permitted to use a calculator on the exam, that no formula sheet is provided, and that this is a Physics test, there really is a limit on how difficult the math itself can get. All you'll have to work with is whatever scratch work you're able to do in the test booklet. Because of this, I advise you to avoid overthinking any calculations required on the test — you may spend your time thinking a problem is more complicated than it actually is by throwing in unneeded math.

Time Management

The structure of the test results in you only having 45 seconds on average for each question, but don't panic! While it can be difficult to complete the entire test, the good news is that because the test is scaled, you don't have to answer every question correctly to get a perfect score of 800. If a question seems like it would slow you down or hurt your accuracy, skip it. In general, this test should be done in two passes. On a first pass through the test, do those questions you know you can do quickly and accurately. Attempt the rest on a second pass-through.

When to Prep

Naturally, the best prep is to familiarize yourself with the topics listed above. That's why most students take the SAT Subject Test in Physics after they've taken a year-long college-prep course in physics at their high school. The test is offered in May, June and August, so you can take it near the end of the school year while the material is still fresh. (Other options include October, November and December, so don't feel required to take it in the summer, though.)

When it comes to more thorough prep, you'll want to take practice tests to become used to seeing this content in the context of an SAT Subject Test. Another useful way to prep is to study up on strategies for how to conquer any trick questions that may be planted throughout the test. Our prep book for this subject contains both! Plus, it has a more thorough content breakdown and review if you decide to take the test when the information isn't as fresh as you'd like.