Physics-SAT II

What Is Covered On The SAT Subject Test In Physics?

The SAT Subject Test in Physics covers the Physics topics taught in a typical high school physics course. According to ETS, the topics covered on either test are as follows:

  • Mechanics
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Waves
  • Heat, Kinetic Theory, and Thermodynamics
  • Modern Physics
  • Miscellaneous


Test Format

Before going into the details about how to prepare, let’s first take a broad view of the test

  1. The test consists of 75 multiple choice questions and lasts 60 minutes.
  2. NO calculator is allowed — according to College Board, numerical computation is not emphasized on the test and only simple arithmetic will be needed.
  3. NO formula sheet — unlike on the AP test, they do not give you a formula sheet which means you should have the most important formulas memorized.
  4. There IS a penalty for guessing. Each correct answer is worth 1 point, a question you did not answer is worth 0 points, and a wrong answer has a penalty which depends on how many answer choice there is:  minus 1/4 point for 5 answer question, minus 1/3 point for 4 answer question and minus 1/2 point for 3 answer question.

Skills Covered

Below is a list of the skills that the test is designed to assess — keeping these in mind while you are taking your class will help you to focus your learning. The information in green comes straight from the college board website and the words in black are my added comments.

  1. Fundamental Knowledge — Remembering and understanding concepts or information (about 12-20% of the test). This means you need to have as many formulas memorized as possible. Because they do not give you an equation sheet, it would be a good idea to get in the habit of memorizing formulas as you learn them in class.
  2. Single-Concept Problems: applying a single physical relation or concept (about 48%–64% of the test). This means using the formulas to solve problems. This is an extremely important skill for succeeding in physics and the best way to master it is to solve lots of problems. 
  3. Multiple-Concept Problems: integrating two or more physical relationships or concepts (about 20%–35% of the test).  This means solving problems that require one to apply a few formulas to get to the answer.


Topics Covered
In order to make your studying process most efficient, it is important to keep in mind what topics are covered and how important each topic is. Below is the College Board’s list of which topics are covered and the portion of the test devoted to them. Because Mechanics and E&M together make up 54%-66% of the test, you should spend much more time studying those topics than, say, special relativity (although special relativity is really cool!).


Test Preparation

Now that you are taking a course, and signed up for an exam, you will want to do these things in order to maximize your chance of getting an 800

  1. Consistent Practice — During the month or so leading up to the exam 20 minutes a day 5 days a week would be good. During the last few weeks before the exam, I would suggest ramping this up to 45 minutes per day. On the test, you have to solve 75 multiple choice questions in 60 minutes, which is A LOT, and the only way to get fast enough is to get a lot of practice. This will also help you to memorize formulas.
  2. Full Length Exams — In addition to regular consistent practice, it is important to do some full length practice exams. The subject test is 60 minutes long and requires some stamina. One resource for this is the official study guide for SAT subject tests published by College Board.

Taking the Test
The SAT subject tests are different than the tests you usually take in high school and in order to do your best you have to have a different strategy. Below are some important tips and strategies you should use when taking the test and whenever you are doing full-length practice tests

  1. Answer Easiest Questions First — all correct answer are worth one point, but some questions are harder and take more time to solve. A good strategy would be to go through the test once and answer the easiest ones first and then go back to tackle harder problems.
  2. Work Fast — You have to answer 75 questions in 60 minutes so working fast is crucial. In order to get to this level of speed you have to solve hundreds and hundreds of practice questions so that when faced with a question you don’t have to think about how to solve it, you just solve it.
  3. If you don’t know the answer, but can eliminate a few wrong answers then you should guess. There is a penalty for getting the wrong answer (-1/4 point for 5 answer question), but it is small enough that if you can eliminate one wrong answer then on average guessing won’t affect your score, and if you can eliminate two wrong answers, then guessing will improve your score. That being said, if you have no idea how to answer the question and all answers seem equally likely it is best not to guess.